Discover Nikkei

Chapter 4: Japanese Festivals in Summer

Japan is a country of many traditional festivals. In general, they are called Matsuri . I believe that these festivals undergo changes and adaptations from generation to generation, but their basic foundations remain. I realized that Japanese festivals are more than just celebrations. These are moments long awaited by families, meaning a time to appreciate the spirit of tradition and regional or national culture. 1

A festival can last several days. The other day, I was reading that there is the Kanamura Festival, in which the Japanese parade carrying giant allegories shaped like penises. A very different festival!

I was under the impression that there are festivals known all over the world, such as Tanabata Matsuri; the festivals known more in Japan itself, for example, Hanagasa Matsuri and the regionally known festivals, which take place in smaller communities.

In Fukuoka, where I'm living, it's no different and there are some festivals every year. The most famous are Hakata Dontaku Minato Matsuri, or simply called Hakata Dontaku, in May, and Hakata Gion Yamakasa, in July. The festivals in Fukuoka were the first festivals I managed to attend during my stay in Japan.

Hakata Gion Yamakasa is Fukuoka's oldest festival and attracts hundreds of people to the city. Only men participate, separated into groups according to neighborhoods in the city of Fukuoka. They wear traditional clothes for the festival. Basically, they run in groups, carrying heavy allegories while shouting “Wasshoi, Wasshoi!”. There is a relay between the participants and the audience throws water, refreshing and encouraging the race.

Hakata Dontaku also attracts more than two million people to its parade, which takes place during the national holiday week called Golden Week. We students participated in the event in the Kyushu University group.

Kyushu University group at the Hataka Dontaku parade, May 2009.

My week of vacation coincided with the festival season in the Tohoku region and so I took the opportunity to visit some of them – Niigata Matsuri, Sendai Tanabata Matsuri, Yamagata Nanagasa Matsuri and Shimonoseki Hanabi Taikai.

The Niigata Festival is held in Niigata City (Niigata Prefecture) during the first Friday through Sunday in August. The first festival was held in 1955 as the integration of four old festivals. During the festival, the highlight is the folk dance parade, to the sound of a popular song. Everyone dances the same choreography, despite being divided into groups representing companies, schools and communities, while the music is repeated several times.

The Tanabata Festival, also known as the Star Festival, takes place throughout Japan in July, but the most famous is in Sendai, which is the capital of Miyagi Prefecture and the main city in the Tohoku region. In this festival, large decorations made of bamboo and paper are prepared and spread throughout the region near Sendai station. It is also traditional to write a wish on a small piece of paper, called Tanzaku, and attach it to bamboo branches. At the end of the event, the papers are burned so that the wishes reach the stars and come true.

Decorations at Tanabata Matsuri, in Sendai, August 2009.

The origin of the Festival is an ancient legend, which told about the love of two young people who could meet only once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar, as they had been separated by the Milky Way. The Festival in Sendai takes place in August, following the lunar calendar and is a famous manifestation of oriental folklore. Other events take place during the Festival, such as fireworks, parades, food stalls and music. Visitors walk the streets, take photos and admire the colors and variety of decorations.

In Brazil, Tanabata Matsuri is a well-known festival among the Nikkei community and Brazilians themselves. In the city of São Paulo, it is held every year in the Liberdade neighborhood, on the second weekend of July. Other cities also celebrate Tanabata Matsuri, such as Belo Horizonte, Niterói, Curitiba, Ribeirão Preto and Açaí.

Another Japanese festival, Yamagata Hanagasa, attracts more than a million visitors every year during its three days of celebration. It is commonly cited as one of the four major festivals in the Tohoku region, including Sendai Tanabata Matsuri, Aomori Nebuta Matsuri and Akita Kanto Matsuri.

The hanagasa is a hat decorated with artificial flowers. During this festival, each group of participants wears a uniform and dances their choreography along the main street of Yamagata city until reaching the old prefectural headquarters. The dance uses hanagasa and the music, which features taiko 2 beats, is repeated several times. During the song, participants shout “Yassho! Makkasho!”

Hanagasa Matsuri, in Yamagata, August 2009.

There are also fireworks festivals, which are called Hanabi . They happen all over Japan and I went to watch it in Shimonoseki, in Yamaguchi Prefecture. At the same time, Fukuoka Prefecture also sets off fireworks in Mojiko City. It is worth checking the location of the cities mentioned on the country map. The two provinces are part of different islands, but nothing is a problem for getting around in Japan. There is a train line that runs in a tunnel within the sea. Isn't it incredible?

The duration of the fireworks was 50 minutes, punctually, and if you are in Yamaguchi, you can see the fireworks from Fukuoka and vice versa. They say that the two provinces compete with each other. The Japanese cover the floor to sit, gather their families, take photos, eat and drink, enjoying and praising the lights and sounds of the fireworks. Some families even took camping tents because of the drizzle. There are fireworks shaped like faces, hearts and flowers. I don't remember ever seeing them in Brazil.

In all these festivals that take place in the summer, it is common to see Japanese people (men, women and children) wearing yukata , which is a typical Japanese summer outfit. It is a less formal garment than the kimono and is also worn in traditional hotels or after bathing in onsens .


Leaving summer festivals aside, Yuki Matsuri will take place in Hokkaido in February. It is a festival dedicated to the exhibition of huge sculptures made with ice. Will I be able to go?

1. From north to south, Japan is divided into regions called: Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu. In the case of Honshu, it is further subdivided into: Tohoku, Kanto, Chubu, Kinki and Chugoku.

2. Taiko is the Japanese drum.

© 2009 Silvia Lumy Akioka

culture festivals Japanese Brazilians Japanese Brazilians in Japan matsuri
About this series

My grandparents on my mother´s side left their homeland in Japan, Fukuoka, in search of a better life in Brazil. Like thousands of other immigrants, they sacrificed a lot and we owe them for our comfortable lifestyles and the values passed from generation to generation. It is with my deepest gratitude that I describe in this series the opportunity I had living as a student in Fukuoka.

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About the Author

Silvia Lumy Akioka is a Brazilian Sansei. She was a dekasegui at age 17, and on another occasion, she was an Exchange Student in Fukuoka Prefecture, when she published the series "The Year of a Brazilian Across the World" (Portuguese only) - it was her first contact with Discover Nikkei. She is an admirer of Japanese culture, and she also likes blogging about other themes. She was in Los Angeles volunteering for Discover Nikkei in April 2012, and she has been an official consultant for the project for 6 years.

Updated February 2019

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