Exciting Japanese Festivals in July

Festivals in Japan have deep cultural ties and a long history. Witnessing the revelry and excitement of each gives us a deeper understanding of the country and its traditions. Here are just a few of the many festivities in the month of July.

Hakata Gion Yamakasa Festival, Fukuoka – celebrated from the 1st to the 15th of July, festivities center in Kushida Jinja. The festival is known for its spectacular float races,  a 750-year-old tradition attracting over a million spectators each year. Men carry elaborately decorated floats called kazariyama.

Hakata Gion float. | Pontafon

The floats weigh over a ton, and the men have to carry it while racing through the streets of Hakata as fast as they can. The other type of float, kakiyama, are carried for the festival parade.

Soma-Nomaoi, Fukushima –  a three-day festival celebrated on the last weekend and Monday of July (for 2014, these are July 26-28)  in the Soma District of Fukushima, an area famous for horse breeding.  Sonoma-Nomaoi celebrates the 1,000-year-old  tradition that introduces the code of the samurai of the Warring States Period to younger generations. The festival is organized by Fukushima Prefecture—Ota Shrine and Odaka Shrine in Minami-Soma City, and Nakamura-Shrine in Soma City.

The highlight of the festivities is the Koshiki Kacchu Keiba, where 12 samurai horsemen in the traditional samurai armor and helmet, wielding katana swords, race a distance of over 1,000 meters.  The Shinki Sodatsusen is also not to miss, where several hundred samurai horsemen compete for 40 shrine flags that are shot into the air with fireworks.

Soma-Nomaoi. | Hajime NAKANO

Sumidagawa Fireworks Festival (Sumidagawa Hanabi Taikai), Tokyo – held every last Saturday in July in Sumidagawa, the fireworks festival channels the Edo period celebration, only on a much grander scale. Different pyrotechnic groups compete to best the others. The history of the Sumidagawa fireworks festival goes all the way back to 1732, at a time when Japan was in the midst of an economic crisis and people suffered from famine and disease. Fireworks were used in rituals and celebrations as a way to mourn the dead, celebrate their life, and to uplift the spirits of the people who were suffering from poverty.