Do you like local festivals? Do you ever join them? Japan has four distinct seasons a year, and most matsuri (festivals) are related to seasonal features.
Since ancient times, Japanese farmers have sowed the fields with seed in the spring, hoping that the crops survive from typhoons and harmful insects in the summer, have celebrated thanksgiving in autumn and stored up their energy and boosted their spirits to last through winter.
Moreover, Japanese people believe in many gods (Yaoyorozu no Kami). Yaoyorozu no Kami literally means eight million gods, symbolizing the gods' infinite existence.
In the Shinto religion, gods dwell in all things, such as wind, soil, fire, water, mountains, houses, roads, rice, grain and so on. People believe the gods cause good and bad phenomena. Therefore, the Japanese pray to the gods all year because we have many things to thankful for and many things to wish for. So-are you ready for the matsuri tour?
Take a matsuri tour!
Here are some unique festivals and events in Japan:
Aomori Nebuta Matsuri
Aomori Nebuta Matsuri is one of biggest festivals conducted from August 2nd to 7th every year in the Aomori prefecture. It was also designated an important intangible (cannot be touched or held) folk cultural property in 1980.
Can you believe this festival includes a big lantern float? In the photo above, you can see the silhouette of a man (lower, left central) in front of the float. This gives you an idea of how big it is! These big lantern floats are carried through the center of the city, while dancers with exotic costumes dance around the floats and chant “Rasseraa!”
There are several legends about the festival’s origins, but the most popular one is that Nebuta was transformed from other common Japanese local events, like Tanabata (the star festival on July 7th) and Nemuri-Nagashi (one of the purification ceremonies).
Are you interested in this matsuri? If you wear the unique costume called Haneto, you can join in and freely dance around any of the floats. There are rental services for costumes or you can buy a costume at department stores during the festival. Participating would be a good memory and a much more meaningful experience than just watching the floats.
This is the link to the movie Nebuta Festival of 2013. You’ll excited by the festival music!
YouTube: 2013年8月2日 青森ねぶた aomori nebuta
If you would like to know more about Nebuta, you can visit the official website. You can see great floats that have won prizes and also learn how to wear the Nebuta costume:
Kyoto Gion Matsuri
Kyoto Gion Matsuri is another of the famous festivals, which started in the the 9th century, originating as part of a purification ritual. It is conducted throughout July in the Gion district in Kyoto. This long festival is divided into several phases, so you can enjoy numerous ceremonies, float parades, night stalls, festival music, yukata girls, Maiko-san (apprentice geisha), small boys with traditional make-up and costumes and traditional dances throughout the whole month of July.
The last time I went to Kyoto, I rented a kimono (a traditional Japanese garment, which is wrapped around the body, and now worn mostly by women) and enjoyed walking on the streets among the lovely women wearing kimonos. Tourists from foreign countries took my photo. It was a funny moment, because I was a tourist as well! But, many people talked to me casually, and I had a good time with them.
So, I really recommend that you try wearing a kimono there. For sure, you’ll feel different wearing this costume, especially if you’re a man, and you’ll generate a lot more conversation with people. There are many kimono rental shops in Kyoto and the shop staffs will help you find the right kimono.
Think of what a wonderful memory this will be for participating in matsuri by wearing a traditional Japanese outfit.
You can watch a famous parade here:
Lastly, I would like to share a winter event with you. Some northern prefectures have a lot of snow in winter. Yokote Kamakura Matsuri is held every year on February 15th and 16th in the cities of the southeastern Akita Prefecture.
People use the snow for building kamakura, which is an igloo-like snow house. Each kamakura has an alter inside for the water god. People pray for abundant harvests, the safety of their family members, protection against fire and for academic success. People sit inside of the kamakura and serve mochi (rice cakes) and amazake (sweet rice wine) to visitors. It must be a very warm treatment, especially in the windy winter night.
Wouldn’t you think it would be very cold in a kamakura made with snow? One of my friends who comes from northern Japan told me that it’s actually warm and comfy enough even though it looks very cold inside of a snow house.
In addition to the large igloos, there are mini-kamakura which are spread throughout the city. There are candles inside the tiny kamakura. The scenery is very beautiful and fantastic. Imagine all these gentle lights spread out on a snow field in the silent night. In Japanese style, your heart will be purified and your spirit energized at the same time.
Many chances to join matsuri
There are many opportunities to join matsuri everywhere and anytime. So, you don't even need to check a matsuri calendar to watch and join these festivals.
Everywhere in Japan, you’ll see many local shrines and temples. Most of them have regular events and matsuri rooted in local societies and culture. When you visit different districts in Japan, check the local map and visit the shrines and temples. They normally have announcement boards and put matsuri on their event calendars.
When I went back to my hometown last May, a shrine near my parent’s home had a lot of events, such as Haru Matsuri (the spring festival) and Noh gaku kai (Noh play stage). It was a great time to share traditional events on these special days with people close to you.
Japanese are known as workaholics, but they also really love to celebrate, and greet special events with enthusiasm and pleasure. When you visit Japan, make sure you experience the excitement of matsuri. I’m sure you’ll enjoy them as much as the locals!