There are countless matsuri (festivals) held across Japan. Even small towns have their own summer festivals, complete with dancers, elaborately decorated floats and food stalls. It's well worth planning your trip to coincide with a matsuri, as they're often visually impressive, colourful and entertaining. Here are just a small selection to get you started:
This is the time people across Japan celebrate the New Year. It's one of the country's most important festivals. On New Year's Eve, people gather at Buddhist temples and pray as priests ring the temple bells 108 times. Somewhat tamer and more reflective than your typical boozey New Year's Eve back in the UK.
For one week in February, the chilly capital of Hokkaido hosts this world-famous festival. An area of 1.5km is transformed into an impressive display of snow and ice sculptures. This is the perfect opportunity to see a matsuri and also fit in some top-quality skiing or snowboarding.
This is one of Japan's stranger celebrations. It involves up to 9000 nearly-naked men fighting over a pair of lucky sticks, while being splashed with water by people in the crowd. The sticks are said to bring a year of happiness, so it's no wonder the men are so desperate to grab hold of them.
This is another Japan-wide festival, during which families with daughters decorate their houses with displays of special hina ningyo dolls dressed in the style of the old Imperial court. Some people open up their homes to the public during this time, so if you're lucky you might get the chance to see a traditional side to life in Japan that many tourists don't get to experience.
Not a festival as such, but a very important event in the Japanese calendar nonetheless. Hanami literally means 'flower viewing', and this is the time of year when Japan is at its most beautiful – cherry trees across the country burst into pink bloom, and people gather to eat picnics and get drunk beneath the sakura (cherry blossoms). It makes for a very relaxing day! The hanami season generally starts at the end of February in the south, and peaks in the north in April. Such is the national obsession with sakura that newspapers include forecasts of when the trees are predicted to bloom.
This is a period of four public holidays from the end of April – take note of Golden Week as this is one of Japan's busiest times. Transport and accommodation is often fully booked, so it's necessary to make reservations well in advance if you intend to travel during this period. A lot of matsuri coincide with Golden Week, so wherever you happen to be in Japan, it's worth checking to see if there are any festivals going on nearby.
This is one of Japan's largest festivals, and attracts up to two million visitors over two-day period at the beginning of May. The streets of Fukuoka City in Kyushu come alive with a huge parade of floats, dancers and musicians. It's an impressive sight.
One of the northern Tohoku region's major festivals, Hanagasa sees around 10,000 dancers making their way through the streets of Yamagata City performing a unique dance involving straw hats decorated with red flowers. There's also the usual parade of floats, lots of interesting festival food, and music. And of course it gives you an excuse to visit the beautiful prefecture of Yamagata, which is sadly overlooked by most foreign tourists to Japan.
This is the festival of Nagasaki's Suwa Shrine and features Chinese-style dragons and floats shaped like ships. The festival has been celebrated for more than 370 years and incorporates aspects of Chinese and Dutch cultures. It's one of the wilder festivals in Japan with singing, dancing and shows all day long. Make sure you reserve a good spot beforehand.
The Chichibu Night Festival is considered one of Japan's best festivals featuring large festival floats (yatai). The best day to attend is December 3. There's a huge fireworks ceremony to end the festival which lasts more than two and a half hours. Streets are lined with tasty food and drink to give you the fuel to get through the cold – well worth the chilblains.