Matsuri means “festival” in Japanese, but it’s also synonymous with brightly glowing lanterns, new and traditional music, bustling food stands, and–perhaps most of all–dancing. Though Japan’s annual calendar is rife with opportunities to celebrate, its summer season boasts a non-stop schedule of outdoor parties. Though they pop up in even the tiniest of neighbourhood commons, read below to discover some of the best and biggest that Tokyo has to offer.
Asakusa’s beautiful Sensoji Temple is one of the most famous in Tokyo, and May sees it come alive with festivities honouring its three Buddhists founders. Sanjya Matsuri is said to attract close to 2 million attendees each year, so expect to get up close and personal with your fellow revellers. It’s also rich in history, dating back to 1312 (though the temple itself was founded in the 7th century).
One of the highlights of Sanjya Matsuri is its procession of portable shrines, called “mikoshi,” which are jostled along by a team of as many as forty people each. Shaking the shrines is said to strengthen the power of the gods inside, which results in a trickle down effect of good fortune unto others. Though there are around 100 mikoshi bouncing by at the festival, the three biggest are carried in honour of Sensoji Temple’s founders–and at approximately one ton each, it’s a considerable gesture.
Mitama Matsuri is held over four sweltering days in July to honour ancestral souls. It’s got plenty of dancing–a staple of any good Japanese summer festival–but is perhaps best known for the stunning corridor of glowing amber lanterns leading the way to Yasukuni Shrine. Though always a visual treat, they’ve reached new heights of popularity in the modern quest for the perfect summer selfie.
It’s worth noting that Yasukuni Shrine is involved in some complicated wartime politics, as it commemorates the lives of both casualties and criminals of war. Remember, too, that you’re partying at a sacred place. Vendors have been banned in recent years because intoxicated revellers acted in ways not befitting a shrine, regardless of its provocations.
Closer to the end of summer, Koto’s Fukagawa Matsuri has been popping off for almost 400 years. It’s one of Edo’s (a.k.a. old Tokyo’s) “great festivals,” further super-sized every three years, with the next big one will take place in 2020 to nicely coincide with the Tokyo Olympics. On these special years, Fukagawa Matsuri extends its regular three-day schedule of events to five.
If it’s not summer in your eyes without a water fight, you’re in luck–great buckets are splashed over the passing mikoshi to please the gods (and cool down the overheated shrine bearers participating in the festival). As you might expect from a festival that regularly douses its attendees in water, Fukugawa Matsuri takes place rain or shine at Tomioka Hachimangu Shrine.
While you certainly don’t need a reason to celebrate life in Japan, summer festival season gives you plenty of opportunities to join the smiling throngs and give thanks–spiritual or secular–while making new friends, stuffing your gob, and experiencing the rich history and culture of Tokyo.