The Festivals of Japan
Festivals, or "matsuri" as they're called in Japanese, are events to give offerings, to pray for a good harvest, or to ward off bad luck, and they are also rituals to offer sacrifices to thank the gods and ancestors, to offer prayers, or as a way to console the spirits of the deceased.
Other than the word "matsuri" (祭), there is also "saishi" (祭祀), "sairei" (祭礼), and "saigi" (祭儀), and the meanings of these words, which are written in different kanji, vary slightly in meaning and usage.
The History of Festivals in Japan
The word "matsuri" is the noun form of the verb "matsuru" (祀る, to deify; to enshrine) and originally referred to the worship of the eight million gods and their associated ceremonies.
In ancient times, Japan had a system of unity in rituals and ceremonies, and therefore politics (written 政治, "seiji" in Japanese) is often called "matsurigoto" (政). *"政" means "politics, government" in Japanese, but it uses the reading "matsuri" here, which demonstrates how religion and politics were one in the same during ancient Japan.*
Primitive festivals were based on a single progression of giving thanks and prayer for a good harvest.
Giving offerings to the gods for a good harvest of crops, the sustenance we need to live, is a common aspect of the ancient tales of the past.
Nowadays, there are many festivals in Japan, but no two are the same in terms of history and spirit.
The Instruments and Dances of Festivals
Festivals aren't just about praying to the gods, they're also about giving thanks and making offerings through action.
Here are some of the essential instruments and dances of Japan's festivals.
1. Mikoshi (お神輿)
One of the essential parts of Japanese festivals is the mikoshi (portable shrines).
Mikoshi are vehicles that the gods ride on to move around during a festival.
Shrine bearers wearing hanten jackets carry the mikoshi on their shoulders and parade the area around the shrine.
Watching the bearers carry the backbreaking mikoshi on their shoulders and parading through the area around the shrine is one of the most exciting parts of a Japanese festival.
2. Dashi and Wadaiko (山車・太鼓台)
Like mikoshi, "dashi" (portable floats) and "wadaiko" (Japanese drums) are considered to be vehicles of the gods.
They are pulled and carried by bearers, and since they are heavier than mikoshi, they are generally pulled using wheels.
It is believed that the gods descend from the tops of mountains (山), which is why it uses the kanji "山" (mountain) and "車" (vehicle). To please the gods, they decorated the floats with lanterns and other decorations, which resulted in the appearance of today's floats.
Hayashi bands, wadaiko drummers, and other types of entertainment ride atop the floats.
The Gion Festival's Yamaboko float at Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto is one of the most famous floats in Japan.
Types of Famous Festivals in Japan
There are many unique local festivals that have been carried out since ancient times.
Here are some of the different types of festivals you can expect to find in Japan.
1. Fire Festivals
Every civilization in the world believes that fire has a special power, and Japan is no exception. Fire festivals are held in various places to purify and strengthen the spiritual power of fire.
Some of them have been held for more than 1000 years, which shows the depth of their history.
Fire Festivals in Japan are characterized by the burning of fires and the use of numerous torches.
Some fire festivals even involve walking on hot coals or jumping into flames.
2. Bon Odori (Bon dances)
This refers to the Buddhist dances that are performed during the "Bon" season that are performed as memorial services for the deceased.
It is said that there are more than 1,000 kinds of Bon dances in Japan, and you can enjoy the unique dances of each region.
Generally, people dance around a Yagura (bandstand tower) standing in the center of the festival site and dance to the ondo music.
The three major Bon dances in Japan are "Nishimonai Bon Odori" in Akita Prefecture, "Gujo Odori" in Gifu Prefecture, and "Awa Odori" in Tokushima Prefecture, and they are enjoyed all over the country.
3. Hadaka Matsuri (Naked Festival)
This festival is held in order to bargain with the gods by exposing one's natural and pure form. Although it is called the "naked festival," participants generally wear a loincloth.
It is held on New Year's Eve and during summer purification festivals to get rid of impurities.
4. The Nebuta Festival
The Nebuta Festival is one of the most popular Japanese festivals in the world.
This summer festival is held throughout Aomori Prefecture, located in the northernmost part of Honshu, and is also known as the Aomori Nebuta Festival.
The original roots of the festival are believed to be the floating lantern ceremony for the repose of the souls of the deceased. This is done by pulling a float with a puppet or fan-shaped paper mache object on top.
You can see the giant floats with historical and mythological themes and the haneto dancers who jump around in colorful clothing.
5. Fireworks Festivals
Fireworks, or "hanabi" (花火) in Japanese, written with the characters 花 (flower) and 火 (fire), is as the name implies, beautiful flowers of fire. At Japan's fireworks festivals you can enjoy the beauty and transience of fireworks as though flowers were blooming in the night sky.
The history of fireworks festivals in Japan dates back to the Edo period, and it is said that these events have been popular among people since those times.
There are several types of fireworks. The main classifications are: "shimekizuki hanabi," which is a firework that spreads out in a round shape as if it were a blooming flower; "shizukuri hanabi," which display letters, pictures, or even Mt. Fuji and Niagara Falls; and "tezutsu hanabi," which is a hand held firework that shoots sparks into the air and bursts at the end.
Fireworks Festivals are held all over Japan, but the three most famous ones are the Sumida River Fireworks Festival (Tokyo), the Omagari Fireworks Festival (Akita Prefecture) and the Nagaoka Fireworks Festival (Niigata Prefecture).
6. Tug of War
Tug-of-war, which is a part of sports day competitions during school days, is also a type of festival.
The tug of war is based on an ancient ritual for praying for rain, where people pull a rope made to look like a snake, which is believed to be sent by the water gods, to pray for a good harvest and to predict good fortune for the crops.
7. Raihoujin (来訪神)
The gods of Akita Prefecture, "Namahage," also fall under this category.
Raihoujin (lit. visiting gods) gods are messengers of the gods, and they come to the human world in a strange form on New Year's Day and other occasions.
The visits are visually striking, but there is also an aspect of bringing happiness.
8. Strange Festivals
There are many festivals in Japan that have their own unique traditions and practices.
A List of Popular Festivals in Japan
There are many seasonal festivals held throughout Japan.
1. Akita Kanto Matsuri
This festival is held from August 3rd to 6th every year in Akita City, Akita Prefecture. It is an event to ward off illness and evil spirits in midsummer.
According to old documents, the festival has been held since 1789, making it quite a long-running event.
2. Yamagata Hanagasa
This festival is held from August 5th~7th to the 13th~15th every year in Yamagata City, Yamagata Prefecture. The festival is characterized by the energetic shouting and the sound of Hanagasa drums.
Dancers in colorful garments parade through the main street of Yamagata City, led by floats decorated in gorgeous colors.
3. Sendai Tanabata
This annual festival is held from August 6th to 8th in Sendai City, Miyagi Prefecture, and has been a time-honored tradition since the days of the famous warlord Date Masamune.
4. Awa Odori
This is a festival held from August 12th to 15th every year in Tokushima City, Tokushima Prefecture, where the entire city engages in continuous dancing.
It has a history of more than 400 years and has become one of Japan's signature festivals, which has spread from Tokushima Prefecture to the rest of Japan and the world.
5. Owara Kaze no Bon
This festival is held from September 1st to the 3rd every year in Toyama City, Toyama Prefecture. Silent dancers perform sophisticated dances on the streets of the hilly town to the melody of "Ecchu Owara Bushi," which is full of sadness.
The origin of this festival is uncertain because there is no clear literature on it, but it is said to have began in 1702.
6. Yosakoi Festival
This festival is held for four days in Kochi City, Kochi Prefecture, with the eve of the festival on August 9th, the main event on August 10th and 11th, and the National Yosakoi Convention and the post-Yosakoi Festival celebrations on August 12th.
Yosakoi while wearing hats is very famous throughout the country, and the Kochi City Fireworks Festival, which shoots off 4,000 fireworks on the eve of the festival, is one of the three major festivals of Shikoku.
7. Soma Nomaoi
The Soma Nomaoi Samurai Festival is one of the six major festivals in Tohoku, and starts on the last week of July every year in Soma city, Fukushima prefecture, with rituals held on the 24th and 25th.
The festival has a long history and has been designated an Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property, with armoured horse racing, capture the flag at the Hibarigahara festival site in Minamisoma City, and a parade of cavalry warriors through the streets.
8. Gozan no Okuribi & Kasuga Taisha Chugen Mantoro Festival
Gozan Okuribi is a traditional event held on August 16th every year in Kyoto to send off the spirits of the Bon Festival, using fire to light the character "大" (big) in Higashiyama, "妙" and "法" (妙法, "saddharma") in Matsugasaki, a boat shape in Nishigamo, the large, western "大" in Ookayama, and a torii gate shape in Saga.
Kasuga Taisha Chugen Mantoro Festival is held every August 14th and 15th in Nara City, Nara Prefecture, and features 3,000 lanterns on the grounds of Kasuga Taisha Shrine. Many visitors come here every year to see the magical atmosphere.
9. Kemanai Bon Odori and Hanawa-bayashi
Kemanai Bon Odori is held for three days from August 21st to 23rd every year in Kazuno City, Akita Prefecture.
It is counted as one of the three major Bon dances of Akita Prefecture, and it consists of "Onosaka" which is danced with music accompanied by large drums and flutes, and "Jinku" which is danced only with unaccompanied singing.
There are various theories about the history of the dance, but the general consensus is that the dance was already being performed as early as 1657.
Also in Kazuno City, Akita Prefecture, on August 19th and 20th, Hanawa-bayashi is an event to mark the end of summer and it has one of the three largest hayashi bands in Japan.
In 1978, it was designated as an Intangible Folk Cultural Property, in 2014 it was designated as an Important Intangible Folk Culture Asset of Akita, and in 2016 it was registered as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Property.
10. Nishimonai Bon Odori
Nishimonai Bon Odori is held from August 16th to 18th every year in Ugo, Akita Prefecture, and together with Awa Odori and Gujo Odori, it is counted as one of the three major Bon Dances of Japan.
There are various theories about the history of the dance, and the most plausible one is that it was danced in the precincts of shrines by ascetic monks more than 700 years ago to pray for a good harvest.