Festivals are a huge part of Japanese culture. They happen from north to south pretty much all year round, with a large concentration in the summer. Almost every other night and definitely every weekend throughout August, you can go see fireworks.
This week (August 16th) was the Daimonji* Festival in Kyoto. Daimonji* is the last day in a week long festival of Obon. During Obon the Japanese celebrate the return of their ancestors' souls to the living world. Daimonji* is the day that they see the souls off, back to the afterlife. Lighting the fires on the mountainside - or lanterns in the river - represents the lights that will guide the souls home.
It was my first time and felt like a combination of Thanksgiving, Halloween and Fourth of July. The festival is important to family and friends and involves everyone gathering together. Our party started at 2pm and ended around 11pm. We drank 15 liters of beer, one large bottle of sake and ate for 9 hours straight - with the last course being delicious, HOT rice. Beyond the eating and drinking, there were moments of silence for those we’d lost and lots of fire and smoke. It was amazing, even in the pouring rain. I can highly recommend experiencing a festival for yourself during your time in Japan.
Working a festival into your itinerary is easy. Here are a few tips to make sure you get the most out of the experience.
1. Plan Ahead
Festivals are so major events for the locals and you can expect an increased amount of visitors - be sure to book your accommodations in advance - and if you are traveling there by train, get your tickets a few days before you go. Try a site like Airbnb and stay with a local to get their perspective on what the festival means to them
2. Wear Yukata
Festivals are the perfect occasion to get dressed up in yukata, a casual form of kimono for summer.
If you think you may wear yukata more than once it's almost worth it to just get one from a vintage store - like Kimono Daiyasu in Kyoto. But there are also rental shops where you can get a yukata for just one day. Regardless of which route you choose, work with someone experienced to dress you. Yukatas may look simple, but they are not easy to put on - tying the obi (the belt that keeps the robe on) is especially troublesome. The nice folks at most stores will make sure you are properly suited up.
3. Make it Meaningful
To avoid the feeling of pure spectator sport, try and find a festival that is personally relevant to you. Having just lost a close friend Daimonji was very meaningful for me. Here is a list of festivals around Japan and a few I found particularly interesting: the naked festival in Okayama, the dancing festival in Tokushima and the snow lantern festival in Akita.
*I was using Daimonji as the name of the festival in Kyoto - but that is actually the name of one of the shapes being burnt into the mountain side. The actual name of the festival is Gozannookuribi.