Japanese festivals come in all sorts of forms: fireworks, parades, formal and informal entertainment, dances, and more. I like going to festivals, they’re interesting, fun, and visually visceral. I’ve learned a lot about festivals here, so much so that when I go back home or to other countries I’m kind of surprised that my knowledge of what to do doesn’t work there.
Before I begin, a few caveats. First, this obviously doesn’t encompass all festivals. For the most part, these tips will be for the larger, more famous festivals. Second, this mostly applies to festivals that have some kind of scheduled event (like a parade) where there aren’t any paid seats (or you do want to shell out for them). Finally, a lot of these tips revolve around the fact that a) I’m a photographer so I want to be in a good position, and b) I’m short (so I need to be in a good position to see anything).
Go early. I mean really early. If you can, be at the location at sunrise, and secure your spot with a small tarp (bring something to weigh it down). A lot of photographers will place their tripod(s) there, including ladders, so you’ll have a good idea of what you are up against if you end up behind them. If you are travelling with someone, great — you can take turns guarding the spot (and your stuff) over the course of the day. Bring suncreen, food, and water, and make sure to make friends with the people around you, so that if you do need to leave (usually for a pee break), they’ll watch out for your things.
Even if the fireworks are not very big or famous (to you), the crowds will still be very large. People love the whole atmosphere of a fireworks festival, from getting dressed in a yukata to eating street food to catching up with friends. And they go early, so be prepared.
One of the biggest (and I think the most spectacular) fireworks festivals in Japan are the Miyajima Fireworks, which occur annually on August 14th. I like them because they’re lit from the water, and the huge red torii gate provides an amazing backdrop (frontdrop?) to the fireworks. The first time I went was with friends, and we got there around 4 in the afternoon (fireworks start at 8:10 p.m.). Where were we able to get a spot? Up on the hill behind some trees. We could kind of see a big stone torii gate (but not the red one) behind the trees and some sparks going off behind it. It was fun but we didn’t see a lot of fireworks. And even though we were closer to the ferry terminal than most, it still took two hours to get on one, because the crowds were so large (another tip: if you can, stay on the island, no matter the cost, to avoid this). A few years later I went really early, caught the first ferry to the island, and was a bit dismayed to see all the best spots taken by tripod-wielding photographers. Decided to camp out on the other side of the shrine, only to be told late in the day that I wouldn’t get the fireworks exploding behind the red torii gate from my location (a useful app that didn’t exist then but would help with this is: TPE). In the end it didn’t matter, because the tide went out (another tip: check tide information for anything having to do with water/the coast) and people flooded down to the mud flats and we got our photos from there.
Photographer’s Tips: Naturally, bring lots of film or memory cards for your camera. A tripod is a must, as is a shutter release for you camera, and a level and small torch are really useful for finding things in the dark and making sure your camera is level (important if you have the horizon in your photo). Bring wide angle lenses — the sky is big, and so are Japanese fireworks. Bring a black card (or a hat) to cover the lens while you are photographing fireworks. That way you can keep the lens open (on bulb setting) and get multiple bursts in one frame. A note on bursts: this may seem obvious, but white bursts are really bright. The highlights (if any) will burn out quickly if you keep your lens open to long, or have to many white bursts on the same frame. Watch the fireworks trails as they go up and be ready to remove the card (or put it back) depending on what colour the bursts are.
Parades, Dances, and other “showcase” Festivals:
The spectacular floats of the Aomori Nebuta, the traditional processions of the Aoi Matsuri in Kyoto, and the fun-loving dances of the Tokushima Awa-odori share many common features: they’re big, they’re famous, and they draw huge crowds. Big or small, there are a few things you can do to make the most of these festivals.
First of all, if you are planning to see a big festival, book your hotels well in advance. Six months is a good time frame. Note: Some hotels don’t allow bookings more than 3 months in advance, but if you become a member (usually free) you can book six months in advance. In big cities like Tokyo and Kyoto you might be alright, even with a last minute booking, but in smaller, more provincial cities you’ll have a tough time.
Second, it’s worth checking if there is paid seating along the parade route. Unless you enjoy standing (for hours) or sitting on concrete (for hours), this is an easy solution to getting a good view. Check the festival website for information, especially about when they open sales for seats (usually about a month in advance). If there isn’t any paid seating, or you don’t want to pay for it, then you can do what the locals do: go early, and stake out a spot. In some places you can lay your tarp down (or tape off the area) and then you can come back when you ready. In others there may be no place to sit down, so you will have to stand for hours to claim your spot. If the police end up closing the street to traffic, you can wait at those locations and then rush for a spot along the road for front seat viewing. In all situations (where sitting is involved), bring a tarp or plastic bag or something to put between yourself and the road/sidewalk. On top of that, having a small pillow or low folding-chair to sit on will definitely be more comfortable. I found a square folding pillow in Aomori that became a real lifesaver for me, even on the hard plastic chairs that come with roadside seating. Of course, if you are late (or tall), you may not have to bother with this at all, as you’ll be able to see from behind all the people — but be aware that the sidewalk “police” may force you to move if you are blocking pedestrian traffic in any way.
While it’s fun to get food from the yatai stalls that spring up everywhere when there’s a festival on, if you are vegetarian or want somewhat of a healthy meal, you’d be better off bringing something yourself. Drinks (especially alcohol) will be considerably cheaper if you buy it from the convenience stores than from a stall. If you require getting back to your hotel by public transportation, especially trains, make sure you know how often they run (and when the last one is). Sometimes extra buses/ferries/trains will be run, but not necessarily. Leave plenty of time to get back to the station, since you will be fighting crowds not only on the streets, but at the station itself (buy your tickets beforehand, if possible, to save a little hassle).