International Destinations: 12 Crazy Festivals for 2016

Shawn Forno

Timing is everything when it comes to mind-blowing travel, so to help you plan an amazing travel calendar for 2016, we’ve compiled the ultimate list of epic festivals and events across the globe for every single month of 2016.

There’s no time to waste, get out there!

January

Nozawa Onsen Fire Festival

fire festival Japan January

This festival is, essentially, a sake fueled fire fight. Literally.

First, villagers painstakingly build a big wooden shaden (temple). Then, everyone gets obliterated on sake and lights a bunch of torches. Sounds good so far.

Next, all the 42-year old men climb to the top of this rickety temple, where they sing, dance, and proceed to get even more drunk. At the bottom of the temple, all the 25-year old men “guard” the 42-year olds (25 and 42 are unlucky ages, and clearly must be punished by participating in this suicidal festival).

Then, after people are good and drunk, everyone storms the temple with torches and tries to light it on fire, which they always do. That’s it.

If that’s not awesome enough for you, Nozawa Onsen is a hot spring mecca and ski town, so you can relax with a soak after you hit the slopes. Or, just try to murder some middle-aged men in a pyrotechnic drunken fever dream. Your call.

Mellow Alternative: Harbin Ice Festival (Harbin, China/Jan 6-8)

February

Battle of the Oranges

festival

If you drew a Venn diagram of “Freedom” and “1 million pounds of oranges,” the place where they’d intersect is the Battaglia delle Arance (Battle of the Oranges) festival in northern Italy each February.

Commemorating the people’s uprising against a tyrannical Lord in the 12th century, this festival has dark roots. When the Lord of the town tried to exercise his “prima nocta” rights with the miller’s daughter, Violetta, the night before her wedding, she flipped the script and straight up decapitated him. Right on. What followed was a full-fledged rebellion.

festival battle of the oranges

The present day celebration honors Violetta by encouraging 4,000 people, divided into 9 teams, into pelting cart staffed by “the Lord’s men” with oranges as they drive through the town. These are the guys in helmets.

Technically, just a spectator’s sport, it’s totally cool for you to remove your red beret (no hitsies when you’re wearing one) and join the fray. Just be warned, things can get pretty real when several thousand drunk Italians are lobbing citrus fruits at imaginary tyrants.

Mellow Alternative: Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival, Taiwan (Full moon, Feb 2016)
March

Holi

I’ve had the distinct pleasure of celebrating Holi in India. At a wedding. It was amazing.

festival Holi

This ancient Spring festival is an exuberant outpouring of color,  joy, and mischief that’s been a part of India since the 7th century.

The festival is about as straight-forward as it gets:

  1. Buy some colored dye (super cheap)
  2. Throw it at strangers’ faces
  3. Laugh
  4. Repeat

Holi is all about losing yourself in the coming Spring, so don’t be afraid to get out there and mix it up. Just memorize this phrase: “Bura no mano, Holi Hai!” (“Never mind, it’s Holi!”). It’ll get you out of any jams your enthusiasm gets you into.

Seriously, Holi is a one of a kind festival. Don’t be duped by “color runs;” go to India and experience the real deal. Also, don’t wear anything nice, or bring an expensive camera to the fray.

Mellow Alternative: St. Patrick’s Day, Dublin (March 17, 2016). Hahahahahaha!!

April

Japan is so awesome, I have to highlight two April festivals.

Kawasaki’s Kanamara Matsuri (Festival of the Iron Phallus)

phallus festival

Not only is the Kanamara Matsuri a 400-year old festival that genuinely celebrates how rad the penis is—it includes a penis parade. With props.

Commemorating a blacksmith who crafted iron dildos to help Japanese prostitutes ward off their vagina dentata (toothed vagina! a.k.a “syphilis”) this festival is all about genital positivity.

Men and women alike wear kimonos, there’s a penis-shaped seesaw, and penis carving contests are everywhere. Plus, all the proceeds go to HIV research. Well done, Japan.

Onbashira (Log Riding Festival)

onbashira festival

Held only once every six years, the Onbashira log riding festival is Japan’s oldest festival (1,200 years, uninterrupted!) and easily it’s most dangerous.

Essentially the festival starts when hundreds of men cut down 16 massive trees (each weighing over 10 tons). The participants then proceed to drag each tree—by hand—over gnarly terrain, up and down steep hills, and eventually back to town where they will be raised at the four corners of four temples.

This festival celebrates masculinity, honor, and tradition. Unfortunately, it’s just a spectator sport for foreigners.

Mellow Alternative: Songkran, Chiang Mai (April 13-15, 2016). Water fights are just so wholesome.

May

Cooper’s Hill Cheese Rolling

cheese rolling festival

Ah, the cheese roll. Epitome of idiocy, and smack at the top of my bucket list. Who doesn’t love a pointless, dangerous, useless, spectacle?

The festival is pretty simple; a few dozen people line up at the top of a steep, 295-foot hill. Someone rolls an 8-pound wheel of cheese down the hill (the cheese can reach speeds of 70 mph). The contestants chase it. The winner is the first idiot (hero?) to get to the cheese.

The spirit of the Cooper Hill Cheese Roll is all about informality and chaos. No one really knows when it started, or why. No one cares. There are no judges, entry fees, forms, or rules (or haven’t been since “they” gave up trying to organize the event in 2009).

The best part is that the “grand prize” is actually just the wheel of cheese. And glory. Oh, so much stinky, cheesy glory. If you win this, you’ll have the best tombstone epitaph of all time.

Mellow Alternative: The Hay Festival, Hay-On-Wye, Wales (May 26 – June 5, 2016). A festival that will actually make you smarter.

June

Calcio Storico

Calcio Storico festival

Possibly the most violent sport ever invented, Calcio Storico is a centuries old, no-holds barred “game” that mixes soccer, rugby, wrestling, and MMA fighting. It’s a miracle no one’s died. Yet.

Every year, teams from four rival neighborhoods in Firenze (I’m super fancy) clash in a contest to score points by kicking or lifting a ball over a four-foot wooden fence. But no one cares about the final score.

Calcio Storico is Italian NASCAR, and we’re all here for the crashes.

The only agreed upon rule between the teams of 27 men on each side is, “no kicks to the head.” Seriously. Players are encouraged to wrestle, punch, choke, throw sand, elbow, spit, gouge, and subdue the opposition. Violence is built into the game. Some players never even touch the ball.

Each match lasts 50 minutes, and there are no substitutions if a player falls unconscious, is injured, or simply become exhausted. Roughly 20% of the participants need hospitalization, each year, after the contest.

I can’t wait.

Mellow Alternative: Literally anything else ever.

July

Fiesta De San Fermin (a.k.a. The Running of the Bulls)

festival

July is when music festivals flourish—Pitchfork, Lollapalooza, Splendour in the Grass—but the only festival in July that matters is the Running of the Bulls.

If you don’t know about the running of the bulls… how? It’s everywhere. The premise is pretty simple; bulls are loose in the streets… so, run. The festival is a week long rager of wine, food, parties, dancing, fireworks, and oh yeah—wild, freaking, bulls loose in the streets.

All joking aside, running with the bulls is super dangerous. There have been 15 recorded deaths since 1910, so, know before you go. The festival is so dangerous you can hurt yourself just trying to get off the course.

Mellow Alternatives: Tales of the Cocktail, New Orleans. (July 2016) Affectionately known as “Tales,” this iconic gathering of the world’s best bartenders and mixologists (and yes, there is a difference).

August

La Tomatina

festival

August is packed with contenders for great festivals—Burning Man, The Air Guitar World Championships, Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the Henley on the Todd (my boat got second place a few years back!)—but the winner squeaks in at the end of the month.

Welcome to La Tomatina: The world’s biggest food fight. 30,000 people. 100,000 pounds of tomatoes. Go.

The origin of this ridiculous bacchanal are murky, but the story goes that onlookers at a parade in 1945 got bored. So, to alleviate their boredom, they raided a local fruit cart (tomatoes are a fruit, nerds) and hurled them at the parade. Boom. International sensation.

I just wish I could have been there in 1946. That would have been a weird conversation:

“…so we’re really just gonna throw tomatoes at people again this year?”

“Yup.”

“Sweet.”

Mellow Alternative: Onam , Thiruvananthapuram, India. If you’re a “Furry,” this festival is heaven.

September

Lisdoonvarna Matchmaking Festival

festival

The rural farming village of Lisdoonvarna is the original Tinder. Starting in the early 20th century, more, and more, women were moving from this tiny hamlet to Dublin to find work; while the men stayed in town to work the farm. Inevitably, this lead to a gender disparity akin to a bar in Murray Hill on Friday night (amiright, New York?).

To remedy this growing sausage fest, matchmakers created a harvest celebration in September, full of dances, drinking, socials, drinking, potlucks, drinking, and drinking, to entice women back to town for a few weeks—plenty of time to match up with a soulmate. Did I mention drinking?

The gender gap still looms in this rural Irish town, but for those looking to find “the one,” the epicenter of practical romance is literally teeming with the “luck of the Irish.” Or, maybe just the “get lucky with the Irish.” You decide.

Mellow Alternative: Wodaabe Gerewol & the Cure Salee (September TBD). This ancient harvest festival is also a matchmaking ceremony, but the big twist here is that the men participate in a grueling, days long beauty pageant, complete with makeup and a talent (a.k.a. dance) competition.

October

Concurs de Castel

festival

Human pyramids are interesting, but what happens when teams of hundreds combine to create human skyscrapers that tower up to 9 stories tall? The fantastic Festival of Castles was named to UNESCO Heritages list as one of the “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity,” and it, truly, is a marvel.

The skill, strength, and mastery required to build human towers of these heights—with children as young as 5 years old topping the structures—combined with the drama and tension of collapses, make this a sold out spectacle every time. Only celebrated during even numbered years, tickets for this event are always in high demand.

Mellow Alternative: Albuquerque International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta (Albuquerque, NM / October 1, 2016). I saw a Darth Vader balloon once. 

November

Loy Krathong

festival

Sure, a lantern festival has become a bit of a cliche. It’s Instagram tourism at it’s worst—until you participate.

There’s something sublime about watching thousands, upon thousands, of paper lanterns silently carry fragile flames into the night sky—especially when one of them is yours.

You’ll try to keep track of which lantern you set free, and for a few moments you will, but then something magical happens. You lose track of what you contributed to the event, and instead you get swept up in all the multitude of things that others have contributed to your experience, and the vast improvement upon your solitary lantern will take your breath away.

For that one precious, fleeting, flickering, moment you’re outside yourself, staring at a night sky full of stars that you helped create, but that you can’t take any credit for.

And it’s wonderful.

Mellow Alternative: This is as mellow as it gets.

December

SantaCon

festival

As a real life NYC Christmas tree salesman, I’m as surprised as you that I’m including SantaCon on my list of 2016 festivals. It’s a mess every year, and a lot of people want to ban it. But there’s something to be said for this drunken brawl of a holiday tradition.

At it’s worst, SantaCon is a frat boy excuse to throw up on the street. But, at it’s best it unites thousands of strangers in a holiday experience, which is a rare thing in a city of 9 million strangers.

When you don your Santa hat, or elf ears, social barriers come down—and that’s the real magic of festivals, and by extension, travel. You get to play a part and become a version of yourself, that, while not sustainable, is beyond enjoyable.

We all become the version of ourselves that we spend the most time being. For some that might be an office worker, or a teacher, or a student, or a chef. For others it might be a Santa, Italian rugby player, log rider, pyromaniac, cheese chaser, fruit flinger, or just plain party animal.

I guess it all depends on which festivals you go to in 2016. Hopefully, I’ll see you out there.

TL;DR

Timing is everything, and that’s never more true than when planning your dream vacation.

Tweet me your favorite festivals for 2016, so I can update this list and keep providing you guys with the best festival travel info out there.

Image Credits: Benjamin Faust (stocksnap), NozawaOrange BattleIron PhallusCheese RollingCalcio StoricoRunning of the Bulls, La TomatinaMatchmaking FestivalHuman TowerLantern FestivalSantaCon