For the curious traveller, the matsuri (festival) tradition is a perfect way to see the real Japan and its customs, legends, food and costume.
There are hundreds of great festivals across the country, many of which are related to the seasons and to indigenous Shinto rituals. They’re also a lot of fun and most are pretty eye-opening. Here are just a few personal favourites…
Motion and Stillness: Hida Furukawa Matsuri
When: 19th and 20th April
Where: Furukawa, Gifu Prefecture Why: Welcoming of spring
Hida Furukawa Matsuri is a festival of two halves and you want to be there for the first. Day one is given over to the Okoshi Daiko (Wakening Drum) event, whose focus is a gigantic double-ended drum that serves to stir the town and let everyone know festivities are underway.
Ignore the big drum for now though and follow one of the local teams charging through the streets nearly naked, shouting and consuming (and spilling) vast amounts of sake while attempting to reach the prize drum first. Occasionally they’ll stop to balance atop the long wooden poles that carry their small drums before meeting in the town square for the final showdown.
The calm after the storm is well worth it too. Furukawa’s old town, with its canal-lined streets is a traditional idyll great for a tranquil stroll before the day’s yatai (float) parade begins. The floats are ornately decorated and several feature marionette performances on their upper decks. What you don’t want to miss though is the float-top kabuki performance by a couple of adorable kids in full theatre costume.
The Penis Festival: Kanamara Matsuri
When: first Sunday in April
Where: Kawasaki, Kanagawa (Greater Tokyo Area)
Why: Well, why not?
Like most festivals in Japan, Kawasaki’s Kanamara Matsuri has serious Shinto origins and is based around a local shrine. Unlike most shrines, however, the object of veneration at Kanamara happens to be a large steel phallus. Visited in days of yore by prostitutes asking for protection against syphilis, the shrine has now become the focal point for an orgy of fun, which raises money for HIV research.
It looks like mardi gras but nobody sees the parade as anything less than wholesome family fun, so leave preconceived ideas of the reserved Japanese at home. Expect to see children and grandparents alike sucking on suggestive looking lollipops and anyone and everyone straddling schlong-shaped see-saws. There are no red cheeks in sight here either – aside from those on the heavily made-up (and particularly unconvincing) transvestites who carry the main float.
Sun, Sea, Drums and Fire: Noto Peninsula Festivals
When: Spring, Summer
Where: Noto Hanto, Ishikawa Prefecture
While the sleepy Noto Peninsula in Ishikawa is a popular getaway for urban domestic holidaymakers who want to soak up some old style Japan, it’s not top of most foreign visitors’ must-see lists. However, anyone who’s spent any time in the country will tell you that the traditional, rural idylls are well worth a visit and really come alive more than anywhere else during festival season.
Ushitsu’s Abare (Rampage) Matsuri (first weekend of July) is the big favourite among both locals and foreigners, who’ve taken to calling it the Fire & Violence Festival: the origins of the festival are said to be in the fight against a violent plague that swept the countryside centuries ago.
Friday night offers a parade of 40 giant Kiriko (Noto’s unique illuminated lantern floats), lots of drums and fireworks. Saturday sees minimally clothed local men exorcise demons by parading two mikoshi (portable shrines) through the town, stopping sporadically to kick the hell out of them before dragging them into the river to smash them about some more.
At the town’s central shrine the shrines are smashed and burned in a huge bonfire. When that’s all over, Kiriko carrying continues in an increasingly precarious fashion as ton-heavy floats get more difficult to hold as participants get more inebriated. Aside from children, nobody at this festival isn’t drunk.
The final fest of the season comes on 23rd-25th of August in the shape of the Wajima Taisai (Great Festival) where yet more loincloths and fire can be seen alongside more mikoshi, this time taken for a nice dip in the sea by men in drag.
Wajima is famous for its laquerware, so here the floats are especially beautiful and well-crafted. This doesn’t stop the carriers spinning them at every junction, often dropping them as extreme dizziness sets in. Try and keep your own wits about you for when that 50ft pole with the burning thatch atop it comes crashing down during the festival finale. There are no safety barriers in Noto.
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Have you been to Japan recently? Seen any amazing festivals? Got any tips? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.