The busiest seasons in Nara are spring and autumn, when visitors flock to see its natural beauty. Summer is the time when you can connect closely with ancient Japan. In August, every town and village will have a summer festival with Bon dancing outdoors, performed to welcome the spirits of the deceased, who return to visit their relatives for a few days.
Beat the Heat
Summer is rich in natural beauty, from flowers to fireflies. It is also the season of fireworks, when you can see many young people dressed in cool, colourful cotton yukata. If you want to beat the heat, head down to Dorogawa and Totsukawa, where the summer temperatures average around 26 Celsius.
For many people, especially kids, one of the best ways to cool off is with a serving of kakigori. Shaved ice is topped with a choice of flavoured syrups, powdered matcha tea or soy bean powder and even sweet adzuki beans, making for a cooling treat. You’ll find kakigori on the menu at most Naramachi cafes in summer.
As a testament to the Japanese love affair for kakigori in summer, there is even a festival devoted to the refreshing treat. What better venue than Himurojinja Shrine, where the god of ice is enshrined.
In Gojo, Kitayama Gyunyuten sells soy milk ice cream, frozen persimmons and ice monaka; the Japanese version of an ice cream sandwich. You can take your frozen treat down to the river and enjoy the cool breeze.
From late July to late August, there are fireworks festivals across Nara. Down south where the air is especially clear, the Dorogawa Gyoja Festival is very atmospheric. If you’re staying in a local ryokan, you can dress in a cotton yukata and watch the fireworks and the parade of costumed characters from the front veranda, then stroll the lantern-lit streets.
Around August 20, all the villages around Totsukawa come together for a huge Bon dance festival, near the Totsukawa Onsen Hotel Subaru. The whole area is lit with lanterns and the air filled with traditional music for this historic festival, protected by the government as one of Japan’s intangible cultural assets. The evening finishes with fireworks.
Summer is the time when the spirits of the ancestors are believed to return home, so it’s not surprising that ghost stories are popular at this time. Many temples are lit up at night for summer festivals, adding to the beautiful, spooky atmosphere. Don't miss the Chugen Mantoro Lantern Festival at Kasugataisha Shrine, when all the lanterns at the shrine and along the forest paths are lit on August 14 - 15, in a festival that has continued for 800 years.
Natural lights can also be seen in summer, when fireflies flit and glide around rivers and glades in late June. You can see them on cool evenings around Todaiji Temple. Further afield, Totsukawa, renowned for its clean waters, is a famous place to see fireflies.
A summer must-see, the beautiful, fleeting fireflies are unforgettable.