The Japanese name for traditional Japanese festivals is Matsuri,and all the festivals come with their own long history and ways to celebrate. The date and nature of the festivals also differ from community to community. The celebrations are powerful,energetic and exciting and to be enjoyed by all. Opening ceremonies are always immediately followed by spirited processions, vigorous chanting, dancing, massive and intricately decorated Omikoshi (portable shrines) or floats and dancers with the highest energy you’ll ever see. Participation of spectators (tourists, locals, etc) is also encouraged and you can join in the song and dance as many Matsuri allow it. The roads are packed with celebrants and the skies are lit up in vibrant fireworks and lanterns. These festivals are also one of the best places to sample unique, seasonal Japanese foods on the streets which are lined with ‘Yatai’ or food stalls which sell fast food like Karaage/Japanese fried chicken). Here are some Matsuri:
Aomori Nebuta Matsuri (August 2-7)
One of the greatest in Tohoku region, this festival takes place in Aomori city from 2nd-7thAugust and draws in millions of people every year. Nebuta Matsuri along with Kanto Matsuri by Akita and Tananbata by Sendai make up the Tohoku Sandai Matsuri or the 3 Great Festivals of the Tohoku Region. It originated from the Tananbata festival of China which greatly inspired it. In the older days, people used to make lanterns or Nebuta from bamboo, paper and candles which were then mounted on floats for the parades.
Nowadays, the nebutas have become way bigger and are made out of paper mâché and often by big corporations, organisations, etc. The floats depict scenes from various Kabuki theatre, historical and mystical persons from both Japan and China culture and roles from the historical TV series and popular TV drama NHK Taiga. Human use their power to push the floats along the road. As the procession moves along, chants of “Rassera, Rassera!” can be heard from the gathered crowd and the dancers who chant, skip and dance about.
Flutes, taiko drums and the hundreds of dancers known as Haneto accompany the floats. You can not only watch, but also join in along with the dancers. All you need is to wear Haneto(traditional dancing costumes) while dancing that can be rented or bought from the grocery stores or shops for the cost of 4000-7000 yen. Vendors sell festival related goods and food and you can take pictures with the builders and designers of the floats as well. A 2-hour long fireworks display is also a sight to behold at the waterfront. A bullet train is the best and fastest way to get to the city and beat traffic to enjoy the festivities.
Nada no Kenka Matsuri (October 14-15)
This matsuri is also known as the Fighting Festival and is one of the most famous and dangerous festivals. Everyone gathers and worships together at the Matsubara Hachimen Shrine and are accompanied by processions, music and a display of colourful costumes on the first day.
On the second day, huge mikostis (portable shrines) are carried by representatives of each district and only men are given this honour. These men and boys represent different districts and help carry the 3 portable shrines. Men between 16 and 25 years old carry the lightest oneof those. Men between 26 and 35 years old carry the second one. Men above 36 years old. Women and older men are not allowed this pleasure of carrying the portable shrines. The men then begin to jostle with the portable shrines, trying to crash them into each other’s shrines and break atleast one of these shrines. The winner asks for God’s approval, but also the rights for bragging during thewhole year. All this takes place in the square at Otabi mountain and Matsubara Hachiman Shrine and the spectators watch from the hilltops.
Those involved in the practice are blessed by Gods with good harvest and fertile land. Just stay out of the main fighting area during the fighting and enjoy the action from afar.
Gion Matsuri (July)
This Matsuri is month-long and takes place in July. It started as a purification ritual in 869 to get rid of a plague and various other natural calamities that hit Japan. It is hence one of the oldest Matsuris and is also listed in the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Interested in the origins of the name? Well, it arises from the splitting of two Kanji (Japanese alphabet) characters and is also the name of an area in Kyoto.
This matsuri faced problems in 1553 when all festivities were banned and religious activitieswere halted by the ruler, but the people of Japanprotested and got their festivities back on track and restored the Matsuri to its former glory. In 1967, a new dance welcoming the World War II soldiers was added and the Matsuri now incorporates both the ancient and modern sides of Japan in its celebrations. Kyoto is adorned with the Gion Matsuri decorations for a whole month of July.
July 1- 5 is the Kippuiri or the opening ceremony of the festival and it is held in the various participating neighbourhoods. From there, it’s off to the Kujitorishki or the lottery for the parade order which takes place at the Municipal assembly Hall.
By Mid-July, a yamaboko or a moveable museum takes to the streets. There are 33 yamaboko in total, but the most popular out of all the Yamaboko is the naginata hoko as it is the only hoko to carry the children known as the chigo children in it. A chigo is considered a living god and a child is a representation of a living god to the Japanese, since the spirits of the Gods are believed to descend upon young children since ancient times. The children are chosen from the age groups of 8-10 from a family in which no family member has passed on and from the same town as the hoko. They’re usually the male members of the family who are presented with such an opportunity. However, since the family has to pay for the festivities (amounting to 20 million yen!), the modern matsuri only makes use of children from wealthy families who will be able to pay the bill. All through this period of acting as God’s representative, the Chigo child has to follow strict rules like not keeping in contact with his mother and not setting foot on the ground (they’re carried throughout the festivities), as well as following strict rules that’ll enablethe chigo to purify his body and soul. They are also decked up in heavy costume and jewellery that is traditional and furthermore gives them a ‘godlike appearance’. July 7 and 13 are dedicated to the chigo children (young kids/babies) from places like Kuse, Nuginataboko and Ayaga Saboko who visit the various shrines in order to seek blessings for continuity and safety of this festival season so that the future generations may also partake in it. Other than that, the biggest duty of the chigo is the Shimenawa kiri or the cutting of the sacred rope during the Yamaboko Junko parade. This signifies the breaking through of the boundary between god and human and enables the Yamaboko to be carried forward in to the sacred area by the participants. Apart from the grand parade, this is yet another highlight of the festival.
On July 10, there is a lovely and grand lantern parade to welcome the Mikoshi portable shrines and later there is the Mikoshi Arai, wherein the shrines are cleansed with sacred water from the Kamo River. The various other activities like Yoiyoiyoiyama, Yoiyoiyama, Yoiyama and Yoimiya Shinshin take place from July 14 till the very end of the month and during this period, there are various parades of Yamaboko floats as well as art and danceperformance to enthral the spectators. On July 17, the parade of the cleansed Mikoshi take place from Yasaka Shrine through the streets of the city. On July 18 and 20, one will be delighted to watch as the beautiful and magnificent flower parasols/Honagasa make their way through the city. The festival commences on July 31 with a closing ceremony held at the Eki Shrine.
List of other major festivals
February- The winter month of February is when one can join in on the array of winter and snow festivals that Japan offers like the Sapporo Snow Festival or Sapporo Yuki Matsuri (large ice and snow sculpture exhibition), Yokote Kamakura festival (creation of Kamakuras/igloos in snow-rich regions of Japan), Asahikawa Winter Festival, Zao Snow Monster Festival, Tokamachi Snow Festival, the lighting up of the natural and giant icicles at Misotsuchi, among other such festivals.
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March- Omizutori (Buddhist festival).
April- Takayama Matsuri (also takes place in October, in both spring and autumn).
May- Aui Matsuri, Konda Matsuri, Sanja Matsuri.
July- Hakata Gion Yamakusa, Tenjin Matsuri.
August- Kanto Matsuri and Awa Odori
October- Nagasaki Kuchi and Jidda Matsuri
December- Chichibu Yamatsuri.