Take part in Gunma’s liveliest events
Last updated: July 29, 2021
If you have the opportunity to take part in a festival, or “matsuri,” during your visit to Gunma, seize it. The prefecture’s vast spectrum of festivals ranges from traditional matsuri steeped in meaning to fun modern events. The year is dotted with festivals with giant, long-nosed goblins, a snake shrine, or crowds of people dancing with bodypaint on their bellies. These festivals are well worth a special trip and will add a dose of cultural excitement to your Japan journey.
During the colorful, three-day Numata Festival, hundreds of women carry Japan’s largest portable shrine, Dai-tengu Mikoshi, a red-nosed goblin mask, through the city. Tengu are powerful protective beings thought to frighten off bad spirits and bring good luck. Around 30 to 40 smaller portable shrines called mikoshi are also paraded through the streets. Traditional festival music blares, adding to the energy. Around 200,000 people come to Numata every year to partake in the festivities.
When: August 3–5
Intricately decorated, illuminated floats called neputa are paraded through Ota throughout the two-day Ojima Neputa Festival. More than ten fan-shaped floats—some over 7 meters tall—are pulled through the city as drums play and crowds chant. Some of the traditional-style drums are over 3 meters tall.
The festival is a relatively new addition to Gunma, dating back to 1986. The tradition was adopted from Hirosaki in Aomori Prefecture when they established a sister city relationship with the former town of Ojima (now part of Ota). Around 160,000 people visit the area every year to enjoy this spectacle.
When: August 14–15
Gunma is in Japan’s geographic center, and Shibukawa is the self-proclaimed “navel” of the country. Since 1984, the city has celebrated its title with the Shibukawa Heso Festival, a jubilant celebration of the navel. The highlight is the Bellybutton Dance Parade, during which people dance with cartoonish faces painted across their bellies. This unique, lighthearted festival attracts people from across the country.
When: Weekend in summer
Scantily-clad young men gather from 5 am at the Kawarayu Onsen Yukake Festival in January to celebrate the town’s onsen water by throwing buckets of it at each other. The men wear only traditional underwear and shout festive chants.
The excitement of the festival doesn’t end there. The men throw water at suspended hanging paper balls containing live chickens. When the chickens are released, the men scramble to catch them. Sound weird? It is. Fun? Definitely.
When: January 20
Where: Kawarayu Onsen
Daruma dolls, popular around Japan for bringing good luck, originated in Gunma. It is traditional to make a wish on them, then burn them around New Year as a way to appreciate their work in bringing good fortune over the past year. The lively Maebashi Hatsuichi Festival, which dates back to the 1600s, sees thousands of Daruma burned in a bonfire, a parade with dancers and portable shrines, and stalls selling food, plants, and charms.
When: January 9
Every 12 years, Oigami Onsen’s most unusual festival sees a 108-meter-long, snake-shaped portable shrine weighing two tons carried through the town’s streets. In other years, a smaller version is used. The Oigami Onsen Daija Festival was born out of a local legend, which said that Mt. Akagi’s deity (a snake) fought with another deity and cured his wounds in Oigami’s hot water.
When: Second weekend of May
Where: Oigami Onsen
Foxes are held in deity-like esteem in Japan, and various phenomena, such as sunshowers, are sometimes called “fox weddings” or “kitsune no yomeiri.” Residents of the Minowa area of Takasaki hold this annual event that pays homage to that legend while upholding local wedding traditions. During Minowa no Sato no Kitsune no Yomeiri, local people don fox makeup and masks, dress in traditional formal attire, and perform a mock wedding procession.
When: First Sunday of October
Day and night, participants at the Kiryu Yagibushi Festival take to the streets to perform choreographed dances while drums bang out the rhythm. The evening’s events are the most eagerly anticipated when a towering turret of lanterns illuminates the entertainment. Other attractions include portable shrines carried through the streets and a costumed parade.
When: First Friday, Saturday and Sunday in August