What is Matsuri (festival)?
Matsuri means festival in Japanese and more than 100,000 festivals are held in a year in Japan. Japanese loves Matsuri to unite with friends, family or their communities. Many Matsuris are held in summer so if you’re in Japan in summer, visiting Matsuri will be a great experience…! Let’s take an easy look at the history of Japan’s Matsuri.
Below are typical things you can see at festivals. We, Japanese, become very excited and I personally feel these are the symbols of summer in Japan!
A fireworks display is one of the very exciting festivals that many Japanese wear yukata (light cotton kimono) to enjoy summer air. Fireworks has a long history in Japan that originally thought it could drive away bad spirits. However, we don’t celebrate New Year with fireworks. We prefer to celebrate quietly with families on New Year’s Eve. On every Saturdays and Sundays in August, 2~5 fireworks displays are held in Tokyo and surrounding prefectures at most. Some are still held in July and September and not only Tokyo, many fireworks displays are held through out Japan. Usually displays are about 1-2 hours with hundreds of fireworks. You can see various burst patterns such as heart shaped fireworks to emoji fireworks. The area is usually crowded which surrounding hotels become fully booked. Trains back to your hotel would be crowded too. Of course, there are many Yatai (food stands) to eat and drink full. Fireworks display with beers is the best…!
Bon Odori dancing
Bon Odori or Bon Dancing is the traditional folk dance performed during Obon. Obon is an unique event in Japan to welcome our ancestors’ spirits. It is typically from August 13th to 16th which is said that the spirits came back to our world during this season. Lots of companies shut down during this Obon and many Japanese takes Obon holiday to gather with their families or go on a trip. Bon Odori was originally danced to calm ancestors’ spirits that have come back during this season. Dancers wear yukata and dances with Bon festival songs around a center tower called yagura. Now, we rarely dance because of religious meanings but we do dance for fun.
Yatai or Demise (Food stands)
At Japanese festivals, you would see rows of food stands called yatai or demise. Various foods are sold from chicken, pork, Japanese cuisine, takoyaki, to desserts and more. My favorite is Ringo Ame which is an apple candy. You can buy and enjoy eating while waking around. There are also shooting games, goldfish scooping games or ring tosses. As for goldfish scooping games, you need to scoop golden fish with a scoop made out of thin Japanese paper. Be careful not to tore apart the paper while trying! If you get golden fishes, you can bring back with you.
Mikoshi (Portable shrine)
At some festivals, people carry Mikoshi or a portable shrine to worship gods. Mikoshi is usually a similar structure to a main shrine and believed a deity is in Mikoshi. People started to carry a deity to purify the area when epidemics and disasters were horrible in the past. The weight of Mikoshi could be very heavy when multiple men carry. Men shouts ‘Washoi washoi’ to show their full energy. It is believed that deities enjoy energetic performances such as running very fast with carrying Mikoshi or holding Mikoshi up and down. It is a very enthusiastic practice in Japan.
Major Matsuri in Tokyo
May 15th – 17th, 2020zpostponed to October 16th – 18th, 2020 due to the COVID-19 virus.
Many Japanese feel the beginning of summer by this Sanja Matsuri at Asakusa Shrine (previously named ‘Sanja Daigongen Shrine’). In just three days of Sanja Matsuri, about 1.8 million people visit the downtown Asakusa. The Ujiko (people from the neighboring community) play main roles for the portable shrines (mikoshi) parade. About 100 portable shrines located at the neighbors are carried to the Asakusa shrine by the Ujiko. Each portable shrines are purified at the Asakusa shrine and returned by the Ujiko during the matsuri. Asakusa Shrine also has three main portable shrines and all three main portable shrines are carried on the last day of the matsuri. By the parade of portable shrines, it is believed that gods (in the portable shrines) can look around the town. Portable shrines are usually carried roughly and shaked strongly because it is believed that fierce movements can drive out evil spirits from the town. Cultural dances are also performed frequently at the shrine during the matsuri.
Middle of May in odd numbered years
One of the three great matsuri of Edo, current Tokyo and also one of the three major matsuri of Japan. Kanda Matsuri is held at Kanda Myojin Shrine every odd numbered year’s May for about a week. Hundred of thousand people visit this matsuri every year. About 100 portable shrines located at the neighbors are carried to Kanda Myojin to purify. The Ujiko (people from the neighboring community) also carry the main three portable shrines of Kanda Myojin on one of the dates and walk around Akihabara and Nihonbashi district and go back to Kanda Myojin. This parade is very serious that road controls will be in effect. About 500 people wearing clothes of Heian Period (794~1185) walk the modern street of Tokyo. The contrasts are loved by many people and this is absolutely the highlight. This Kanda Matsuri is also famous as an innovative matsuri that collaborates with animation characters.
June 7th – 17th, 2020
Sanno Matsuri is held at Hie Jinja Shrine every even numbered years. For odd numbered years, sister event, Kanda Matsuri takes place. What this Sanno Matsuri does is the same as Kanda Matsuri. You can of course enjoy the food stands as other matsuri.
Middle of July
Mitama Matsuri was started from 1947 at the Yasukuni Shrine. Numerous (about thirty thousand…!) paper lanterns are raised and beautifully lit up. Mitama Marsuri is also very famous for its number of food stands. It is very fun just being there. Rituals to soothe the spirit are held at night during the Matsuri.
Fukagawa Hachiman Matsuri
August 9th – 13th
One of the great matsuri of Edo, current Tokyo. Fukagawa Hachiman Matsuri is held at Tomioka Hachimangu Shrine every year. Five hundred thousand people visit this Matsuri. Same as other Matsuri above, main focus is to purify the neighbor portable shrines and let gods see the town. What is interesting for this matsuri is that people get splashed at the parade. Viewers are allowed to splash water to the Ujiko (people from the neighboring community) who carry the portable shrines in order to purify them. Another name for this matsuri is ‘water festival.’
Matsuri’s origin comes from a Japanese myth called ‘Iwato-gakure’. In this story, Amaterasu Omikami, the sun goddess, hid herself in the heavenly cave rock because of Susano’s, the god ruling the world, outrageous behavior. Since the sun goddess hid herself, the world became dark with no lights. Myriad gods had difficulties with living in the dark world so they thought about the way how Amaterasu Omikami can come out from the heavenly cave. Gods decided to hold Matsuri (festival) and Amaterasu Omikami finally came out when it got very lively. The world got the light again. This story is told to be the origin of Matsuri.
In the past, people considered they can show their appreciation to the gods by Matsuri. Matsuri was the way to send messages to the gods. Japan’s famous culture, sumo and Bon Odori (one of dancing styles) were also the part of Matsuris then. During Edo period, religious aspect of Matsuri faded gradually and people started enjoying Matsuri as a pop culture. However, the number of Matsuri during Meiji Period declined a lot due to the decree of Separation of Shinto and Buddhism. Buddhism’s activities relating to gods became prohibited, for it was considered that Buddhism must appreciate only Buddha and not gods. Thus, many Matsuris held by buddhists disappeared. After the World War, finally the declaration of separating Shinto and Buddhism faded and the Japanese started to reconstruct the culture of Matsuris. Since people could gather with families and friends, Matsuri has been the symbol of peace then.
The main characteristic of Japanese Matsuris is ‘diversity’. Our distinctive way to view religion are reflected to Matsuris. World’s religions are Monotheism or polytheism usually. Even Japanese views are polytheism, we consider every single things has gods. The nature, mountains, water, ocean, or even artificial cups or clothes can be what we worship. That’s why there are numerous styles of Matsuris in Japan. For example, at northern area, people act namahage (looks like a monster…) crazily with knives on their hands to drive away the bad spirits. At south, Matsuri that Okinawa lion dogs ward off evils are held. Diverse Matsuris show unique aspects of Japan to you!
Matsuri used to have strong religious aspects but it has gotten gradually weak. Today, many Japanese simply enjoy Matsuri to gather with friends or families. Of course there are still religious meanings for the temples and shrines. It would be a great experience to visit Matsuri, a symbol of summer in Japan.