Although it’s a quieter month than most on the festival front, there are still plenty of fiery festivals and New Year celebrations to choose from across the country!

Thanks to their love affair with LEDs, you can find plenty of long-running illumination events across Japan too, especially in Osaka and Kyoto. If you’re lookig to plan ahead, there are some great winter festivals around the corner like the Sapporo Snow Festival as well as some great local alternatives.

Nijo-jo Castle Special Opening | Kyoto

nijo castle garden
Photo by K-ro 27 used under CC

Rarely open to the public, the gardens of Nijo-jo Castle are usually only seen from higher viewpoints, but for these few days you can wander through them for the reasonable sum of ¥400. With a Japanese designs and perfect maintenance, this is a lovely chance to see traditional gardens at their best, and adds a nice treat to your castle visit.

Toka Ebisu | Kyoto

Toka ebisu festival
Photo by Chi Gondo used under CC

This five-day celebration of the God of Prosperity involves plenty of lucky bamboo grass and charms which are bought in hopes of better luck for the coming year. At Ebisu Shrine in Gion there are geisha handing out lucky grass, shrine maidens performing purifying rituals and plenty of food stalls and ceremonies to enjoy. If you’re hopping to improve your luck next year, be sure to throw some coins in the box, pray to Ebisu-san and knock on the wooden boards to get his attention, as he’s a little deaf, as legend has it.

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Nozawa Fire Festival  |  Nagano

Photo by U-ichiro Murakami used under CC

One of the three greatest fire festivals in Japan, the Nozawa Fire Festival takes place on the 15th of January every year. Men from the village who are aged either 25 or 42 have the responsibility of defending the tower erected in the center as villagers rush to burn it in the night. The younger men fight them at the base while the older men defend from the top. Eventually the tower is burned and it is a truly spectacular sight.

Shittenoji Doyadoya Festival |  Osaka

Doyadoya Festival Osaka
Photo by Ki used under CC

An unusual and highly energetic festival, the Doyadoya Festival involves local high-school boys in loin-cloths competing intensely for banknotes while being doused in very cold water. With historical ties to the temple, local schools have teams to take part and it is a competitive venture, with rallying cries of “doya doya” yelled from participants during the freezing ordeal. The festival is very popular so arrive in the morning if you want a good spot.

Oni Hashiri  |  Nara

Oni Hashiri Nara
Photo by sk used under CC

What could be better than ogres with flaming torches? Not much! So head down to Nara for an unusual festival that scares away evil spirits  from the temple hall with drums, trumpets and bells. The festival has a history dating back over 500 years and is considered a national cultural event of historical importance. If the ogres successfully scare away the demons in time, there will be good fortune for the year. At 4pm the first demon run begins (without torches), and the main event is at 9pm (with flaming torches).

Miyoshi Bonden Matsuri |   Akita

Photo by OiMax used under CC

Enjoy the competitive spectacle of men carrying large bamboo baskets (bonden) as they battle to be the first to the shrine in hope of power and fortune. The bonden are markers for gods descending into the world and are brightly decorated, with charms hanging from them that onlookers reach out to touch, hoping to absorb some of their power. The festival is an early one, peaking at around midday, so be there early!

Wakakusa Yamayaki  |  Nara

Wakakusa Yamayaki
Photo by N Whitely used under CC

One of the most impressive sights in Kansai, the Wakakusa Yamayaki Festival sees an entire mountainside burned along with bonfires and fireworks. Origins for the festival range from tricky land disputes to efforts at boar-removal and even ghost-frightening, but whatever the cause, the festival is a fantastic experience. With entertainment including a rice-cracker throwing competition and food stalls from 12pm, the bonfire procession will begin at around 5pm.

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