Move aside Japanese spring — the Japanese autumn also has much to offer. Many rave about the beautiful cherry blossoms in spring, heaps of powdered snow in winter, and beach days in summer, but what about the autumn season in Japan? It doesn’t get enough credit than it deserves.
In fact, autumn is one of the most festive seasons in the country! Locals and tourists alike roam around the island nation — viewing the awesome foliage while sightseeing in both big and small cities and hoping to catch a festival or two while they’re in town. If you don’t already know, the country is all for celebration, and throughout the whole year, festivals after festivals are happening every other weekend — even more so in autumn!
With so many to choose from, it can be overwhelming — which are the best to go with so little time in the country? Here are the 9 most exciting festivals in Japan, with some happening nationwide and others in specific cities!
An Overview Of Autumn In Japan
Autumn in Japan is one of the most welcomed seasons of the year. Quite on par with spring, actually. After the hot and humid summer days, everyone in the country is ready for a bit of chill in the air.
I’m not even kidding. August is arguably the hottest month in the year, so when September comes around, it’s like everyone letting out a sigh of relief. Depending on exactly where you are in the country, the temperature goes down to as low as 18ºC.
Not only does it get cooler, but the landscape gradually turns from lush green to vibrant shades of yellow, orange, red, and brown. Just like how they go cherry blossom viewing, the Japanese people would book their flights and accommodations to go autumn foliage viewing. I’m guilty of that as well. Last autumn, I went everywhere, from north to south, just to witness this changing season.
Pair that with street parades, food stalls, and dozens of performances — how can anyone not think that autumn is the best season in The Land of the Rising Sun?
9 Most Exciting Autumn Festivals In Japan
1. Otsukimi (Nationwide)
From around the middle of September to the beginning of October, one of these days is the 15th of the 8th month in the ancient calendar which is known as juugoya. Juugoya refers to the night of the full moon, but it’s no ordinary full moon — it’s the night of the harvest moon and also believed to be the most beautiful moon of the year.
In Japan, there’s the practice of tsukimi, or otsukimi, to refer to moon-viewing. It’s a traditional event in Japan that happens throughout the island nation, regardless of where you’re at. There are traditional ceremonies to accompany this moon-viewing practice to show their appreciation and thanks, as well as pray for a successful seasonal harvest.
Usually, you’ll be able to see decorations outside of houses like Japanese pampas grass, as they resemble rice stalks. Offerings of dango, which are white rice cakes, can also be seen — dango are used as the whiteness and roundness of it resembles the moon.
There are private moon-viewing parties that you can attend, but if you can’t get into one, just have one of your own with family or friends!
2. Shichi-Go-San (Nationwide)
Another nationwide festival in Japan that happens in autumn is Shichi-Go-San. In Japanese, shichi is 7, go is 5 and san is 3 — so this festival translates to 7-5-3. Traditionally, families with kids aged 3, 5, or 7 would go to their local shrine on the 15th of November for this celebration, but nowadays, since it would be extremely crowded if everyone celebrates this on one day, families would bring their kids on weekends relatively close to the date.
This festival involves a ceremony where they celebrate the healthy growth of the children, as well as pray for their future. It started out as a celebration of children’s turning points in life — girls start to grow their hair out at the age of three; boys start to wear hakama at the age of five; girls get to wear adult-like kimonos at the age of 7. So girls get to have this celebration twice in their life — at the age of 5 and 7 — while boys only have it once at the age of 5.
During this festival, you’ll get to see these little rascals all dolled up in their smartest kimono and hakama, with hair and makeup all done. Head over to the nearest shrine on a weekend and you’ll be able to witness this ceremony.
3. Tori no Ichi (Nationwide)
Translated as “Day of the Bird”, Tori no Ichi festival is a pretty old celebration. It has roots dating back to the Edo period — when Tokyo was still known as Edo. This festival falls on the day of the rooster, according to the lunar calendar. Back in the day, it was a day for the farmers to sell away their goods and bounties that they got from their autumn harvest — it’s a day to signify a start of an economically strong year.
If you read online, some say that Tori no Ichi festival is celebrated in Tokyo — that’s partially correct. It’s actually celebrated nationwide, but the main, big ones are in Tokyo. The capital city hosts a few of the largest celebrations throughout the whole country. Asakusa is where you want to be if you’re interested in witnessing the Tori no Ichi festival for yourself.
There are parades on the streets, vendors selling food, and decorations like bamboo rakes, and also street parties. It’s one you don’t want to miss out on if you find yourself in the country either early November — around 8th or 9th — or late November — around 20th or 21st.
4. Takayama Autumn Festival (Gifu)
Moving on from the nationwide festivals, we have the Takayama Autumn Festival that takes place in Gifu Prefecture. Every year, more than 100,000 guests from all around the country travel to Takayama City to witness this famous festival that has been happening annually for over 350 years!
Taking place in early October, this festival’s main highlight is the festival floats parading down the streets on display. Each float has its own theme based on the traditions of Japanese culture. You wouldn’t believe your eyes — every single one of them is intricately detailed and preserved so well, you wonder how they’ve been around for so long.
While the main event is the parade, the days leading up to that are not dull in the slightest. There are food and drink stalls set up along the parade route, as well as artisan vendors. So not only will you have the best entertainment, but also local street food to fill your stomach.
If you’re not going to be in Japan during the autumn season, Takayama Spring Festival is another time that you can catch this amazing festival in the middle of April.
5. Kurama Fire Festival (Kyoto)
Do I need to introduce the main object for this festival? I bet you can already guess what it’s generally about from the title. Kurama Fire Festival is all about fire — big surprise! This entertaining festival takes place in the mountains of Kurama, not too far from the ancient capital city of Kyoto, at the end of October.
The festival begins after sunset — hundreds of participants get dressed in costumes and carry torches down the streets. They walk in unison towards the Yuki-jinja Shrine, and this journey alone is a breathtaking sight.
This festival kind of reminds me of Obon, a summer festival to welcome the spirits, because of all the fire involved. True enough, the festival is about welcoming the spirits from the shrine into the village. These spirits are believed to offer protection for the residents of the village. Torches of different sizes are involved, and after hours of slowly marching through the streets, there is a huge bonfire at the end of the festival.
6. Zuiki Festival (Kyoto)
One of the oldest festivals on our list is the Zuiki Festival. Dating back to 947, this ancient festival started in Kyoto and is a celebration to show thanks for a good harvest. During this autumn festival, a portable shrine known as a mikoshi is decorated with taro stems and then carried around the shrine grounds. About 350 priests and shrine parishioners accompany the mikoshi. The altar is also decorated with taro stems as well as other autumn vegetables.
Since the festival takes place from the 1st of October to the 5th of October, there are special performances that begin and end the festival. A dance called yaotomemai, to mean “sacred dance”, is performed by elementary school girls from the local area — all dressed up in makeup and traditional wear.
Unlike the other big festivals in Japan, the Zuiki Festival gives you the opportunity to experience a more intimate style of a Japanese festival on a local level!
7. Saga International Balloon Festival (Saga)
Turkey is not the only place where you can witness gigantic hot air balloons in the sky. Head over to Saga at the end of October to be a part of the Saga International Balloon Festival. The town hosts the annual balloon festival, which is the largest one in Asia!
If you want to catch the balloons take off, you have to be there pretty early in the morning — around 5:30 AM, more than 50 hot air balloons are being taken up to the sky! That sight itself will wake you up more than a cup of coffee.
Don’t be bummed if you can’t make it in the morning — there’s also a night show where the balloons are lit up in the sky. Both are such breathtaking views that I would suggest staying there the whole day to witness them both!
There’s also a huge market in the area that includes Saga-made products, food, and drinks, as well as traditional crafts. You’ll have plenty to do from sunrise till sunset.
8. Nihonmatsu Lantern Festival (Fukushima)
If you can’t guess already, this autumn festival’s highlight is lanterns. Taking place at Nihonmatsu Shrine in Fukushima at the beginning of October, this festival features approximately 300 lanterns! The celebration has been going on for almost 400 years, and to this day it has brought about 65,000 people from all over the country!
The main reason for the Nihonmatsu Lantern Festival is to honor the Hachiman and Kumano gods who are enshrined at the Nihonmatsu Shrine. It’s believed that they are the ones giving power to the rice plants as well as the harvesting season.
Right before sunset, the priests perform ceremonial prayers while incense burns and fills the air with smoke. The lanterns are placed on seven different floats, and after sunset, the parade starts with taiko drums and flute music to accompany the march. To add to this, lanterns are also tied to long bamboo poles and shoot up from each float to represent rice plants.
9. Supernatural Cat Festival (Tokyo)
I had to end the list off with this: Supernatural Cat Festival. In Japanese, this festival is called Bake Neko. Held every year on the 13th of October in a neighborhood called Kagurazaka in Tokyo, this festival is all about…. cats! There’s a whole parade that you can participate in yourself — all you need is to pay the entry fee, which is about ¥500, and a cat costume. That’s it! You’re part of Bake Neko!
If you don’t have a costume, there’s an on-site makeup artist who will transform you into any feline of your choice pronto.
While the parade is the main event, there are also food and drink stalls around the area, as well as dance performances to look forward to. Get a small souvenir of this festivity by purchasing some handmade crafts from dedicated cat enthusiasts at their stalls.
It’s not your typical, traditional Japanese festival, but this crazy and unique concept is also part of the Japanese culture — modern culture, to be exact. When in Japan, do as the Japanese do, am I right?
Which Is The Most Festive?
So what do you think? Which of these 9 autumn festivals are you the most interested in? Which one, or two, will you add to your Japan travel itinerary? Or better yet, go to all of them and make a full travel trip around the island nation — not only will you witness the various autumn festivals in Japan but you’ll also get to witness the beautiful autumn foliage!