As the 2020 Olympics draw near, tourists around the world are excitedly planning once-in-a-lifetime trips to Japan. But beyond the Olympic stadiums, Japan's bustling cities and peaceful mountain retreats have gifts to offer every kind of traveler. Visitors looking to experience local Japanese culture are especially in luck this year. Four festivals held in different parts of central Japan provide glimpses into Japanese music, food, history, and craftsmanship. Whether you want to be dazzled by blazing fire shows, tour factories usually closed to the public, move to the beats of some of the country’s best traditional drummers, or take in the spectacle of painted floats battling in the streets, there’s a festival happening in Japan for you. Below, we’ve rounded up four can’t-miss festivals happening in 2020.
Taiko drumming has a rich history in Japan—since the 6th century, the distinctive music has been part of religious ceremonies, theatrical performances, and popular culture. Kodō, the country’s most famous taiko group, has been playing around the world since 1981, spending as many as eight months a year bringing their music to sold-out arenas and stadiums in Europe and the United States.
But in August, there’s only one place to hear Kodo: the three-day long Earth Celebration on Sado, the Niigata island Kodō calls home. In addition to performances from taiko legends, the festival offers visitors the chance to take drumming workshops, learn traditional dances, and explore the island of Sado itself, enjoying local foods and handicrafts and observing some of the many rare birds that inhabit the landscape. The highlight of each night is a live Kodō performance under the stars at Harbour Market, right next to Sado’s Ogi Point.
Getting to Sado Island from other destinations within Japan is easy: Joetsu Shinkansen bullet train runs from Tokyo to Niigata JR station. From there, it’s a short taxi ride to the main port of Niigata, where you can catch a ferry to Sado.
Tsubame-Sanjo Factory Festival
Knives, household tools, and tableware all have a rich history tied to the Tsubame-Sanjo region of Niigata, on the northwestern coast of Japan. Family-run factories have been manufacturing essential products there for decades. Cutlery produced in the region is so prized, it even graces the banquet tables of the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony in Stockholm. In October 2020, those factories will give visitors a rare chance to see that manufacturing for themselves. As part of the Tsubame-Sanjo Factory Festival, more than 100 local businesses will open their doors and invite tourists in to observe how the items produced in Tsubame-Sanjo go from concept to finished product. Some factories even hold hands-on demonstrations, where visitors get to learn firsthand what goes into the metalworking, blacksmithing, and carpentry that makes the region such an important part of the Japanese economy.
From Tokyo, the route to Tsubame-Sanjo is direct: spend about two hours on the Joetsu Shinkansen bullet train.
Nozawa Onsen Fire Festival
There’s truly nothing like the Nozawa Onsen Fire Festival, held each January in the ski and hot spring destination near Nagano.
A Shinto celebration dating back centuries, the festival is meant to bring a good harvest and prosperity for the year ahead. During the festival, male villagers between the ages of 25 and 42 battle over a temporary shrine, and the fire-filled clash is a thrilling sight on the dark, cold January night. Many locals carry bamboo cups filled with sake around their necks, offering nips to whomever they meet, and participants and tourists fill up on oyaki, grilled dough pockets stuffed with piping-hot savory fillings. The festival is a can’t-miss part of a winter excursion to Nozawa Onsen, which is itself a can’t-miss part of a cold-weather trip to Japan. The area’s hot springs are legendary, and the skiing is popular with snow sport fans around the world.
To get to the fiery festival (and soothing hot springs), take Hokuriku Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo to IIyama JR station. From there, the Nozawa Onsen Liner bus gets you to Nozawa Onsen hot springs in 30 minutes.
Iwase Hikiyama Festival
During the day, the Iwase Hikiyama Festival is a chance to admire the artistry of the event’s thirteen chosen floats as they sail around the springtime streets of Toyama, a coastal city on the shores of the Sea of Japan. The floats, topped with huge paper lanterns and decorated with elaborate paintings, often reference local customs and current affairs, and are accompanied by a soundtrack of traditional music.
At the climax of the festival, the nighttime “Hikiai,” the floats transform into fierce competitors, colliding on the streets as their makers try to best opponents and prove their strength. Prizes are given to the winners and to those who decorate the most intricate floats.
Getting to the festival from Tokyo is direct—take the JR Hokuriku Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo to Toyama JR station. The main route is within walking distance of the station.