Last week’s post was about Daruma (だるま / 達磨), so this week I need to start with ま (ma). A big thank you to everyone who joined in and made suggestions this week. New reader, fromthomas77b, suggested mamushi (まむし / a kind of Japanese snake), nice ideas from lovelycomplex22 – manga (漫画 / Japanese comics) and matsuri (祭り / festivals), japanaustralia suggested matcha (抹茶 / powdered green tea), manga, manzai (漫才 / a traditional style of stand-up comedy), Miyajima (宮島) and Magome (馬籠宿 / a beautiful post town which I visited in 2009), and itsumojapan also voted for matsuri.
Matsuri and manga both got two votes, but I’ve decided to write about…
Matsuri (まつり / 祭り)
Matsuri (festivals) happen all over Japan all the time. Some festivals are nationwide, such as Hinamatsuri (雛祭り / Doll Festival or Girls’ Day), hanami (花見 / cherry blossom viewing), Obon (お盆 / a festival to honour the dead) and Oshogatsu (お正月 / New Year), and others are local festivals (you’ll find local festivals in pretty much every town, varying in size and style).
Most festivals have a few things in common, such as floats (called ‘dashi’), music (often taiko drums) and, of course, food! Whether the festival takes place in summer or winter, there are bound to be food stalls (‘yatai’). Some typical festival food includes: takoyaki (たこ焼き / balls of batter with grilled octopus), kakigori (かき氷 / shaved ice – at summer festivals), various kinds of chips and fried potatoes (I love tornado potato), yakisoba (焼きそば / fried noodles), and choco banana (literally, a banana dipped in chocolate, skewered on a stick).
I attended quite a lot of festivals while I lived in Japan, which you can read about via the links at the end of this post. But, as I’ve already written about those festivals, I thought today I’d write about the top 5 festivals I would like to attend. So, in no particular order and with a lot of thanks to the Japan National Tourism Organisation for all the information, here they are…
The Gion Matsuri (祇園祭) takes place in Kyoto in July every year, with the main festivities taking place on 17th July at Yasaka Jinja, a shrine in Gion.
The Gion Matsuri, familiarly known as ‘Gion-san,’ is a festival held at Yasaka-jinja Shrine, and the highlight is the splendid pageant of some 30 floats called yamaboko proceeding along the main streets of Kyoto on the 17th. Each float, two-storied and about 6 meters tall, is topped with a long pole shaped like a spear. Adorned with exquisite craftwork such as woven fabric, dyed textiles and sculptures, these floats are so gorgeous that they are sometimes even described as ‘mobile art museums.’
During the parade, children wearing make-up and musicians playing the flute, drums and bells are seated on the second level of the floats. Some floats have dolls propped up on the second level. This festival is believed to have started 1,100 years ago when floats were made and paraded in the town to appease the deity of plague and illnesses.As charged seating is also available, you should inquire at the Kyoto City Tourist Association as early as possible. Moreover, between the 14th and 16th, the Yoiyama festival is held at night preceding the main attraction on the 17th. Floats displayed in the town are lit up with dozens of lights, and the festive music known as Gion-bayashi can be heard almost everywhere in the town streets. During the festival period, people go and visit each of the floats, where they can buy omamori (good luck charms) made from sasa bamboo grass for warding off evils.Although only limited to the Yoiyama days, the local residents open their homes to the public, exhibiting their valuable art collections, a customary event known as the Byobu Matsuri or the ‘Folding Screen Festival.’ This is a precious opportunity to actually visit and observe traditional Japanese residences of Kyoto. Please remember, however, that this is not a visit to an art museum, so be sure to observe etiquette when visiting the homes of its citizens. (JNTO)
Gozan no Okuribi (五山送り火), more commonly known as Daimonji (大文字), also takes place in Kyoto. This festival happens at the end of Obon, on 16th August.
The Daimonji Gozan Okuribi (Daimonji Bonfire) is an event held on the evening of August 16th, when gigantic Chinese characters and other motifs are depicted by fires lit to illuminate the surroundings for patrolling on the slopes of the mountains surrounding the Kyoto Basin. It is a famous for evoking the image of a Kyoto summer.
Although there are several interpretations as to the origins of this event, it is generally regarded as a fire set alight at the gate for seeing off the souls of ancestors after commemorating the welcoming of their souls.
The character of “dai” (大 / meaning “large”) on Mt. Daimonji, and those of “myo” and “ho”which make up the word “Myo-ho” (妙 法 / wondrous teaching of Buddha) on Matsugasaki Nishiyama and Higashiyama mountains are famous.
In addition to these three places, fires are simultaneously set to the character “dai” on Mt. Hidari-Daimonjiyama at Kinkakuji Okitayama, as well as to a ship-like funa-gata motif on Mt. Funayama at Nishi-Kamo, and a torii-gata motif (like the gate erected at the entrance of a shrine) on Mt. Manadarayama in Saga. These fires are collectively called “Daimonji Gozan Okuribi.”
The upper horizontal first stroke of the character “dai” measures 80 meters long. The second stroke, which is the curved line from the center top to the bottom left, is 160 meters long, and the curved third stroke from the center top to the bottom right is 120 meters long. Seventy-five fire burning areas are set up, where split firewood of pine tree and pine needles are piled up and set ablaze all at once at 8 o’clock in the evening. The fire burns for about 30 minutes on each of the mountains (with slight differences in duration). Moreover, it has been believed since olden times that if you drink sake or water with the burning Daimonji characters reflected in your cup this very night, you will be protected from illness. (JNTO)
Sendai Tanabata Festival
Tanabata festivals happen all over Japan, but one of the most famous festivals takes place in Sendai. The Sendai Tanabata Festival (仙台七夕祭り) takes place every year from 6th – 8th August (note that Tanabata is celebrated in July in some parts of Japan, and August in others).
This is a Tanabata event held in Sendai, the central city of the Tohoku District. Gorgeous decorations made with bamboo and Japanese paper called sasatake are put up in the arcades in front of Sendai Station and in all other parts of the city, in what appears to be a contest for beauty. Nowadays, Tanabata is generally celebrated as a national event on July 7th, but the Sendai Tanabata Matsuri is held in August in accordance with the lunar calendar, which was used before the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Similar events are organized throughout the nation, but the festival held here is the most famous of all. Unique to Sendai are the Seven Ornaments, which embody prayers for progress in studies or calligraphy, the wellbeing of one’s family, good health and longevity, prosperous business, a large catch and a rich harvest. They consist of colored paper in rectangular strips, kimono made of Japanese paper, cranes made by folding square paper, drawstring pouches made of paper, cast nets made of paper, waste baskets made of paper and streamers made of colored paper shaped into rings and joined in chains, or shaped like the brush of a broom.
The tradition of celebrating Tanabata in this region originated more than 400 years ago, around the time of Date Masamune (1567-1636) who was the warlord of the Sendai Clan, but it came to be held in the current grandiose style only after 1928, the year of the Tohoku Industrial Exposition. Although the festival had to be suspended during World War II, it recommenced soon after the war ended with the aim of reviving the city, and developed into the greatest Tanabata event in Japan as well as a major tourist event of the Tohoku District. All kinds of attractions such as fireworks, parades and concerts are also featured during this festival. (JNTO)
Aomori Nebuta Matsuri
The Aomori Nebuta Matsuri (青森ねぶた祭り) is held from 2nd – 7th August every year in Aomori. It looks truely spectacular!
This event is held in the Tohoku District on July 7th according to the lunar calendar. Bamboo and wooden frames are covered with paper illustrated with historic figures and pictures of samurai warriors along with birds and beasts. These are illuminated from inside and set up on yatai floats and cars which proceed in the Aomori Nebuta (Neputa in Hirosaki) parade. Today, the festivals organized in Aomori and Hirosaki are especially well known, attracting tourists from all areas of Japan. They are ranked among the four largest festivals of Tohoku, together with the Akita Kanto Matsuri lantern festival (Akita City), the Sendai Tanabata Matsuri star festival (Sendai City) and the Yamagata Hanagasa Matsuri flower hat festival (Yamagata City).
There are several versions of its origins. It is widely believed to originate in the custom of neburi-nagashi for casting away into rivers and the sea drowsiness and laziness which were tremendous hindrances in farm work. There is also the legend of how Sakanoue-no-Tamuramaro (758-811), the warlord of the day came to stamp out the Ezo people of Hokkaido and the very north of Honshu, the main island, who did not obey the Imperial Court. He hid soldiers inside gigantic dolls as a lure to his enemies and succeeded in destroying them. As a matter of fact, the festival of Aomori City signifies ‘departure for the front’ while that of Hirosaki City signifies ‘triumphant return’.
The greatest attractions of the Aomori Nebuta Matsuri are the gorgeous and colorful three-dimensional nebuta designed after warrior dolls such as Ushiwakamaru and Benkei, bearing some resemblance to Kabuki, and the very wild dances performed by participants called haneto who march and dance merrily to the sounds of drums and festival music. In contrast, the Hirosaki Neputa Matsuri is characterized by the 60 small and large fan-shaped neputa with pictures depicted from ‘Sangokushi’ or ‘Three Kingdom Saga’ and ‘Suikoden’ or ‘Outlaws of the Marsh,’ both of which are heroic legends handed down in China. The triumphant parade of neputa floats through the streets of Hirosaki in the late afternoon is particularly worth seeing. (JNTO)
Awa Odori (阿波踊り) is held from 12th – 15th August in Tokushima Prefecture, Shikoku, as part of the Obon celebrations. It’s one of the largest dance festivals in Japan.
This Tokushima festival features folkdances performed to welcome the souls of ancestors in the Bon season, from July to August. It is well known throughout Japan for these words, which are voiced to set the rhythm, regardless of their meaning: ‘It’s a fool who dances and a fool who watches! If both are fools, you might as well have fun dancing!`. The dance dates back to 1587 when the feudal lord Hachisuka Iemasa (1558-1638), in celebration of newly-built Tokushima Castle, offered sake to the people of the castle town; the citizens became so drunk they started to dance in an unsteady gait. Awa is the former name of Tokushima. The Awa-Odori is characterized by irregular steps and by the jovial and energetic up-tempo rhythm. Separated into groups of men and women, the dancers parade through the city while dancing to music played on drums, gongs used when praying to Buddha and at festivals, three-stringed Japanese musical instruments, and flutes. The basic rule of this dance is to move your right arm forward with your right leg and your left arm forward with your left leg in turns to the two-beat rhythm.
The daytime attraction is the famous Selected Awa Dance by groups of several dozen dancers giving graceful performances on stage (admission charged). After 6 p.m., the town becomes enveloped in greater fervor. The excitement reaches fever-pitch by 10:30 p.m. in various parts of the city – parks in the city center, dance stages called enbujo where you can watch the dance up close, Odori Hiroba where even spectators sometimes join in the dancing, Odori Road linking the dance stages and Machikado Hiroba set up by neighborhood associations, as well as local shopping areas. (JNTO)
If you’re visiting Japan it’s worth looking to see if there are any festivals on at the time you’ll be there, and here’s a great list from the Japan National Tourism Organisation: List of Festivals in Japan. All of the festivals on my wish list above take place in the summer, but there are also lots of festivals throughout the year, and I’m sure any time you visit Japan you can find a festival happening somewhere!
Read more about festivals I’ve attended
Matsuri (まつり) ends with り (ri), so next week I will be looking for a noun beginning with “ri”. If you have any suggestions, please leave them below and I’ll give you a mention next week! And, don’t forget, no words ending in ん! (^_^)v