Major public festivals in Japan are called matsuri (祭り or 祭). Matsuri are roughly comparable to our folk festivals and, at least traditionally, are usually associated with a Shintō shrine or Buddhist temple. This religious background of matsuri does not necessarily apply to all festivals or holidays on which matsuri are celebrated today. Some music or art festivals are now also popularly referred to as matsuri.
Matsuri are always regional and designed for the shrine or temple associated with the festival. Japan-wide matsuri do not exist, but there are certain dates on which matsuri take place in almost all of Japan. There are many matsuri festivals in Japan, for example, in spring for the cherry blossom (also called Hana Matsuri) or for the rice harvest in autumn, similar to Thanksgiving. Behind this is the original emergence of the matsuri along the farming calendar with its fixed dates, such as sowing and harvesting.
Whether the festival of the steel phallus (Kanamara Matsuri), the Gion Matsuri, classified as an intangible world heritage, which has been held in Tokyo for over a thousand years, or the Sumidagawa Fireworks Festival (as an example of a non-religious matsuri): dancing, music, drinking (sake!) and feasting are always a part of the matsuri. The highlight of the traditional or religious festivals is the procession of one or more mikoshi shrines. At the Kanamara Matsuri, this is a huge steel phallus.
History and Significance of Matsuri
The traditional festivals celebrated as matsuri developed to a large extent along the farming calendar. This explains the seasonal accumulation of matsuri during the cherry blossom in spring and the rice harvest in autumn. In addition, matsuri also arose around important Shintō shrines and Buddhist temples, which is why many matsuri are also called ‘shrine festivals.’ Lastly, some major festivals today are also considered matsuri.
A special characteristic of the matsuri is its strong regional roots. Every Japanese region knows its important folk festivals and holidays (which do not necessarily have to be official). In contrast, however, no matsuri is celebrated throughout Japan. The background, at least for the traditional matsuri, is the connection to the local shrines and temples and the procession of the respective mikoshi shrines.
A mikoshi shrine (神輿, also politely referred to as omikoshi, ‘venerable palanquin,’ or shin’yo, ‘god palanquin’) is a portable shrine, usually with a curved roof. The shrine, according to the Shintō, houses a kami. This deity is removed from his permanent home in the Shintō shrine during matsuri. After the procession, the mikoshi shrines are usually displayed in a special shrine, the O-tabisho (御旅所), for the duration of the festivities.
For the Japanese, regional matsuri are usually important holidays and are often associated with certain aspects. For example, some Japanese may travel long distances to attend a particular matsuri and pay their respects to the kami worshipped there. One of the few nationally widespread matsuri are the fertility or Hōnen festivals (Hōnen Matsuri, 豊年祭, translated roughly as festival for a rich harvest year), which take place in spring.
The most spectacular matsuri festivals in Japan
Of course, ‘spectacular’ is a matter of taste regarding folk festivals. However, the list of all matsuri celebrated in Japan would be too long to be presented here. Therefore, a selection of particularly bizarre or significant matsuri is presented, whose visit is definitely worthwhile even for tourists.
The Gion Matsuri – Intangible World Heritage in Kyoto
The Gion Matsuri (祇園祭) has been held in Kyoto every summer in July since 869. This folk festival includes day-long street festivals, during which Kyoto is transformed into a party mile, and parades of festive floats that weigh tons and are richly decorated. The Gion Matsuri is considered the largest folk festival in Japan. A visit should be planned well and in advance due to the great popularity, as the hotels in Kyoto at this time are often sold out months in advance.
The Nebuta Matsuri in Aomori
Wmpearl, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Every year, the Nebuta Matsuri in the northern Honshu city of Aomori attracts three million visitors. This makes the Nebuta Matsuri the most popular Japanese folk festival in the Tohoku region.
One of the core elements of the tradition are the giant paper mache figures, up to three meters high, which are driven through the city on festive floats. It’s best to dress up in a Haneto costume yourself and immerse completely in this world. A fireworks display lasting about two hours is set off on the last evening and should not be missed.
The Nachi Fire Festival
Every year, the Nachi Fire Festival (那智の火祭り), known throughout Japan, is held at the Kumano-Nachi Taisha Shrine (熊野那智大社) in Wakayama Prefecture (Honshu). During this event, torchbearers dressed ritually in white descend the ancient stone staircase that leads from the shrine to the Nachi Waterfalls.
The festival’s highlight is the lighting of 12 portable shrines in the shape of waterfalls. Also called Nachi-ho-Ogi by the Japanese, the festival is intended to bring a ritual purification to the participants. With its spectacular fire impressions in a location that is breathtakingly beautiful even as it is, the Nachi Fire Festival is surely one of the most dramatic matsuri in all of Japan.
The Hōnen Fertility Festivals
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The Hōnen Matsuri are one of the few matsuri celebrated simultaneously in different parts of Japan. They traditionally always take place on the Sunday before March 15. The two most important Hōnen Matsuri are held at Tagata Shrine in Komaki near Nagoya and Ōagata Shrine in Inuyama. Both sites are in Aichi Prefecture, but the symbolism at both festivals is highly different. At Tagata Shrine, phallic symbols predominate, while at the festival at Ōagata Shrine, also known as Hime-no-miya-matsuri (姫の宮祭り), vagina symbols prevail.
The Steel Phallus Festival in Kawasaki
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The Kanamara Matsuri (かなまら祭, translated: ‘Festival of the Steel Penis’) takes place every year on the first Sunday in April in Kawasaki. The starting point is the Kanayama Shrine, from which the traditional steel phallus is carried in procession through the streets. Unlike many other matsuri, the Kanamara Matsuri is quite new and was first held in 1969. In addition to the fertility cult, the festival is used today to collect money and raise awareness for AIDS research.
Strictly speaking, not all folk festivals in Japan are matsuri, even though they are sometimes called such in the vernacular. Great festivals are the cherry blossom festivals (hanami, 花見, translated: ‘watching blossoms’), which are widespread throughout Japan, the Sumidagawa Fireworks Festival, which has been held since 1732, or the Sapporo Snow Festival (さっぽろ雪まつり) on Hokkaido.
In addition, there are many other festivals around various themes. Whether it is autumn, winter, spring, or summer: somewhere in Japan, there is always a matsuri being celebrated, danced, sung, and drunk. Visiting one of these matsuri or folk festivals can be the highlight of your Japan trip because you rarely get so directly and deeply into the peculiarities of Japanese culture.