Things get hot at the Abare Matsuri (Photo: Ashley Hirasuna / Metropolis)

Ten of Japan's Weirdest Events

Expect to find these bizarre festivals only in Japan

Things get hot at the Abare Matsuri (Photo: Ashley Hirasuna / Metropolis)
Serena Ogawa   - 10 min read

Abroad, Japan has an image as a country filled with strange things. Any visitor or local will tell you that many of these stereotypes are overinflated, but you may be surprised to learn of these decidedly weird festivals and events. These ten make the list for the most unique festival and they’re sure to make you look twice. Here are some events you'll only see in Japan:

January: Hanamaki Souminsai

Run, boys--for good fortune!
Run, boys--for good fortune! (Photo: Japan Travel)

Travel to Mount Koshio in Iwate to partake in mochi pounding and be blessed by the local Shinto priest. Then get ready to watch the trek of half-clad men trek through snow and icy winds. As they climb the mountain, flame-lit torch in hand, they determinedly hold a paper blessing in their mouth. At the end of their climb, the men fight—sometimes literally—over a good-luck pouch. It’s said that whoever ends up with the pouch will enjoy a prosperous year.

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February: Kasedori Matsuri

The Kasedori Festival birds dancing in the streets
The Kasedori Festival birds dancing in the streets (Photo: f_a_r_e_w_e_l_l / CC BY-SA 2.0)

This unusual festival dates back to the 1600s. The “Strawbird Festival” of Kaminoyama, Yamagata, has grown men dressed up in odd costumes made of straw shouting out like birds. The straw-pile costumes offer little warmth as the men are showered with cold water, which often freezes to the straw—but they also enjoy plenty of sake on their wild dance and bird-calling through the castle town. This prosperity festival is certain to bring laughter to any who watch.

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February: Okayama's Naked Man Festival

It's warm enough in that crowd to fight off the winter chill
It's warm enough in that crowd to fight off the winter chill (Photo: Mstyslav Chernov / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Famous around the world, this festival sees some 40,000 annual participants. The men strip down to their fundoshi loincloth and tabi socks, link arms, and run through the city in near sub-zero temperatures. All this for a chance at catching lucky bamboo sticks in order to have a prosperous year ahead. In the midst of the bustling, half-naked crowd, the men can barely move as they jostle this way and that, fighting for the lucky prizes. It’s well worth a visit—if you’re brave, why not participate?

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April: Kanamara Matsuri

This popular and hilarious festival draws huge crowds
This popular and hilarious festival draws huge crowds (Photo: Japan Travel)

Not for the faint of heart or the demure, the Kanamara Festival is well-known around the world for being the penis festival. The festival draws huge crowds to Kawasaki, Kanagawa, as phallus fans can go crazy over candy, illustrations, vegetables, and more—all centering around the male organ. Although there are colliding thoughts about why the festival takes place—some say it’s to ward off STDs and others say it’s to pray for successful childbirth—everyone can agree it’s a riot to see the bright pink penis mikoshi carried through the streets.

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April: Nakizumo Matsuri

Babies at the ready! One-two-cry!
Babies at the ready! One-two-cry! (Photo: Japan Travel)

Get your babies ready for the “Crying Baby Festival” at Sensoji Temple in Asakusa, Tokyo. Every year, one hundred babies showdown for loudest crier. The babes are each carried by a sumo wrestler and whoever cries first is the winner. The belief is that crying babies grow up strong and healthy. If one contestant proves too stubborn or stoic to cry, the judge will don a red tengu mask and frighten the infant to tears. Get ready for a festival experience a bit louder than usual.

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April: Onbashira Matsuri

Riding a log seems a dangerous way to prove your bravery
Riding a log seems a dangerous way to prove your bravery (Photo: Japan Travel)

You might have to wait a while for this next festival as the Onbashira Matsuri happens only once every six years. During this event, as many as 16 fire trees are harvested to replace the pillars of Suwa Grand Shrine. The logs are transported over dangerous terrain and the brave men of the area ride atop them to demonstrate their valor. It can be a dangerous event, with some deaths in past years, but is no less exhilarating.

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June: Kajiki Spider Fighting Festival

This festival is not for the arachnophobic
This festival is not for the arachnophobic (Photo: Japan Travel)

The Kumo Gassen is a spider-fighting festival that dates back 400 years. At this unusual festival, small arachnids—raised by families and children—battle it out for top spider. Arachnophobes beware, this festival isn’t for the weak of heart. These spiders jump, bite, spin webs, and use all their creepy, crawly moves to win the fight. The fights seldom end in death as the judges break up the fights—by hand—once a winner is declared.

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July: Doronko Matsuri

Get messy at the Doronko Festival
Get messy at the Doronko Festival (Photo: Japan Travel)

The “Mud Festival” is a great way to enjoy the hot, muggy days of July at Mishima Shrine. This festival has multiple events and is rife with photographers. The day begins with bulls plowing the muddy paddy while pulling old-fashioned wooden plows. There is a little disorder as the bulls sometimes go astray. After the bulls, the bean planters follow; the procession of men looks more than a little silly as they wade through the now stinky water to cast beans and rice husks onto the field. Next comes a ceremony of offerings with drums and even a guest appearance from a demon. This event is a long procession of bizarre and makes for some great photos.

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July: Abare Matsuri

Things get hot at the Abare Matsuri
Things get hot at the Abare Matsuri (Photo: Ashley Hirasuna / Metropolis)

Things heat up in Ishikawa at Yasaka Shrine’s wild “Rampage Festival” (also known as Fire & Violence Festival). True to its name, the festival is filled with fire and a lively—almost violent—atmosphere. Fire is set to a huge log-pillar at the pier and large festival lanterns are carried and paraded around as the blazing fire sparks over spectators. The following day, portable shrines are bathed in the sea—violently—and then smashed to pieces for a bonfire.

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October: Paantu Matsuri

Paantu is ready to bless you with a smear of mud
Paantu is ready to bless you with a smear of mud (Photo: Japan Travel)

A messy and spiritual festival is the Paantu Matsuri of Okinawa. Let your spirit be cleansed by the Paantu spirit creature that visits from the mountains. These spirits are made of mud and sticks and leaves; they bring good fortune and health to anyone smeared with their mud. It’s a weird festival that’s drawn complaints in recent years as the number of tourists increases. It’s important to stay open to receiving the Paantu’s blessing of mud. Besides, what’s a little mud for good fortune and health?

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Serena Ogawa

Serena Ogawa @serena.ogawa

Associate Editor for Japan Travel.