Off The Beaten Path: It’s Matsuri Time!

A dancing festival takes place in Koenji every summer. Photo credit Stack Jones.

Summer is upon us, and this means it’s time to break out the sandals, endure the humidity and enjoy Japan’s festivals, which are known nationally as matsuri.

Festivals in Japan are incredible fun. Unfortunately, many of the best ones are in regions of the country that are not so easy to access, such as the Aomori Nebuta Matsuri, the Akita Kanto Matsuri, the Yamagata Hanagasa Matsuri and the Awa-Odori Folk Dance Festival in Tokushima.

The following is a breakdown of some of Japan’s major summer events, as well as little known festivals that are just as much fun, and will surely put a smile on your face during the summer of 2012. If you have the time, I suggest seeing as many festivals as possible, as they are as much fun for the participants as they are for the spectators.

Aomori Nebuta Festival

Dates: August 2nd – 7th

Place: Near Aomori JR train station.

City: Akita City, Akita Prefecture.

This is one event that you don’t want to miss. The Aomori Nebuta Festival is part of the Tanabata, known as the star festival. It generally takes place on the 7th day of the 7th month of each year. According to Chinese legend, the two stars Altair and Vega, which are usually separated from each other by the Milky Way, are joined together on this day. The Nebuta Matsuri attracts millions of visitors each year and is an amazing event.

During this festival, many large nebuta floats are paraded through the streets near Aomori JR train station. These floats are constructed of wood, and metal frames that stand approximately five meters in height, and up to nine meters in width. Japanese paper known as washi, are painted onto the frames of the floats. The paper is then decorated with three-dimensional images of warriors, gods and demons that resemble famous kabuki actors. The floats are very intricate, and can take up to a year to complete. There are also dances that are performed during this matsuri. The dances feature haneto dancers, who wear special costumes, and everyone is welcome to wear their own haneto costume and join in on the fun.

Akita Kanto Matsuri

Dates: August 3rd – 6th

Place: Kanto O-dori

City: Akita City, Akita Prefecture.

Towering high above the spectators and participants are the kanto poles, which light up the night sky. This event is one of the major Tanabata Matsuri that takes place in the northern region of Japan. Although modernly these events draw large crowds of spectators and tourists, the events origin began long ago when festive prayers were offered up to the gods in hopes of an abundant 
harvest of wheat, rice, beans, foxtail and Chinese millet.

A kanto is a bamboo pole that stands eight meters high with a number of cross poles attached that have forty-six paper lanterns shaped like rice bales hanging from them. The tops are decorated with thin shreds of paper, and were originally made to drive away evil spirits, and to offer prayers to Shinto and Buddhist deities.

Mikuni Matsuri takes place annually in Fukui Prefecture. Photo credit Stack Jones.

The larger Kanto weigh in at sixty kilograms, and are called owaka. Smaller versions are known as chuwaka, kowaka and yowaka in descending fashion. All of these Kanto are shaped like Akita cedar or of ears of corn. As the festival begins participants lift up the kanto one at a time to the sound of flutes and drums. They Kanto are then paraded throughout the town while festival participants do their best to ensure that the lights of the lanterns do not go out. Hands are never used to support the Kanto. The participants prop the poles on their hips, shoulders or foreheads and shout abundantly as they try to outdo the bearers of other Kanto.

The origins of this festival lie in the Tanabata ritual, from an annual festival held on the evening of July 7th to worship stars, which are called neburi-nagashi. It was believed the stars had the capability to wipe out diseases and malicious energy that was thought to be the cause of many illnesses. 
This ritual came to be performed in grand style around the time of Satake Yoshimasa (1775-1815), who ruled as Lord of the Akita Clan.

Awa-Odori Folk Dance Festival

Dates: August 12th -15th

Place: Throughout the entire city of Tokushima.

City: Tokushima 
City, Tokushima Prefecture.

Awa is the former name of Tokushima. This festival features folkdances that are performed to welcome the souls of ancestors during the Bon season. This particular festival is well known throughout Japan for the famous words that are associated with the festival, ”Its a fool who dances and a fool who watches. If both are fools, then you might as well have fun dancing.”

The dance originated in 1587 when the feudal lord Hachisuka Iemasa (1558-1638), in celebration of the newly-built Tokushima Castle, offered sake to the people of the town. The people became so drunk they started to dance in an unsteady manner. Today, the men and women who are separated into gender groups, parade through the city while dancing to music performed on drums, gongs, three-stringed musical instruments, and flutes.

The basic rule of the dance is for the participants to move their right arm forward with their right leg, and then their left arm with their left leg. The do this while dancing to the two-beat rhythm of music that has been a long tradition of the festival. 

During the day dances are performed by specially selected groups. However, as the sun begins to set, the entire city is moved in excitement, and a high-level of energy that climaxes at around 10:30. At this time there are numerous dance stages called enbujo where spectators can watch the Odori Hiroba dance up close. Spectators are welcomed to join in as well.

For those in the Kanto region who don’t have the time to travel to these far reaching locations, there are some great local offerings as well. Some of them are not so well known, but offer a great deal of excitement and entertainment.

The Moriya City Yasaka Shrine Festival is located in Ibaraki Prefecture.  Photo credit Stack Jones.

Date: July 28th

Place: Moriya City (Near Aeon Town Shopping Center.

City: Moriya 
City, Ibaraki Prefecture.

The Yasaka Shrine Festival is a summer festival held at the Yasaka Shrine on the last Saturday of July. During the festival the participants pray for a rich yield of rice in autumn. A portable shrine is carried throughout the town, and traditional festival music is played on temporary stages, and floats, which are transported around the city. The participants in the event dance on these portable floats, and the highlight of the evening is when all floats are pulled together in the center of the town, and each one tries to out perform the other. As the dancers perform the floats are spun around making for a lot of great fun, and entertainment. The streets are also lined with a variety of food vendors, as many spectators come from all over the country to take part in the event.

Narita Gion Matsuri

Date: July 6th-8th

Place: Naritasan Shinshoji Temple.

City: Narita 
City, Chiba Prefecture.

The Narita Festival is three days of illumination of light and sound. This festival takes place around the Naritasan Shinshoji Temple in Chiba. Starting with the passage of a portable shrine on the first day. The highlight of the festival is known as Sobiki, which is a parade of ten beautiful floats that are topped by large dolls modeled after historical figures. The event takes place each day from 10:00 a.m. to around 10:00 p.m. Young folks that stand on top of the floats encourage the bearers to carry them up the steep slope of Nakamachi. This festival is dedicated to Dainichi-Nyorai (Dainichi Buddha). It has become the largest festival in Narita and is enjoyed each year by millions of visitors.

A foreign “local” carries a shrine during Toride City’s festival.  Photo credit Stack Jones.

Shimodate Gion Matsuri

Date: July 26th-29th

Place: Shimodate City.

City: Shimodate 
City, Ibaraki Prefecture.

Shimodate comes alive with activity for the Gion Festival during the four days from the last Thursday to the last Sunday of July each year. The origins of this festival date back to 1471, when local clan chief Mizunoya Katsuuji encouraged Haguro Shrine to hold an annual festival. Carrying Mikoshi (portable shrines) through the city became a key part of the event during the late nineteenth century, and has been the main feature ever since.

The enormous and elaborately decorated Mikoshi are the pride of the festival. There is the old O-Mikoshi (Large Mikoshi), which weighs a ton and was built in 1895, the lighter Hime-Mikoshi (princess Mikoshi) for women, and the new o-Mikoshi, made in 1992 all weigh in at two tons (4000 lbs.). This is said to be the largest portable shrine in the country.

As the festival begins, the two O-Mikoshi and the Hime-Mikoshi, along with more than thirty children’s Mikoshi, take to the streets. Onlookers are always packed together along both sides of the city’s main road.

The festival reaches its climax in the morning of the final day. At 5:00 a.m. the o-Mikoshi are lowered into the water of the nearby Gogyogawa (river) for a ritual called Kawatogyo, in which the evil spirits and impurities of the world are washed away. They are then carried back to Haguro Shrine, home of Shimodate’s guardian deity. The festival finishes at around 8:00 a.m.

Yamagata. Hanagasa Matsuri

Dates: August 5th-7th.

Place: Yamagata City.

City: Yamagata City, Yamagata Prefecture.

The Yamagata Hanagasa Matsuri is a festival where 10,000 of the cities residents participate in a dance while holding a hanagasa (flower hat) adorned with safflowers. This festival began in 1964 and is therefore relatively new. Don’t let that fool you, the festival attracts more than one million spectators and is considered one of the major events in the Tohoku region.

Beautifully decorated floats lead the parade. The unique shouts of Yoshi, Mankato! And the jovial beats of the hanagasa-daiko drums enhance the merry mood of the festival. 

The form of the dance has gradually changed over the years. Previously, group performances were perfectly synchronized. Today however, dance performances come in a wide variety, such as the spectacular twirling of the hanagasa hats and other unique creative performances.

The Hanagasa Festival has its origins in the Zao Summer Festival, which was started to promote tourism in Zao, Yamagata. The Hanagasa Dance Song is based on the Dontsuki Song, sung during the Meiji-Taisho Era in the Murayama region of Yamagata Prefecture. The Yassho, Makasho calls were cried out during Dontsuki while pounding on the ground during irrigation work on the outskirts of Obanazawa.

Other notable summer events

The Sensou-Ji Temple Matsuri is held in Asakusa. July 9th-10th.

The Kangen Sai is held in Hiroshima. August 2nd.

Tsuchiura Fireworks Competition

Date: October 6th

Place: Gakuen Ohashi, Tsuchiura Gakuen Sen

City: Tsuchiura, Ibaraki Prefecture.

Time: 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.

Do you like fireworks? Who doesn’t! Japan has a myriad of firework events, and as great as many of them are, they all pale in comparison to the Tsuchiura Fireworks Competition. This isn’t just a fireworks show, it’s a full-blown competition where cities, and fireworks manufacturers from around the country come together to participate, and show off their skills in blowing stuff up.

Usually held on the first Saturday of October, (postponed if the weather is poor) the Tsuchiura Fireworks Competition is the last major competitive event of the year for pyrotechnic teams from around Japan. Most observers agree that it is best fireworks displays in the entire nation, as fireworks artists put everything they’ve got into the illustrious displays. Many of the bursts are prototypes of new designs for next year’s season, so fireworks manufacturers put great effort in to leaving a lasting impression on potential buyers.

The higher bursts can easily be seen from any elevated spot in Tsukuba with a view of the eastern sky, but it is really worth making the effort to join the crowds near ground zero and take it all in. The show begins at about 6 p.m. and lasts for over two hours. Parking is always a problem, and since people begin showing up several hours early to get a good spot, you may have a problem getting to the event if you don’t plan properly.

Be sure to take a plastic tarp to cover the ground along with any other convenience you will need, such as pillows, blankets and mosquito repellant. For those that are not willing to brave the crowds and get in close, the best views are along Route 6, which is an elevated highway across the nearby fields.

The annual fireworks competition held in Tsuchiura, Ibaraki. Photo credit Stack Jones.

Yamagata Prefecture’s summer fireworks extravaganza. Photo credit Stack Jones.

This article originally ran in the July, 2012 edition of the Tokyo Weekender magazine.

© 2012 Stack Jones All Rights Reserved.

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