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Japan’s Thousand Festivals

Despite Japan’s façade of modernity, from its city skylines and “Bullet Trains” to its millions of people who seem to have high-tech cell phones glued to their ears, traditional Japan still exists in a huge network of inns and restaurants, and in arts, crafts and customs that have not changed in over a thousand years.

One of the most extraordinary historical legacies that has been kept alive in Japan is its matsuri (mot-sue-ree) or festivals. I don’t know if anyone has ever actually counted them, but virtually every village, town and city in the country, as well as thousands of temples and shrines throughout the country, have one or more annual festivals.

A very limited calendar of festivals that are considered of special interest to foreign visitors (published by the Japan Travel Bureau) lists a total of 271 annual festivals. Travel books in English generally list only the Big 8, or the Big 10 or some such small number that take place in the largest cities and are regarded more or less as national events.

There are, in fact, 13 festivals in Japan that are national holidays, some of which last for several days. Shogatsu (Show-got-sue) or New Years, which is regarded as a festival, officially beings on the eve of December 31, and ends on January 7th, although large numbers of people take additional days off.

The reason for the large number and variety of matsuri in Japan can be traced to tenets of Shintoism, the indigenous religion, which holds that all things in nature — trees, rocks, mountains, water, whatever — have spirits, and that people must remain on good terms with all these spirits to prevent evil and destructive things from happening.

Since the economy of Japan was agricultural until the last decades of the 19th century, the livelihood of the people was greatly influenced by rain, wind and the seasons, leading to year-around religious rituals designed to placate and please the spirits of nature.

Matsuri to help ward off diseases and other calamities also became common. Some festivals had to do with ensuring fertility; others were designed to bring peace to the spirits of physical things — one such thing being broken and discarded needles.

The purpose of the festivals was to invite the appropriate deities to come down from Heaven so the people could pray to them directly, and in keeping with their cultural programming to structure everything, the Japanese designed their matsuri to have three parts.

The first part of a festival is called kami mukae (kah-me muu-kigh), or “meeting the gods,” which is a ceremony held at a shrine or other sacred place to welcome the gods to the Earth. The deity concerned descends from Heaven and takes up temporary residence in a palanquin-like portable shrine called a mikoshi (me-koh-she).

The second part of a festival, called shinkoh (sheen-koh), consists of participants carrying the mikoshi around rural communities and through the streets of towns and cities, generally with chants and some kind of music.

The third part of a matsuri is the kami okuri (kah-me oh-kuu-ree), or “god send-off,” a ritual to send the gods back to Heaven.

Other matsuri are designed to commemorate major events in history, and are the equivalent of the float parades so popular in the U.S., with people dressed in period costumes marching in long columns, along with carts and palanquins from the era concerned.

Among the most popular of Japan’s annual festivals are the odori matsuri (oh-doh-ree mot-sue-ree) or dance festivals, in which participants wearing colorful yukata robes and traditional sedge hats dance through the streets.

Paper lanterns, huge drums, gongs, masks, dolls and other historical images are a big part of many Japanese festivals, as are fireworks.

Kyoto is especially famous for its festivals, some of which date back to the 8th and 9th centuries and go on for days. Its Gion Matsuri, for example, staged by the Yasaka Shrine, begins on July 1 and lasts until July 29th.  Gion (ghee-own) is a district in Kyoto that is famous for its geisha houses. The biggest Gion events occur on July 16 and 17.

Kyoto’s biggest fall festival is the Jidai Matsuri (Jee-die Mot-sue-re), which means Festival of the Ages. It occurs in the latter part of October, and depicts Japan from the 19th century back to the 8th century, with some 1,700 marchers divided into 20 groups.

Japan has a number of curious festivals that attract large audiences. Among them: mud-slinging, paying homage to phallic images, eating and drinking from huge bowls, listening to the voices of dead relatives, watching the training of priests, viewing parades by jokers and clown, and matsuri in which the participants laugh and laugh and laugh, until they are rid of all stress and ill-feelings. It beats going to a shrink!

John Erskine Banta is General Manager and Director of Radisson Miyako Hotel Tokyo

Boye Lafayette De Mente
Author & Cultural Consultant on Japan, Korea & China
Email: [email protected]


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