In addition to the stunning changing color of the leaves (koyo), autumn in Japan means festivals. There’s a wide range up and down the country to choose from, but we’ve highlighted three that should be high on your list of things to experience while you’re in Japan.
Let’s start off with a festival that is renowned for being one of the most dangerous in Japan. Don’t let that put you off though as it is truly one of the most exciting Japanese spectacles to see firsthand. Nada no Kenka Matsuri (Nada Fighting Festival) is held every year on October 14 and 15, and has grown in popularity over the years, attracting over 150,000 spectators to a makeshift arena near Mt Otabi in the town of Shirahama.There is a lot to see on both days, but it is the main event on the 15th that everyone comes to witness, and we recommend securing a seat early as it gets very busy.
There are seven teams in the contest. The teams represent different neighborhoods in the region and are made up of local men and boys wearing loincloths. They carry elaborately decorated portable shrines that they then proceed to jostle, smash, and bash into each other as they try to topple each other’s shrines. Add into the mix shouting participants, wildly cheering spectators, constant drumming, and stalls selling food and drinks, and you have an event that is unlike any you might have seen before.
Kurama Fire Festival
Kyoto has a number of spectacular festivals but let’s turn up the heat for this one which is listed in the top three most ‘eccentric’ festivals in Japan. The Kurama Fire Festival takes place every year on October 22 at the Yuki Shrine, located in the mountains to the north of Kyoto. It dates back over a thousand years when the emperor at the time moved the Yuki Shrine to a safer location during a war.
The main event begins at 6pm when 3 meter tall kagaribi (bonfires) are simultaneously lit in front of people’s houses. Children carrying pine torches lead the parade, in fact the festival was used for a time as a rite of passage for children. These children are followed by the adult members of the procession who carry much larger torches, each weighing over 80 kilograms.
…the villagers in the procession are all shouting, so the fainthearted should take note!
In addition to the excitement that comes with naked flames, the villagers in the procession are all shouting, so the fainthearted should take note! At 8pm the crowd visits the Yuki Shrine to offer a prayer and then two mikoshi (portable shrines) are carried through the streets, beautifully lit up by the torches and sparks they give off.
The festival ends around midnight, though the locals will continue celebrating through the night, so please check the timetable and leave enough time to make the last train out of Kurama Station. If you are thinking of attending our advice is to get there well before the 6pm start as it is getting more and more popular each year. You should also bring something warm as it can get pretty cool in the mountains, even with all that fire!
Takayama Autumn Festival
After the hustle and bustle of the first two festivals on the list, we thought it best to end with one that is a little more serene. Hida Takayama is a beautifully preserved traditional Japanese town in Gifu prefecture, and a favorite with both domestic and international sightseers. In autumn however it becomes even more of a must-see destination as it plays host to one of Japan’s three most beautiful festivals, the Takayama Autumn Festival.
Held every year on October 9 and 10, the festival is thought to be around 400 years old and features colorful costumes, traditional music and marionette performances. The highlight of the festival however is the procession through the town of eleven exquisitely decorated floats (yatai), handcrafted by local artisans.
…the floats continue their journey while being lit up by around 100 lanterns.
The procession extends into the evening when the floats continue their journey while being lit up by around 100 lanterns. With the backdrop of the town and surrounding countryside, it provides an assortment of stunning shots for any photographers in the crowd. The floats wind their way through the town to the Sakurayama Hachimangu Shrine where a solemn ritual brings the festival to a close.
There is very strong participation from the locals who take a great deal of pride in their picturesque town and this unique festival. If you can’t make it during the autumn there is also a Spring Takayama Festival, and though the rich autumn colors are absent at this time, it more than makes up for it with the sakura (cherry blossoms) as a backdrop.