Undoubtedly one of Japan’s most historic towns, Kamakura is a place where you can immerse yourself in history and culture. Aside from sightseeing around its monuments, temples, and shrines, travelers shouldn’t miss participating in its numerous festivals, which are held in various places all year round. If you’re planning a trip to this part of the country, it is best to schedule it in time for any one of its major festivals. Here’s a handy guide on what you can expect for each month.
January: Joma-Shinji at Tsurugaoka Hachimangu
The start of the year is always a time of celebration. As a popular tradition called Hatsumode, many locals flock to shrines and temples to ask for blessings for the year ahead. In Kamakura’s main shrine, Tsurugaoka Hachimangu, several rites are performed during the first week including the Joma-Shinji. It is a ritual to drive away evil spirits through sacred arrows, where archers in traditional costumes shoot at a target with the word “devil” painted at the back of it. This practice dates back to the era when Kamakura was still the military capital of Japan.
Schedule: Every January 5th
February: Setsubun Festival at Tsurugaoka Hachimangu, Kamakuragu, and Kenchoji Temple
Setsubun Festival celebrates the changing of the seasons from winter to spring. It is held in various shrines (Tsurugaoka Hachiman and Kamakuragu) and temples (Kenchoji Temple) on February 3rd and is one of the most fun festivals to attend, primarily because you can actively participate in it. There are two special ceremonies held on this day to ward off evil spirits – the Meigen (plucking of bow strings) and the Mamemaki (scattering of beans). The latter is highly anticipated because the beans are thrown into the crowd and catching them is believed to be a sign of good luck.
Schedule: Every February 3rd
April: Kamakura Festival
This town-wide festival is the biggest and most attended of all festivals in Kamakura. It is a week-long celebration marked with various events in different venues around town. Highlights include the Shizuka No Mai dance performance on the second Sunday of April and Yabusame or archery on horseback on the third Sunday of April. There are also parades, open air tea ceremony, music performances, food stall set-up, and other cultural events held throughout the week.
Schedule: Every 2nd Sunday to 3rd Sunday of April
Website: http://www.kamakura-info.jp/topics/49210 (Japanese only)
May: Shobu-Sai Festival at Tsurugaoka Hachimangu
Shobu-Sai Festival or Iris Festival is especially for the kids. It coincides with Japan’s Children’s Day holiday, and during this time, purification ceremonies are conducted to grant them health and longevity. It is also a time to catch a Bugaku performance – an ancient court dance and music ritual performed as an offering to the shrine deities.
Schedule: Every May 5th
June: Ooharae Festival at Tsurugaoka Hachimangu
One of the most important Shinto rituals, Ooharae Festival is all about cleansing oneself of all physical and spiritual defilement. To do so, you will have to write your name on a doll-shaped sheet of paper and let it float on water. It is then culminated by an amulet-burning ceremony, which happens at dusk.
Schedule: Every June 30th
August: Bonbori Festival at Tsurugaoka Hachimangu
Bonbori Festival is that time of the year when Tsurugaoka Hachiman is decorated with and lit up by bonbori paper lanterns. Around 400 of these lanterns line the pathway to the shrine, all of which are beautifully handmade and designed by local artists. Work submissions include calligraphy, hand-drawn pictures, and even poems.
Schedule: From the first day of autumn to August 9th
September: Reitai-Sai at Tsurugaoka Hachimangu
The Reitai-Sai is the major annual festival of Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine. Over a period of three days, the shrine hosts a number of events and rituals such as portable shrine processions, Yabusame, and purification ceremonies. The main rite happens on the second day of the festival, where priests, shrine maidens, and selected local girls participate in a procession to bring offerings.
Schedule: Every September 14th to 16th
September: Menkake Gyoretsu at Goryo Shrine
Menkake Gyoretsu is one of the more unique festivals to attend in Kamakura. It is not a particularly large event compared to the other ones in this list, but it sure is interesting. It involves a parade of people wearing grotesque masks said to be over 200 years old. The origins of the festival are unkown, but it is celebrated to ask deities for a bountiful harvest for the year.
Schedule: Every September 18th
October: Takiginou at Kamakuragu
If you have a particular interest in Noh performances, this festival is a must-see. Takiginou is bonfire Noh, where this traditional form of drama is staged outdoors in the evening darkness amid the illuminations of burning torches. Tickets must be reserved in advance via the Kamakura City Tourist Association.
Schedule: Every October 8th and 9th
December: Mikagura at Tsurugaoka Hachimangu
The Mikagura is an ancient ceremony of music and dance known for its long tradition and high artistic quality. It is performed by shrine maidens in the glow of bonfires and is staged every year on Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine’s foundation day.
Schedule: Every September 16th
December: Toshinoichi at Hasedera Temple
To close the year in a festive mood, Hasedera Temple celebrates with a year-end market fair called Toshinoichi. On this day, the street that leads to the shrine is lined with food stalls and shops that sell good luck charms. Popular haunts during this time are lucky rakes and Daruma dolls.
Schedule: Every December 18th
Website: http://www.hasedera.jp/event/ (Japanese only)
Thumbnail image is from Flickr.