Here’s to the mother of all matsuri


Although Japan has a wealth of interesting festivals celebrated up and down the archipelago, taking in only a few requires considerable planning, effort and money.

There is a short-cut, however. The 12th All-Japan Festival of Folk-Performing Arts, scheduled for the weekend of Oct. 22-24 in Mito City, Ibaraki Prefecture, gives people the chance to experience a festival smorgasbord all in one location.

Popularly known as Matsuri-da Nippon!, the event is a showcase of the nation’s many vibrant festivals. A total of 36 organizations will take part in this year’s three-day event, bringing with them their own particular brands of performing arts.

One of the highlights of this annual event is the presence of award-winning organizations or individuals that have preserved and promoted performing arts in a given locality. This year, five organizations and one individual will receive awards for their efforts from Princess Takamado at the invitation-only opening ceremony to be held Oct. 22.

One of the organizations promotes Hakata Gion Yamakasa in the Kyushu city of Fukuoka. This festival takes place July 1-15 every year in honor of the Kushida Shrine at Kami Kawabata-cho, where the tutelary deities of Fukuoka are enshrined. On the last day of this festival, beautiful floats called yamakasa are carried to the shrine on the shoulders of young men in happi coats amid crowds of spectators.

Inuyama Matsuri Preservation Group, from Inuyama City, Aichi Prefecture, will also receive an award. Inuyama Matsuri is the annual festival of the Haritsuna Shrine, traditionally held on the first Sunday in April. The city’s most colorful festival, it was originally started by merchants. As well as the men in happi, all of the 13 flamboyantly bedecked floats are three-layered and decorated with different kinds of mechanical dolls.

Photographs and miniature figurines related to the award-winning festivals will also be on display for the duration of the event.

For the opening ceremony, last year’s award-winning organizations will present full-scale performances.

One will be the Hitachi Local Performing Arts Preservation Group, from the city of Hitachi in northeastern Ibaraki Prefecture. Every year the group performs a puppet play on top of a huge five-layered float at the main event in the Hitachi Cherry Blossom Festival (Hitachi Furyumono), which is held every April.

Also among the featured award-winners are a variety of Kiriko Festivals from the Noto region of Ishikawa Prefecture, which are celebrated every summer. These are old Shinto festivals in which local fishermen carry floats with lamps (kiriko) on top of them and pray to the gods for a good fishing season. Each community in the Noto area has its own distinctive style and floats. The Wajima Festival, for example, features gorgeous floats made from the famous Wajima lacquer, while in Nanao City, men carry enormous lantern-floats, which can weigh up to 2 tons.

Tokyo’s Hachioji Matsuri, which celebrates two village guardian shrines, will also be an opening-ceremony participant. The annual summer festival features 17 floats pulled by local residents, dressed in happi and hachimaki headbands. At the center of the float, a handful of musicians play hayashi, traditional festival music, on an elevated platform.

Those who can’t attend the invitation-only opening ceremony shouldn’t fret too much, though. On the Saturday and Sunday there will be many more full-scale festival performances in huge parades of portable shrines, wooden carts and floats.

One of the most spectacular of these is Kanto Matsuri from Akita Prefecture, which features the balancing of tall bamboo poles hung with dozens of paper lanterns These poles, which are called kanto, can be as long as 10 meters; affixed to them are bamboo crosspieces nearly half as wide. The lanterns, each containing a lit candle, hang from the crosspieces — a grand total of 46 lanterns per kanto. Balancing a kanto, which weighs 50-60 kg, in an open space is difficult enough, but balancing them at a crowded festival requires years of practice and considerable strength. It’s even more amazing when they are balanced on shoulders, foreheads and even hips.

Another festival highlight will be Fukura Matsuri, held May 4 and 5 in Yuza Town, Yamagata Prefecture. This festival is said to have originated to appease the divinity of Mount Chokai, long feared as a volcanic “mountain of fire,” and so worshipped with much respect.

The festival features portable shrines and processions of small children. The climax is the Hanagasa mai (flower dance), which is held in the precincts of the Mount Chokai Omoniimi Shrine. Eight dancers wear large floral headpieces and traditional costumes with straw sandals. After the performance they take off their hats and throw the flowers to the spectators. If you get one, it’s said that you will be blessed and enjoy happiness for the rest of the year.

Traditional Okinawan Bon festival drum-dancing (eisa) will join the event to stir up the festive spirit in the visitors. The performers dance and drum simultaneously to an exciting blend of traditional and contemporary Okinawan and Japanese music. The group performs with several types of drums and the aim of the whole performance is to worship gods and nature.

From the host prefecture of Ibaraki, 22 organizations will perform. Saitosai Festival from Kashima City, for example, is always guaranteed to be a lively, soul-stirring affair. The festival is in memory of the Nara Period (710-784) legend of the “Kashima-dachi,” when soldiers from the eastern regions gathered at Kashima Shrine and prayed for military success before they set out for strategic points in Kyushu to guard Japan from foreign invasions. The “soldiers” are accompanied by people wearing colorful outfits and waving nearly 2-meter-long sticks in the air to pray for their safety.

A large-scale display of mechanical dolls is one of the highlights. In the Tsunabi Festival (which literally means rope and fire) from Ina City, wind-up dolls perform acrobatic feats on three thick ropes, elevated 3 to 4 meters above the ground. For the show’s finale, fireworks attached to dolls are ignited, illuminating them against the night sky.

Ishioka Festival from Ishioka City, one of the three major festivals in the Kanto region, will also be one to watch. Floats and portable Shinto shrines that bear the Imperial Chrysanthemum symbol gather from each community and are paraded through the city. The festival is a treat for the ears as well as the eyes, with traditional Japanese festival music accompanying the action.

At the event site, local food and other products from all over Japan will be sold. Many yatai (outdoor food stalls) will offer popular and savory street foods, such as yaki-soba (fried noodles) and tako-yaki (little dumplings with a piece of octopus in the center) and okonomi-yaki (large pancakes filled with everything from cabbage to squid to shaved pork).

For foreign visitors, there will be a demonstration of the tea ceremony.