8 Fantastic February Festivals

Light lanterns and candles, get cozy in a snow hut or see semi-naked men brave freezing water. Discover February's local festivals across Japan!   

Matsuri (festivals) both large and small are an integral part of Japanese life. These cultural ceremonies are based in religious Shinto and Buddhist rites and local contests. Communities come together each month to mark the passage of the seasons. Members prepare for spring and pray for health, harvest and family. You may have heard about the Sapporo Snow Festival, but let's explore other fascinating matsuri that February travelers can experience across Japan:

[3 Feb 2016] Setsubun Mantoro (Lantern Festival) -- Nara

Japanese Lanterns Kasuga Shrine from Flickr cc by kimtetsu

  • Venue: Kasuga Taisha Shrine
  • Other Information: Lanterns are lit between 18:30 and 21:00
  • Access: Bus from JR or Kintetsu Line Nara Station to Kasuga Taisha Honden bus stop
Held at Kasuga Taisha Shrine in the ancient capital city of Nara, this 800-year-old festival feels mystical. Over 3,000 lanterns, donated over the centuries by worshippers, are lit for just three nights during the year: February 3rd and August 14th-15th. The February 3rd event marks the transition from winter to spring. Stone lanterns in the garden, and traditional hanging lanterns in shrine corridors all glow softly with candlelight. During festival days, you can purchase good luck charms. One example: A votive horse picture symbolizing religious blessings for a long healthy life.

[11 Feb 2016]  Kasedori Festival -- Ueyama, Yamagata
 Kasedori in Yamagata Prefecture from Flickr cc by f_a_r_e_w_e_l_l

  • Venue: Kaminoyama Castle
  • Other Information: The procession starts at Kaminoyama Castle and leads to the city center
  • Access: About 10 minutes walk from Kaminoyama Onsen Station, Yamagata Line
This traditional folk event of Kaminoyama, in Yamagata Prefecture, dates back to the beginning of the Edo Period (1603~1867). People here pray for abundant crops and prosperity by splashing water from buckets on chosen participants or Kasedori. Kasedori wear mino (straw coats) called "kendai". These represent a bird said to bring good luck. The kasedori dance and make bird-like calls for blessings from the gods.
Each piece of straw that falls from the kendai brings good fortune. Local legend says that a girl will become a beautiful woman with abundant black hair if she ties her tresses back with a piece of straw retrieved from this festival.

[8~22 Feb 2016] Nagasaki Lantern Festival -- Nagasaki City

Nagasaki Lantern Festival display photo by Nagasaki Prefecture Convention and Tourism Association

  • Venue: Multiple locations throughout Nagasaki City
  • Other Information: Over 1 million visitors attend this 15-day event
  • Access: The festival is celebrated in many locations. Take the shuttle bus -- a bargain for just 100 yen! -- that stops near all the important sites
The Nagasaki Lantern Festival is a major event held in the international port city of Nagasaki. The festival originates from the “Shunsetsu-sai festival” celebrating the Chinese New Year. Central locations such as Nagasaki Chinatown, Minato Park, Chuo Park, Megane-bashi Bridge and Hamaichi Kanko-dori Arcade are festooned with over 15,000 colorful lanterns and decorations. Dragon dances, Chinese art, and musical performances are held daily. Events this year kick off around 17:30~18:00 with a "Lighting Ceremony" on Monday, 8th of February. Be sure to pick up the multilingual Lantern Festival information packet from the JR Nagasaki train station.

[12~14 Feb 2016] Namahage Sedo Matsuri, Akita
Namahage Sedo Festival from Flickr cc by Evan Blaser

  • Venue: Shinzan Jinja Shrine
  • Other Information: This festival is held yearly, on the second Friday, Saturday, and Sunday of February
  • Access: From JR Akita Station:  Two hours by train and temporary bus. Get off at Oga Station and Oga hot spring village then take the festival bus
The Namahage Sedo Festival is one of the "Top Five Snow Festivals" in northern Japan.  This festival combines the Shinto ritual "Saitousai" (praying for a good harvest) and a local, traditional "Namahage" event. Namahage are visiting gods that warn against laziness and bring protection from illness and disasters. A blessing from Namahage ensures a good harvest with plenty of food from the mountains and sea. The festival includes music, blessings, drumming, dance and various ceremonies and the giving away of goma mochi (sesame rice cakes) over three days. On the final night of the festival, Namahage climb down the mountain one last time to visit the shrine.  They bless the audience and "scare" the children. The Sedo Festival comes to a dramatic end. Oga’s Namahage are an official Important Intangible Cultural Asset.
Visiting Oga? Check out the Namahage Museum to learn more about the festival's history and see impressive masks and costumes.

[14~15 Feb 2016] Sominsai Festival, Iwate

Sominsai Festival in Iwate photo from Flickr cc by Wada Yoshio

  • Venue: Kokuseki-ji Temple
  • Other Information: Held annually on the 7th day of the Lunar New Year (evening)
  • Access: JR Tohoku Shinkansen towards Morioka. Get off at Mizusawaesashi Station and take the "Z" bus  Haneda Kuroishi line toward Odaira [Esashi-ku]. By car: Take the Tohoku Shinkansen to Mizusawa Esashi Station. Then a 30-minute drive or 20 minutes (10Km) via the  Tohoku Expressway Mizusawa Interchange
Participants in the Sominsai “Naked men and flames festival” in Iwate pray to ward off evil and ask for an abundant harvest. Naked men wearing loincloths write their wishes for the year on lanterns and head to the local river.  First they perform "hadaka mairi” and bathe for purification. Next comes the “hitaki nobori”, where the men climb burning hitaki (stacks of wood and straw). They cheer and shout “jasso, jasso!” (ja=evil, so=fix), hoping to purify their wicked hearts and protect friends and family from misfortune. The “Sominbukuro Contest” marks the festival climax. Participants fight to capture sominbukuro, a sacred bag filled with pieces of wood tossed into the crowd. The winner and family are assured a healthy and happy year.

[15~16 Feb 2016] Kamakura Snow Festival, Yokote, Akita

Kamakura Snow Festival from Flickr cc by Chris Lewis

Hundreds of kamakura (snow huts) are constructed for this festival. Lit with candles, the soft glow reflecting in the winter snow is peaceful and magical. This 400-year-old festival evolved from the custom of burning your New Year talismans and "returning" them to the gods. Inside the kamakura, an altar is set up to honor the water gods and pray for clear, clean water for the new year. (Rice and sake, vital to Akita's economy, depend on good quality water.) Sake and mochi (rice cakes) are offered up to the gods. Visitors are welcomed inside the kamakura to drink sweet fermented rice wine. Chatting and eating mochi and sweets inside the kamakura is a festival highlight. Hundreds of rows of mini kamakura in the Yokote Minami Elementary School yard are an additional and beautiful backdrop to this winter event.

[17~20 Feb 2016] Hachinohe Enburi Festival, Aomori

Enburi Festival, Aomori from Flickr cc by felicito rustique, jr.

  • Venue: Choja-san Shinra Jinja Shrine, Hachinohe City, Aomori
  • Other Information: Enburi is a festival expressing the longing for spring
  • Access: Take the JR Tohoku Shinkansen to Hachinohe Station before transferring to Hon-Hachinohe Station on the JR Hachinohe Line
Tayu dancers, singers, flute-players, drummers, and people ringing bells known as kane form groups of 10-30 members and then parade through the city. Participants practice all year in the lead up to the event.  The groups and spectators celebrate and pray for a good harvest.  In early versions of this festival, the dancers carried farm tools called eburi when performing their dance.
Each dance symbolizes some form of farm work, but all fall into two categories: the slow and sedate naga-enburi or the more lively dosai- enburi.  Participants wear large eboshi (hats) designed in the shape of a horse's neck because the horse was the farmer's dispensable partner in planting and harvesting crops. The groups each start by praying at the Shinra Jinja early in the morning on the 17th, and then set off on their processions through the city. The dances last until night time.

[20 Feb 2016] Saidai-ji Eyo Hadaka Matsuri, Okayama

Hadaka Matsuri, Okayama by Jere Samuli Perttula

  • Venue: Saidai-ji Temple, Okayama
  • Other Information: Nine thousand loincloth-clad men struggle fiercely over a pair of lucky sacred sticks
  • Access: 10 minutes' walk from Saidaiji Station. Take the JR Sanyo Shinkansen to Okayama Station. Transfer to the JR Ako Line and disembark at Saidaiji Station
One of the three most eccentric festivals of Japan! The origin of this festival dates back about 500 years. Worshippers competed to receive paper good luck charms called Go-o thrown by the priest. In the current version, men wearing loincloths fight over a pair of lucky shingi (sacred sticks). At midnight, the lights are all turned off and priests throw the shingi into the crowd. Anyone who gets hold of a shingi is considered lucky and will be blessed with a year of happiness.
Other lucky items thrown into the crowd include 100 bundles of willow strips. Even with 100 chances, these are difficult to catch! Despite the festival taking place in winter, cold water is splashed over the men for purification and to keep the masses from overheating.  Spectators usually crowd around the men  to share in the thrills and danger. If you wish to err on the side of caution, paid seats are available at a safer distance.
February festivals and cultural discoveries add excitement to your travels.  Explore Japan off the beaten path with Odigo to make memories that will last a lifetime.

For more things to see and do check out the Odigo Trips Page 

Lauren Shannon