I don’t know about you but autumn is one of my favourite seasons ever. Autumn in Japan is beautiful – I’d argue that it’s just as beautiful as spring in Japan! Everyone in the country is looking for a bit of chill in the air after the hot and humid summer season.
And not only is the weather a bit cooler, but the colours of the scenery changes too! The lush greens gradually change to vibrant shades of red and orange. And just like how people go for cherry blossom viewing (or hanami 花見) in spring, they go for autumn leaves viewing (or momijigari 紅葉狩り) in fall! I personally went from north to south of Japan just to witness this changing season.
But that’s not all. Japanese autumn is full of cultural festivals. As I always mention, the Japanese love to celebrate anything and everything! While summer is the season with the most festivals, autumn is a runner up. Here we have a list of 9 culturally exciting autumn festivals for you to consider when visiting Japan during this season!
1. Otsukimi (Nationwide)
One of the most exciting festivals to look out for during autumn in Japan is otsukimi (お月見), which translates to “moon viewing”. Somewhere from the middle of September and lasting till the beginning of October, you’ll get the fifteenth day of the eighth month of the ancient calendar. This is known as the juugoya (十五夜), which is the night of the harvest moon and believed to be the most beautiful moon of the whole year!
During this time, the Japanese celebrate the cultural practice of moon-viewing to show their appreciation and pray for a successful seasonal harvest. Some even throw moon-viewing parties with friends and family. Decorations are put outside of houses, which includes pampas grass to resemble rice stalks and white rice cakes (dango 団子) to resemble the moon.
2. Shichi-Go-San (Nationwide)
Another autumn cultural festival that happens worldwide is the Shichi-Go-San (七五三), which literally translates to 7-5-3. This cultural festival involves families bringing their kids aged 3, 5 or 7 to the local shrine on the 15th of November. However, nowadays, families would schedule their visits for weekends close to the date to avoid the crowds.
The history of this festival goes way back, believed to have originated in the Heinz period. This cultural festival is a way to celebrate the healthy growth of kids and also to pray for their future. The ages 3, 5 and 7 are odd numbers and believed to be numbers of good luck. So this festival involves a ceremony where they celebrate the healthy growth of the children into middle childhood as well as pray for their future.
Children are all dressed up and dolled up in the prettiest kimono and hakama, which are traditional Japanese costumes. Girls, particularly, are polished up in pretty makeup and hairstyles.
3. Tori no Ichi (Nationwide)
Good things come in three. The third nationwide cultural festival in Japan is Tori no Ichi (酉の市). This is translated as “The Day of the Bird” and is one celebrated since quite a while back, since the Edo Period. While this cultural festival is famously celebrated in Tokyo, Tori no Ichi is actually celebrated nationwide with street parades, stalls and decorations.
The cultural festival falls on the day of the rooster in the lunar calendar. In the olden days, this day was the best day for farmers to sell their goods and harvest that they got from the autumn harvest. It’s also a day that signifies the start of an economically strong year.
4. Takayama Autumn Festival (Gifu)
In Gifu Prefecture, a cultural festival that’s pretty well known nationwide is the Takayama Autumn Festival, celebrating for more than 350 years in early October. More than 100,000 visitors from all over the country travel to Takayama City every year to attend this festival.
The highlight of this cultural festival is the festival floats, each having their own theme based on Japanese traditions. But while the actual festival day itself is the highlight, the days leading up to the parade are no bore either. Food and drink stalls as well as artisan vendors are set up, along with the best entertainment on the streets.
There’s also a Takayama Spring Festival if you missed out on this autumn festival. It’s not the same, but it’s a good replacement!
5. Kurama Fire Festival (Kyoto)
One of the biggest autumn cultural festivals in Japan is the Kurama Fire Festival in Kyoto. The main object of this festival is….fire! You’ve got to travel into the mountains of Kurama for this event, but it’s not too far away from the capital city Kyoto.
At the end of October, the festival starts right after sunset. Guests and participants dress in costumes to carry torches down the streets towards Yuki-jinja Shrine. At the end of the march, there’s a huge bonfire! It’s kind of like the summer festival Obon, because both festivals are about welcoming spirits. The difference is that this festival welcomes spirits from the shrine into the village. These spirits are believed to offer protection.
6. Zuiki Festival (Kyoto)
Another Kyoto autumn cultural festival is the Zuiki Festival, which dates back to 947. This is another event that is a show of thanks for a good harvest, taking place between the first to the fifth of October. During this festival, you get to see a portable shrine known as mikoshi (神輿) that is decorated with taro stems being carried around the shrine grounds. This portable shrine is accompanied by about 350 priests and shrine parishioners!
Performances are also part of this cultural festival. Some special ones open and end the event. One of them is a dance called yaotomemai, which means “sacred dance”, that’s performed by elementary school girls from the local area.
7. Saga International Balloon Festival (Saga)
This is one of the lesser known cultural festivals by foreigners but definitely one extravagantly celebrated by the locals. Saga International Balloon Festival takes place in Saga prefecture at the end of October. This annual balloon festival is the largest in all of Asia!
At around 5:30 in the morning, more than 50 hot air balloons start floating into the sky! But if you’re not there that early, there’s a night show where you can catch these balloons all lit up. Stick around for the huge market in the area, selling Saga-made products, food and drinks, and crafts.
8. Nihonmatsu Lantern Festival (Fukushima)
In Fukushima at Nihonmatsu Shrine, the annual Nihonmatsu Lantern Festival takes place at the beginning of October. This is such an old cultural festival that has been going on for almost 400 years! Around 300 lanterns are involved, along with 65,000 people visiting annually!
This cultural festival is a way to honour the Hachiman and Kumano gods of the Nihonmatsu Shrine. These gods are believed to be the ones giving power to the rice plants and harvesting season.
The shrine priests perform ceremonial prayers before sunset. A lot of incense is being burned too. Then, the lanterns are placed on seven floats, with some tied to long bamboo poles and stand up on the floats to represent rice plants. The marching parade only starts after sunset, accompanied by taiko drums and flute music. and after sunset, the parade starts with taiko drums and flute music to accompany the march.
9. Supernatural Cat Festival (Tokyo)
Last but not least, a more modern yet still cultural autumn festival in Japan is the Supernatural Cat Festival in Tokyo! Every year on the 13th of October, you’ll find people dressed as cats roaming the streets of the Kagurazaka neighbourhood. Anyone can participate, and to participate, all you need is to pay the entrance fee and a cat costume!
If you don’t have a cat costume, get your face painted by an on-site makeup artist! And just like any other Japanese cultural festivals, you have food stalls and dance performances to accompany the parade.
Get your cultural experience at these top festivals!
There are tons of other Japanese cultural festivals in autumn, and if I were to list them all, it’d be an endless article. To get you started on that autumn festival checklist, these 9 festivals are a good starting point. Which ones will make it to your Japan autumn itinerary?