Those familiar with Japanese festivals probably know that they are a fundamental part of Japanese culture that dates back thousands of years. The Japanese word for festival is matsuri (祭り), or when used with the honorable “O” is Omatsuri (お祭り). Almost every single local shrine in Japan has a matsuri of its own, and they come in a wide variety of rituals and traditions, so the number of matsuri held in Japan is virtually uncountable. That being said, the majority of festivals do share common elements, and understanding these elements allows you to understand the true heart of Japanese matsuri. Here is your guide to understanding Japanese festivals!
Types of Matsuri
Matsuri festivals are a significant part of traditional Japanese culture, and there are a wide variety of matsuri found all over Japan. In fact, there are so many festivals, that it is often said that at any given time, you can always find a festival going on somewhere in Japan.
There are several of types of matsuri, including: traditional shinto festivals, seasonal nature-oriented festivals, national holidays, and small local festivals practicing local rituals. Festivals are often based around one main event, with food stalls, entertainment, and carnival games to offer a wide variety of entertainment to visitors. Furthermore, every festival has its own characteristics. While some matsuri are calm and meditative, many are energetic and lively.
Traditional Shinto Matsuri
The Japanese term “matsuri” meaning festival, written as 祭 or 祭り, refers to ceremonies or Shinto rituals worshipping shinrei 神霊 (divine spirit) called sairei 祭礼(rites and festivals) or saishi 祭祀 (religious service). Festivals serve the purpose of are offering thanks to the deities for their bounty. An incredible number of festivals are conducted by each Shinto shrine throughout the year. These days, additional events associated with such offerings, such as parades, food stalls, or music performances, can also considered to be matsuri.
The respectable origins of Japan’s matsuri have certainly not been forgotten over time, Shinto festivals are not only limited to shrines, but are also conducted by families. People set up altars in the center of their homes that serve as the spiritual residence of their ancestors, to which they give thanks for daily life and pray for peace. Respecting deities and cherishing ancestors have been important aspects of faith for the Japanese. These are household beliefs inherited from ancient times and practiced up until the present day.
Although matsuri certainly differ between region, city, time of year, etc., there are a few elements that the vast majority of Shinto matsuri always incorporate into their festivities. A central part of matsuri is the procession, in which the shrine’s kami 神 (Shinto deity) is carried through the town in beautiful portable shrines called mikoshi 神輿 This procession through the streets is the only time of the year when the kami leaves the shrine. Many festivals also feature elaborately decorated floats called dashi 山車, which cannot be carried, but are instead pulled through the town, accompanied by drum and flute music that is played by people sitting on the floats.
Most, if not all, traditional Shinto matsuri are accompanied by Japanese musical instruments. The most common instruments played at festivals are Japanese taiko drums, shamisen, flutes, and bells. Shinto shrines even have a specific type of musical performance, called kagura (神楽, かぐら), meaning “god-entertainment”. Kagura is often performed at Shinto matsuri and other events revolving around Shinto shrines, and it typically includes elements of folk dance, song, costumes, masks, and musical instruments.
Almost all matsuri, traditional or not, will have street food and entertainment in the form of colorful pop-up stalls that line the streets leading up to the main festival venue. These festival stalls come in a variety of types and colors, as well as a variety of names, including: demise (出店), yatai (屋台), or roten (露店).
The pop-up stalls at Japanese festivals offer a wide selection of famous Japanese street foods, such as Takoyaki (fried octopus balls), yakitori (焼鳥, skewered grilled chicken), and Yaki soba (焼きそば, fried noodles). Popular desserts include candy apples, chocolate-dipped banana, and kakigori (かきごおり, sweet-flavored shaved ice).
In addition, many of the stalls offer simple carnival games that are loved by people of all ages! People typically play shateki (射的, gun shooting for small prizes), wanage (わなげ, ring toss), or various sukui (すくい) games where they try to scoop toys, balls, and even goldfish out of water in a game called kingyosukui (金魚すくい).
Seasonal Nature-Oriented Matsuri
The changing of the seasons is a great cause for celebration in Japan! There are a number of matsuri specifically dedicated to appreciating the peak of each season. In the spring, there are hundreds of sakura(cherry blossom) viewing festivals all across the country, along with other festivals celebrating the blooming of flowers such as wisteria, iris, and plum blossoms. These festivals often consist of people coming in couples or groups to have picnics and drink beneath the blossoms. This is called ohanami (お花見）in Japanese.
Summer in Japan is a season bursting with matsuri celebrations, especially at night when the air cools down. Most of the festivals in the summertime are held outdoors, for the favorable weather allows visitors to enjoy the celebrations both during the day and the nighttime. Summer festivals are characterized by city-wide street dances, summer version of Kimono called Yukata (浴衣: ゆかた), and impressive fireworks displays.
After the sweltering hot days of Japanese summer, Japanese people look forward to the autumn season. Autumn in Japan brings with it spectacular scenery of vivid orange, red, and gold splashed across the landscape. Days grow drastically shorter, nights turn cool, and are characterized by clear skies and full harvest moons. With all of this natural beauty occurring in the season of fall, the autumn brings with it wonderful seasonal festivals all across Japan. Autumnal matsuri typically revolve around rituals praying for bountiful harvests, full-moon viewings, and most importantly: walking beneath the colorful fall leaves!
Winter in Japan is a season of short days, illuminated nights, frosty weather, and of course the holiday season! Therefore, the majority of winter festivals in Japan tend to be snow festivals, ice festivals, illuminations, or New Years festivals. Snowy winter weather is the perfect condition for constructing ice sculptures and displaying them over the course of several days. The long, dark nights make the winter season incredibly popular for extensive LED illuminations displays, which can cover entire streets, castles, and even towns. And as the New Year Oshougatsu (正月) holiday is the most important family holiday in all of Japan, there are always a large number of New Year Festivals taking place throughout the country at the end of December and beginning of January.
Obon (お盆) or just bon (盆), is a Japanese Buddhist holiday dedicated to honoring the spirits of one’s ancestors. These days, this Buddhist-Confucian custom has become a family reunion holiday during which people return to ancestral family places and visit and clean their ancestors’ graves. It is believed that this is when the spirits of ancestors are supposed to revisit the household altars. Obon has been celebrated in Japan for more than 500 years and traditionally includes a dance, called bon-odori (盆踊り).The biggest bon-odori festivals, like the one in Gujo in Gifu Prefecture, involve the entire city dancing obon dances down the streets through the entire night.
The festival of Obon lasts for three days in the middle of August; however its starting date varies within different regions of Japan. When the lunar calendar was changed to the Gregorian calendar at the beginning of the Meiji era, the different local regions in Japan reacted differently, and this resulted in three different times of obon. These three days are not officially listed as public holidays, but it is customary that people are given leave, as most people travel to be with their families to honor their ancestors during this time.
Fireworks, called hanabi (花火) in Japanese, have a long history in Japan and are a fundamental part of Japanese summers. Hundreds of firework shows are held every year across the country, mostly during the summer holidays in July and August. Some of the fireworks festivals draw hundreds of thousands of spectators, who start to gather to claim good seats several hours before the show even starts. Although fireworks are closely associated with summer in Japan, much unlike Western countries, fireworks are not typically used to celebrate the New Year. Japanese fireworks range in size, from smaller ones to the world-record-holding Yonshakudama shells which are 1.2 meter in diameter and weigh several hundred kilograms.
Another common characteristic of Japanese fireworks festivals is for some spectators to come dressed in yukata, which is suits to the omatsuri atmosphere. The firework shows typically start some time after sunset and last about one hour. They often end with a grand finale of hundreds of shells launched all at once.
The 5 Most Famous Matsuri in Japan
Kanda Matsuri (神田祭) in Tokyo
This is one of Tokyo’s three most famous festivals, along with the Sanno Matsuri and Fukagawa Matsuri. It takes place in mid-May in odd numbered years, alternating with the Sanno Matsuri, which is held in even numbered years.
Kanda Matsuri originated during the Edo Period. Tokugawa began to rule the country from Edo (present-day Tokyo), and the festival was celebrated as a demonstration of prosperity under the new regime. At the time, the Kanda Matsuri and the Sanno Matsuri were the only two festivals that were allowed to pass through the Edo Castle grounds. Both were originally held annually, but after competition grew incredibly intense, they were eventually ordered to be held in alternating years.
Today, Tokyo’s Kanda Matsuri consists of numerous events held over an entire week, and is attended by millions of people. The highlights are a day-long procession through central Tokyo on Saturday, and parades of portable mikoshishrines by the various neighborhoods on Sunday.
Tenjin Festival (天神祭) in Osaka
This is another one of Japan’s three greatest festivals, held every year at Osaka Tenmangu Shrine, which is located in the heart of Osaka City. It originated back in the 10th century, in the year 951, as a celebration dedicated to Sugawara Michizane, the Japanese deity of scholarship and learning. The two-day festival features a lively procession through the city, with musical performances and dancers. The main event of the festival takes place on the second day, with a procession of boats on the river and massive fireworks as the grand finale.
Gion Festival (祇園祭) in Kyoto
Kyoto’s Gion Matsuri is counted as one of three greatest festivals in Japan. This traditional festival began in 869 as a religious ceremony to appease the gods during the outbreak of an epidemic. Gion Matsuri is centered around the Yasaka Shrine, the famous shrine in the Gion area. The festival actually takes places over the entire duration of July, but the main ceremonies take place on July 17th (Saki-matsuri) and July 24th (Ato-matsuri), marked with a grand procession of floats.
Sapporo Snow Festival (札幌雪まつり)
This is a famous ice-sculpture festival held annually in Sapporo, Japan, over the course of seven days in February. This is one of the largest and most distinctive winter events in all of Japan, as every year, it draws an astounding about 2 million people. During the festival period, the main venues of Odori Park, Susukino, and Tsudome are filled with over 400 snow and ice sculptures varying in size – some are the size of people, and others, as big as entire buildings. An International Snow Sculpture Contest has been held at the Odori Park site since 1974, and teams from various regions of the world all come to participate.
Nebuta Festival (ねぶた祭り) in Aomori
This is one of the biggest Japanese festivals held in Aomori Prefecture. The festival features gigantic floats called “Nebuta”, as well as a procession of brave warriors and dancers called “Haneto”. This festival attracts over 3 million people every year. On the final night of the festival, instead of a parade, there is a spectacular fireworks display.
Watch the Danjiri Matsuri on Facebook LIVE:
We recently went to the famous (and dangerous!) Danjiri Matsuri in Osaka! In this lively festival, neighborhoods fight for glory by racing massive wooden floats around the city. Watch our Facebook live here:
Live! Danjiri matsuri（だんじり祭） festival in Kishiwada 岸和田, Osaka.
Posted by Japanese Language & Culture on Saturday, September 15, 2018
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