With 47 prefectures over 4 main islands and 430 smaller inhabited islands, there's no shortage of new places to visit and new things to do in Japan!
To help you decide where to go on your next Japan trip, we've rounded up the top 12 festivals we think are worth a visit in each month of 2019! And as a bonus, each city includes an exciting matsuri (festival) you can catch while you're there, so that you can really experience local life at its finest! You might see some familiar names on this list, but we hope you give the newer ones a shot too ?
January: Nago city, Okinawa prefecture
These southern Japanese islands are more well-known for their beaches and sub-tropical climate, but did you know that paying them a visit in January can mean seeing actual cherry blossoms months before mainland Japan? ? That’s right! Thanks to the warmer temperatures, full bloom here takes place months before the ‘usual’ March or April season. Okinawa is definitely a Japanese ‘wintertime’ getaway that won’t leave you freezing.
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While you’re there, make sure to visit the Nago Cherry Blossom Festival where over 20,000 Taiwan cherry blossoms will be in bloom. You can walk up to Nago castle’s observation deck to see the blossoms against the blue-green of the sea, or take a more leisurely stroll through Nago Central Park to enjoy the pathways decorated with these precious pink blooms. There’s also the Nakijin Gusuku Cherry Blossom Festival in the nearby town of Nakijin, where locals perform traditional Okinawan dance performances for a unique hanami (cherry blossom viewing) experience.
P.S. Not convinced? Check out these 11 reasons why Okinawa will captivate you!
Getting there: Fly to Singapore’s Changi airport, and then take a direct flight to Okinawa’s Naha Airport. If you’re flying in from other major Japanese cities such as Tokyo or Osaka, take a domestic flight that’ll cost you less than USD$100.
February: Sapporo city, Hokkaido prefecture
We know we just talked about Okinawa, but how could we look at winter in Japan and not mention Hokkaido? ? It’s probably the most iconic Japanese wintertime retreat, where the powder-like snowfall and activities such as skiing and snowboarding make it a winter wonderland. Plus with halal or Muslim-friendly eateries being set up, visiting Hokkaido has been easier than ever - some hotels will even help cater Muslim-friendly meals for you so make sure to ask ahead of time!
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Why not change up your Hokkaido trip a little by attending the Sapporo Yuki Matsuri (Snow Festival)? The festival is held in early February, and runs for 8-12 days every year. It’s actually one of Japan’s biggest winter events and is even spread out over multiple sites covering snow slides, snow rafting, and ice sculpture events! The bustling crowd will leave you in a festive mood, and you’ll have so much fun enjoying the performances and concerts you’ll forget about the sub-zero temperatures ?
Getting there: Fly into Tokyo’s Haneda or Narita airports, and then take a domestic flight to one of Hokkaido’s many airports. Make sure to check that your flights in and out of Tokyo are from the same airport - you may not be able to make your connecting flight if you have to travel from Narita to Haneda first! ?
March: Nara city, Nara prefecture
We usually think of Nara as a day trip destination from Kyoto, where you can enjoy the company of friendly deer. But there’s actually lots to do in this former capital city besides that! There’s the impressively huge Todaiji temple that houses the largest bronze Buddha in the world (15 metres tall!) and the unique Koufun tombs built between the 3rd to 7th centuries ? Nara is definitely a city where you get to experience ancient Japanese culture!
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Befitting an ancient with so much history, Nara’s Omizutori Festival is a very ancient one - it’s been held ever since 752AD! The festival is celebrated to welcome spring, and takes place in the first 2 weeks of March. Throughout these weeks, Otaimatsu ceremonies are held at night where large torches are waved above the crowd to create a rain of embers and sparks. It sounds a bit scary, but Otaimatsu is perfectly safe and is seen as bringing good luck on those who get ‘showered’ with sparks! The grandest Otaimatsu ceremony takes place on 12 March at Todaiji temple’s Nigatsudo Hall. If you’re visiting to catch a glimpse of this fire show, try to get there early as spectators will be rotated throughout the courtyard to give everyone a chance to see the spectacular sight.
Getting there: Fly into the Kansai International Airport, and take a train (ranging from 1hr 15-1hr 30mins in duration) to Nara from there. If you’re travelling there from Kyoto, Osaka, or Kobe, you can get a JR Kansai Pass to cover your travels within the region - the train journey is just 35 minutes between Kyoto and Nara! If you’re travelling there from other major cities such as Tokyo which aren’t in the Kansai region, get the National JR Pass which will enable you to travel across different regions with ease.
April: Matsue city, Shimane prefecture
Shimane is one of the lesser populated prefectures in Japan, making its capital city Matsue perfect for a more laid-back trip where you can enjoy Japanese nature and sceneries without having to deal with large crowds. As there aren’t as many Muslim-friendly food options in Matsue or its surrounding towns, it may be better suited for a day trip for now, but the stunning seaside views you’ll get in the “City of Water” will be worth the trip!
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April is the middle of spring, and everyone will be trying to catch the sakura blossoms before they begin to fall. If you’re looking for a more exciting hanami experience, catch the Matsue Musha Gyoretsu warrior procession where reenactors dress in samurai warrior armour and royal gowns. The actors recreate the arrival of Matsue’s founder (Daimyo Horio Yoshiharu) at Matsue Castle, and there are also performances using a range of objects including swords and fans ? You can even take a photograph with the actors afterwards - or rent armour or a kimono for yourself to join in the fun!
Getting there: If you’re coming from Tokyo, consider taking a domestic flight straight to Izumo airport, which is a 30 min bus ride from Matsue station. For a more laid-back option, take the JR train system from Tokyo to Okayama (4hrs) and then transfer to Matsue or Izumo (2.5 - 3hrs). You could even plan out a train journey if you’re taking this route, stopping at major cities such as Kyoto and Osaka along the way from Tokyo to Okayama, and continuing on to Hiroshima afterwards!
May: Hakata city, Fukuoka prefecture
Fukuoka is still an underrated region in Japan - but we hope this won’t be the case for long! With a rising number of Halal and Muslim-friendly establishments, fresh seafood, and a whole island full of cats(!) to see there are so many reasons to visit this beautiful area ?
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Hakata’s Dontaku Port Festival is another ancient festival that’s been celebrated for over 800 years. The festival’s origins lie in giving thanks and tributes to feudal lords during the Heian era (13th century) but it’s become a huge event today that’s open to locals as well as foreigners. Some cities or countries even send tourism ambassadors to join in the fun, such as the East Javanese representatives featured above who attended the 2018 parade! Beginning at Hakata Port, the festival takes place during Golden Week and attracts an amazing 2 million visitors who watch the grand parade, dress up in costumes, and enjoy festivities across the town. Though the festival only lasts for 2 days, it’s definitely the place to be if you want to experience some thrill and excitement - visitors are even invited to jump in and dance along!
P.S. As Golden Week is one of the busiest times for domestic travel in Japan, remember to book your accommodations ahead of time so that you avoid the price hikes or rooms being sold out!
Getting there: Take a flight into Fukuoka Airport - if you’re flying from Kuala Lumpur, rejoice because there’s a direct option available! If you’re flying in from elsewhere, you may have a stopover in Hong Kong, Manila, Bangkok, or Kuala Lumpur. You can get to Fukuoka from other parts of Japan using the JR Kyushu rail system.
June: Niigata city, Niigata prefecture
With Japan being right in the middle of the warm and sunny summer season, it can be difficult to decide exactly where you want to visit. Just 3 hours from Tokyo by shinkansen, Niigata prefecture is a good choice for its seaside views, fresh seafood, and smaller islands that are good for a day trip! It’s one of the places where you can find the best cities off the beaten path, and it’s definitely a summer destination you can’t miss out on ?
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There are summer matsuri taking place all over Japan, but Niigata city’s Shirone Ootako Gassen is certainly one of the more unique ones! Where else can you see huge kites ‘battle’ against each other? ? One local legend is that the kite fight came from a feud between locals on both sides of the Nakanokuchi River from the Edo period. Today, this tradition is both a way to honour centuries of history and display the skill and creativity of kite craftsmen in the city - kites are often painted with stylized pictures of warriors, mythological animals, geisha, and much more! Once the kites fall into the river, a tug-of-war battle starts between spectators. Even foreign visitors are invited to join in, giving you a chance to experience some traditional Japanese fun ?
Getting there: Niigata is a little more out of the way compared to the other cities on our list. Taking a flight there may require at least 2 stopovers along the way ? We recommend flying into Tokyo and then taking a 2hr shinkansen to Niigata city instead. You can enjoy the small towns and sceneries while on the train, or use the time to plan your upcoming itinerary! ?
July: Kyoto city, Kyoto prefecture
Kyoto is one of the most popular destinations within Japan, and for good reason! It’s a place where Japan’s past and present intertwine - where you can witness and experience traditional history and culture all around you, and still make time to visit the latest Muslim-friendly cafes and eateries. Whether you’re going there for a short 3D2N trip or something longer, you’ll definitely never get bored in this beautiful city.
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Kyoto’s Gion Matsuri is easily the most famous and longest festival in Japan, taking place across the entire month of July ? The festival has been held for over 1,100 years and was even declared UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage! There are countless activities that go on during this festival, but the most notable one has to be the procession of Yamaboko floats. The city’s mikoshi (portable shrine) is also brought out during the evening procession, where the men carrying it joyfully raise it into the air and shake it, creating a rousing cheer from the crowd.
P.S. If you want to avoid the crowds who’ll be trying to catch a glimpse of the procession, you can always pay for an assigned seat that will let you watch the whole procession without worry! Tickets are 3,180 yen and your seat will come with an informative pamphlet so that you can learn more about this ancient festival.
Getting there: Fly into the Kansai International Airport, which is just 90mins from Kyoto via a direct train. If you’re flying in via Tokyo, you could even take a domestic flight to Osaka’s Itami Airport which is 50mins from the Kyoto city centre. Kyoto is also easily accessible via the JR system and falls under the JR Kansai region.
August: Aomori city, Aomori prefecture
Aomori is located at the very north of the Tohoku region, and used to be the port where people would board ferries to Hokkaido. Nowadays, infrastructural improvements for getting to Hokkaido have decreased visitorship to Aomori, but Aomori is still a top place to visit to bask in the fresh sights of nature, and especially to indulge in their famous apples.
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Held in the first week of August, Aomori’s Nebuta Matsuri night festival is one of the largest festivals in Japan. Large Nebuta floats are illuminated and paraded through town, depicting mythological, historical, or kabuki scenes. The festival isn’t just a visual feast but a musical one too, as flutes and fans help to direct the floats, and the crowd gets excited and cheers the floats on ? You can even buy or rent a formal Haneto dancer outfit and join in! The entire town gets in on the festival spirit too, and you can find everything from towels to face masks decorated with the Nebuta faces.
Getting there: The most direct option would be to take one of the daily domestic flights between Tokyo’s Haneda airport and Aomori airport. If you want to take your time reaching Aomori or exploring the surrounding areas, you could always try taking a trip throughout the Tohoku area, passing through the major cities of Tokyo and Sendai.
September: Kumamoto city, Kumamoto prefecture
We’re sure you’ve seen the popular and adorable Kumamon around before - but did you know that this friendly-looking black bear is the official mascot of this southern prefecture? ? Kumamoto prefecture and its capital city aren’t just famous for Kumamon - Kumamoto city is also known for having one of the highest quality groundwater, and is within the top 10 producers of agriculture in Japan! The most well-known Kumamoto exports are melons, eggplants, and tangerines so make sure to try some before you leave ?
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Kumamoto City’s Fujisaki Hachimangu Reitaisai is the annual grand festival of the Fujisaki Hachimangu shrine, and has been held for over 1,000 years. The locals know it as Umaoi Matsuri and over 20,000 people come to Kumamoto City just to celebrate it! The festival is a time for the entire city to let loose to celebrate the end of summer - mikoshi shrines are paraded through town, kazariuma (decorated horses) march up a hill cheered on by spectators (they receive pets and treats at dedicated stops along the way too!), and the final section called the Umaoi consists of participants chanting and dancing to drumbeats. There’s even a Noh play put on for spectators, making this an excellent way to send off the summer and welcome autumn - it’s even said that autumn doesn’t properly arrive until the festival ends!
Getting there: The most direct way is to take a domestic flight from Tokyo’s Narita or Haneda airports, or Osaka’s Itami Airport. If you’re already travelling via the JR lines, you can also take a 3h 20min trip from Shin-Osaka and spend a day in Kumamoto ?
October: Niihama city, Ehime prefecture
Niihama is a quiet seaside town within Ehime prefecture, located on Shikoku Island towards the southwest of Japan. The town is known primarily for the Besshi copper mine that contributed to Japan’s early modernization efforts and is definitely one of the least busy destinations on this list.
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If there’s one other thing Niihama is known for, it’s its iconic Niihama Taiko (Drum) Matsuri that makes the town come alive ever October. The festival is known to get the citizens so worked up, police in riot gear sometimes have to be called in ? The festival is held to celebrate the autumn harvest, and is famous for its Otoko Matsuri (Men’s Festival) where groups of men compete to lift drums weighing over 3 tonnes! Each city district has its own Taiko, and the competition between drums can get so intense that teams have ended up in scuffles and fights. There are plenty of these drum-lifting competitions (called kakikurabe) throughout the city for the duration of the festival, giving you multiple opportunities to marvel at the show of strength and power from the participants.
Getting there: The most direct route is to fly from Tokyo or another major city to the prefecture’s capital of Matsuyama, followed by a train to Niihama.
November: Tokyo city, Tokyo prefecture
Were you wondering when Tokyo would finally appear on this list? ? We all know that Tokyo is full of exciting activities to do around every corner, and you’ll always be spoilt for choice if you pay it a visit. In November, the seasons haven’t quite transitioned into winter yet, and you’ll be able to see gorgeous orange and red scenery across the city, making it an ideal spot for some Insta-worthy shots ? Whether you’re there to explore the surrounding areas for 6D5N or making it a stop on the way to 5D4N in Takasaki and Nagano, Tokyo is a central hub that you can’t miss!
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Asakusa’s Tori-no-ichi festival and market stands out as an event that is so seasonal, it can change both its name and frequency from year to year! ? According to the 12 zodiac signs, each day of the year has a particular animal assigned to it. Tori-no-ichi starts on the first day of the Rooster (Tori) in November, and happens every twelve days later for the rest of the month. On years with only two (Ni) Rooster days, it is known as the Ni-no-tori market , and in years with three (San) days it’s known as the San-no-tori market. Similar markets are set up all over Japan, but Asakusa’s is the most famous both for its size and longevity - it’s been held for over 100 years and counting! The hundreds of stalls in the market primarily sell rake-shaped talismans called kakkome (pictured above), which are thought to ‘rake up’ good fortune. Lots of businesses flock here to buy themselves a larger rake than the previous year, making this a busy market full of energy!
Getting there: Take a flight into either Narita or Haneda Airport, and make use of the extensive subway system to get around from there! ?
December: Chichibu city, Saitama prefecture
Chichibu is a city in Saitama known for its beautiful shrines and peaceful nature spots. The town is a quiet escape away from the hustle and bustle of the city, and you’ll find Tokyo-ites visiting to get a quick break from work and city life! One of the most stunning sights here is at Hitsujiyama Park from April to May where shibazakura (pink moss) blossoms are in full bloom, creating blankets of pink that bloom into strategically planted ‘images’. If you’re already in the Kanto region, it’s definitely a short trip worth making!
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The Chichibu Yomatsuri (Night Festival) is another incredible festival that’s been declared UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. It’s best known for its floats and fireworks, and is one of the major float festivals across Japan! The Yomatsuri takes place across the first week of December, but firework displays are only held on the 2nd and 3rd of December alongside the float processions. It’s rare that a float ceremony includes such stunning fireworks, making this a unique winter event you definitely can’t miss ? There are 2 kinds of floats in the parade - the Yatai, and Kasakabo. The Yatai are shaped like traditional Japanese building, with an elaborate roof and lanterns; whereas the Kasakabo are shaped like pagodas. The floats aren’t just there for display either - the Yatai floats are used as stages, where local girls perform a Hiki-odori dance for spectators. There are even Yatai kabuki plays put on, giving you a chance to experience traditional Japanese culture in a whole new way!
Getting there: Chichibu is a quick train ride away from Tokyo, making it perfect for a day trip to enjoy some nature and give yourself a break from the rush of the city. If you’re taking the JR line, it’ll take about 105-140 mins depending on the services available. If you’re strapped for time, there’s always the “Red Arrow” train that takes only 80-100 minutes and costs 780-1480 yen.
Matsuri are so unique to Japanese culture - getting to experience one will definitely leave you with memories to last a lifetime! ?