'Wasshoi'! All About Japanese Festivals

Updated on October 18, 2017
PJLeonard profile image

PJ Leonard is an aspiring fiction author who has lived in Japan since 2010. He's a Tokyo office worker by day, frantic writer by night.

Get Your Festival On!

If you visit Japan, you should see a festival. No, I don't mean that as a strong recommendation; I mean that there's such a vast array of festivals in Japan that you would have to actively go out of your way to avoid them. Not that you'd want to though, because Japanese festivals are awesome.

A 'mikoshi' carried on the shoulders of the locals around town.
A 'mikoshi' carried on the shoulders of the locals around town.

What Are Japanese Festivals?

In Japan, festivals are known as ‘Matsuri’ (祭), and are hard to pin down and define because of their sheer variety. But here’s the basic premise: Japan is full of Shinto Shrines (see picture below). These shrines house the local Kami (a ‘God’ of sorts). Once a year, the local area surrounding the shrine holds a street party in the Kami’s honor. The Kami is lifted out of the shrine into a portable ‘Mikoshi’ (神輿, see picture above) that is then carried around the party so the Kami can live it up with the mortals.

The Torii gate to a Shinto Shrine in Toyama City.
The Torii gate to a Shinto Shrine in Toyama City.

What Is "Wasshoi"?

"Wasshoi" is the distinctive chant of many a festival across Japan, usually by the people who are carrying the mikoshi or wheeling the dashi around town. The exact meaning is shrouded in mystery and is debated to this day, but one popular theory is that is means "Carry Peace" (as the "Wa" part is the Japanese word for "peace"). Nowadays, "wasshoi!" may be devoid of any explicit meaning, but is a popular word to yell when giving the kami the old heave-ho!

The Endless Variety

That's the general idea. Beyond that, there's an endless number of interpretations and flavours. In Kyoto, the Gion Matsuri takes over the downtown area with giant floats known as a ‘dashi’ (山車), in a sort of Japanese-style Macy's Thanksgiving Parade. In the sleepy town of Minakami in the mountains north of Tokyo, each club or group (from the school's basketball club to the old people's home) strut down the main street in a choreographed dance. And up on the Noto peninsula, where a tiny town holds their local Kami in contempt for spoiling their crops for many years, the locals set fire to the mikoshi, smash it and drown it in the river. As if they're trying out the different Pokémon move types to see which is ‘Super Effective!’ against Kami.

Not sure if drowning and setting it on fire will work together, guys.
Not sure if drowning and setting it on fire will work together, guys.

Matsuri Munchies

The other hallmark of festivals are the food stalls that line the streets, with their colorful plastic awnings and smoke billowing into the crowds. These are called ‘Yatai’ (屋台). Typical offerings of Yatai revolve around street food such as yakisoba, okonomiyaki, fried chicken (aka. ‘Karaage’) and, for some reason, cucumbers on sticks. Coconut shy-style stalls are also paper, where you can sink money into a blatantly rigged shooting game with a false hope of winning prizes. Everyone knows it's rigged, but that's all part of the fun, right? Right?

A line of food stalls, known as 'Yatai'.
A line of food stalls, known as 'Yatai'.

Big Ones, Small Ones...

From the epic celebrations that consume a whole city for weekend to the quaint little get togethers of a farming village that barely fill the space of one field (like the town where I lived from 2010 to 2012, ah the memories!), festivals of all shapes and sizes define the landscape of events in Japan, especially in the summer months. Even every single school up and down the land has their own Festival, known as a ‘Bunkasai’ (文化祭). I recently went to the festival of the nearby High School, and the kids there had effectively transformed the school building into a theme park, with every classroom housing a different event to try, food to taste, or game to play.

Wearing the traditional Yukata is a popular garb for festival time.
Wearing the traditional Yukata is a popular garb for festival time.


Festivals are part of the social and cultural fabric here, which means that - yep - they’re big business too. Let’s say a supermarket has a themed marketing campaign, which is centered around foodstuffs from Hokkaido. You can bet that the campaign will be called ‘Hokkaido Matsuri’. Or if it's themed around a foreign country, for example France, it will probably be called フランスフェス (France Fest). Staff will be on hand to shout and cheer on the wares and whip up a Matsuri-esque atmosphere.

Did You Know?

While there may be traditions and rituals, these festivals are by no means serious or somber. If there is one thing they all have in common, it's 'lively'. Oh, and alcohol. Lots of alcohol. It's a rare occasion when the typically uptight Japanese relax and let loose. So get involved and enjoy!

The Life of the Party

Cynicism aside, I love a good Matsuri. The long history of festivals in Japan coupled with the sheer proliferation of them mean that no two festivals are the same. The heady mix of culture, religion and lively bonhomie makes me something a Matsuri chaser. It also brings together a community, even if that community seems to have long since disbanded. Recently, my wife and I visited the aforementioned Minakami, an onsen town tucked away in the Mountains of Gunma Prefecture. The town itself is well past its heyday, with many abandoned buildings and those that remain looking rundown, to put it politely. Yet the annual festival was that weekend, and this dilapidated town burst into life with music, dancing, laughing and fun. Exactly what a festival should be. The local Kami should be very proud.

Which Matsuri?

Alright, so I've whet your appetite for seeing a good festival. But hold your horses before you don a "Happi" coat and tie that "Hachimaki" headband on! Which festival should you go to?

Well, you can't really go wrong with any festival, and attendance is always free. That being said, here's three festivals in the Kanto region (the area surrounding Tokyo) to give you a taste of what to expect...

Kumagaya Uchiwa Matsuri

This vast Festival takes place in Kumagaya, about one hour north of Tokyo, in the sweltering heat of mid-July. Most festivals usually involve just the local area, but not this one: the entire city is consumed by matsuri-fever, as each neighborhood rolls out their festival float ‘dashi’ to be paraded at a leisurely pace towards the city center. The whole shebang is spread across three days, culminating on the final day when all neighborhood floats gather at a giant crossroads just north of the train station to clash cymbals, bash taiko drums and yell speeches at one another.

Kawagoe Matsuri

Another festival just north of Tokyo, this one takes place in the much more agreeable weather of October. The Kawagoe Matsuri also boasts an impressive array of traditional dashi marching through the streets, but with two exciting differences: first, the focal point of the festival takes place in the famed Nakacho district, which is packed with buildings and structures that have been around since the Edo period. Seeing the festival march past the old shops and houses is a surefire way imagine yourself in a Japanese time warp.

The second cool addition are the acrobatic firefighters. No, really. Watch these daredevils climb ladders as tall as buildings and throw some heart-pounding shapes.

Be warned though: this festival gets very crowded. It's easy to escape those crowds by slipping into the quiet backstreets, however.

Chichibu Night Festival

One of the three great festivals of Japan, the Chichibu Night Festival takes place during—as you may have guessed—the evening, but also during the cold depths of December. Couple that with the fact that Chichibu is nestled within the mountain ranges north-west of Tokyo, and it means you’ll need to dress warm. It makes for an atmosphere very different to the standard summer festival: steam billowing from the ‘dashi’ becomes a welcome source of heat, and those crowds are less of a sweat drenched annoyance.

Chichibu rewards those who brave the chills with a double-whammy of festival goodness: a street festival and fireworks. Just be sure to not miss the last train back to wherever you are staying!

© 2017 PJ Leonard


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No comments yet.


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, wanderwisdom.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://maven.io/company/pages/privacy

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)