Summer means festival time in Japan! Almost every town and prefecture has their own unique matsuri (祭) or festival, organised by the local communities and businesses. With over 10,000 local matsuri held over the course of the year all over Japan, you’re bound to come across one or two at any given time. If you get the chance, join in the festivities to make your holiday even more memorable! Most matsuri began as religious ceremonies to celebrate the local gods, pray and give thanks for bountiful harvests, drive away evil, welcome good fortune, and so on. Because these events drew so many people, over time they took on a festive atmosphere. So now, most Matsuri are accompanied by fun activities like food and souvenir stalls, karaoke, and of course, games.
What is Mikoshi?
A Mikoshi (神輿) is a small portable shrine that is carried by devotees. The literal meaning of the Japanese characters is “divine palanquin”, or a vehicle for transporting deities. Mikoshi carriers call out “Wasshoi-Wasshoi!” (or sometimes “Soiya, Sorya!” in Tokyo, following the Edomae style). Accompanying the mikoshi in the procession are other floats such as the dashi, danjiri, yatai and so on.
KANDA MATSURI – TOKYO
This is Tokyo’s biggest matsuri that you simply can’t miss if you’re there at the time. The main event is the procession which starts off in the morning from Kanda Myoujin Shrine and marches through Kanda, Nihonbashi and Akihabara. More than 1,000 people participate to carry over 200 mikoshi through the streets. This matsuri originated in the early 17th century to celebrate the victory of Tokugawa Ieyasu (the first Tokugawa Shogun) in the Battle of Sekigahara.
DATE: The weekend closest to May 15 in odd-numbered years ADD: Procession route: Central Tokyo
Kanda Myoujin Shrine: 2-16-2, Soto-Kanda, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo. GO: Kanda Myoujin Shrine: 5-minute walk from JR Ochanomizu Station. WEBSITE:www.kandamyoujin.or.jp/kandamatsuri
GION MATSURI – KYOTO
The origins of this matsuri can be traced back over 1,100 years to purification rituals to appease the deity of pestilence, Gozu Tenno, whenever disease epidemics broke out. In time, the tradition became an annual event held over the entire month of July, although the focus now is more on the parades and processions.
The main parades of the Gion Matsuri are Yamaboko Junko on 17 July (where 32 Yamaboko floats are carried from Yasaka Shrine through central Kyoto) and 24 July (a smaller but no less impressive procession of 10 floats). The gorgeously decorated floats can be more than 25 metres high and weigh up to 12 tons, with more than 50 people carrying them.
The evening processions called yoiyama take place on 14 – 16 and 21 – 23 July. Downtown streets are closed to traffic to make way for these processions.
DATE: Throughout the month of July. ADD: Procession route: Kawaramachi-Shijo to Kawaramachi-Oike, Gion, Kyoto;
Yasaka Shrine: 625 Gionmachi Kitagawa, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto. GO: Yasaka Shrine: 8-minute walk from Gion-Shijo Station on the Keihan Main Line. WEBSITE:www.kyokanko.or.jp/gion
KISHIWADA DANJIRI MATSURI – OSAKA
This is the biggest and most popular Danjiri Matsuri in Japan. In the procession, the heavy wheeled floats are pulled along under the command of the leader or daiku-gata dancing on the roof. Watching the huge floats dash along and make sharp turns (yari-mawashi) at full speed is sure to get hearts and adrenaline pumping in both the participants and the audience!
The Danjiri is a portable wooden shrine on a wheeled cart, decorated with elaborate handcarving. Many weigh over 3,000kg and may be pulled by up to 1,000 people. As well as the daiku-gata on the roof, a small band of musicians rides inside, playing loudly to encourage those pulling the cart. Because of their speed, size and weight, danjiri can cause a lot of damage, including loss of life. There is even special danjiri insurance!
This matsuri tradition is more than 300 years old. Up to 35 Danjiri participate in the Kishiwada Danjiri Matsuri procession, which passes by Kishiwada Station, Kishiwada Castle, and Haruki Station. At night, the floats are festooned with lanterns.
A Danjiri is pulled through Kishiwada Castle, one of the main locations.
DATE: Weekend before the third Monday in September. ADD: Procession route: Main roads of Kishiwada district, Osaka. GO: Kishiwada Station on the Nankai Main Line. WEBSITE:www.city.kishiwada.osaka.jp/site/danjiri/
DOTONBORI LANTERN FESTIVAL & BON ODORI INTERNATIONAL – OSAKA
For 2 months, the Dotonbori Lantern Festival lights up the Osaka night with 1,300 lanterns strung up along the 800-metre stretch of the Dotonbori River between the Fukari and Nippon Bridges. It’s recommended to take the Tombori River Cruise to enjoy a different view of the illuminations. On one of the weekends during the festival period, the Dotonbori Bon Odori International is held at the Tombori River Walk.
This matsuri is relatively new, but it has attracted lots of participants. Yukata rental is available so you can enjoy the full Japanese matsuri experience!
There are performances on land and water. Dance along!
The 2015 Dotonbori Bon Odori International set a Guinness World Record for the most dancers (3,000) dancing the Bon Odori. It was also the 400th anniversary of the establishment of the Dotonbori area. Check the website to find out when the next event will be.
DATE: 1 July – 31 August ADD: Dotonbori, Chuo-ku, Osaka GO: 5 to 6-minute walk from Osaka Namba Station on the Kintetsu Namba Line and Hanshin Namba Line or Namba Station (Exit 14) on the Midosuji Subway Line. WEBSITE:www.dotonbori.or.jp/en/