Sweltering in matsuri mayhem

Centuries-old rituals add color to the vibrant days of summer

As the temperature rises and languid, lazy days melt into humid nights, Japan shifts gear, readying itself for the plethora of local matsuri ceremonies that blossom across the nation in the months ahead.

Matsuri, or festivals, are provincial gatherings usually held on Shinto or Buddhist days of significance, and whole towns come alive with dancing and drinking. Usually reserved townsfolk drop their inhibitions to join celebrations that can last until the early hours of the morning.

Festivals are the best place to see and experience modern trends intermingling seamlessly with traditional legacies. People dress in kimono, summer yukata and happi coats, but fashions frequently reflect this year’s trends (Harper’s Bazaar’s Japan edition tells us that a “yesteryear, duo tone” look will be the look this summer).

Because the character of the festivals come to represent a town’s spirit, usually reserved locals come alive for a weekend. Men will show their bravery and strength by carrying mikoshi (portable shrines) that weigh up to several tons, and some of the more extreme festivals that have already taken place this year, such as the Mount Takao and Miyajima Firewalking festivals, have ordinary townsfolk join monks in walking on hot coals as part of the festivities.

While many festivals follow the format of a parade — often an unconvincing costume show with a camera-toting audience of spectators — some of the most powerful festivals have an atmosphere that is inclusive. Visiting these matsuri, it seems that there is a certain wildness or conversely an endearing poignancy in the Japanese psyche that is usually restrained under the pressures of modern living. Certain codes of behavior such as a fighting spirit that is regularly deemed unruly or unacceptable are given pardon, and generally spiritually ambivalent locals display an innate passion and faith, as if suddenly waking up from hibernation.

Despite the absolute bedlam of a given festival, the next day the town will return to normal, often as if nothing happened the night before. This is the allure of the festival season, where towns will get swept up in a mysterious short-term fervor that harks back to days before urban life became a permanent rush-hour. Practices that seem ancient and mystical are revered in modern metropolises with the same intensity as centuries gone by.

The following are summer festivals with an unnameable cultural essence often found lacking even in the most lauded of traditional areas, such as the temple towns of Kyoto and Nara. While winter has stellar fire festivities, such as the Nara Yamayaki, and Nozawa’s Dosijin, the relaxed and hedonistic atmosphere of summer fests can’t be beat.

Sanja Matsuri

The third largest festival in Tokyo, and possibly its most exciting, centers around the Asakusa Shrine, which is not very big in stature — especially when compared to the enormously popular Sensoji Temple next door — but is rich in history and draped in an aura of austerity.

During festival time, the fierce parochial pride of this area comes to the fore, exposing the real character of shitamachi (downtown) Tokyo. For centuries, artisans, craftsmen, carpenters, firemen, and let’s not forget the yakuza, have inhabited Asakusa. People from such backgrounds join in the mikoshi parades, and the festival is most striking for the magnificent irezumi (Japanese tattoos) bared for all to see. This is an event of paramount importance to the locals, who anticipate it months in advance, and then reminisce about it in the months after. Horikazuwaka, a local traditional tattoo artist who has the mammoth task of completing full-body suits to coincide with this festival says, “Sanja is incredibly exciting for us, it practically marks the start of the year.”

May 18, 19, 20, Asakusa, Tokyo, day/night, [03] 3844-1221

Tenjin Matsuri

First held in 951, this massive celebration is said to have influenced the unique psyche and character of Osaka people. Canals and rivers are the arteries of Osaka, and as a homage to this, costumed locals carry 1-ton shrines from Tenmangu Shrine to Dojima River. The floats are then transferred onto decorated boats, and festival goers continue on the river with a 100-boat river pageant that splits into two groups, half going upstream and the other half going downstream. As with many festivals nowadays, however, asides from the centuries-old rituals that performed at the festival, much of the focus is on dancing, drinking, and eating, which turns the entire vicinity into an epicenter of celebration.

July 24, 25, Osaka Tenmangu, Kita-ku, Osaka, day/night, [06] 6353-0025,

Miyajima Island Fireworks

Although in many instances they have no religious significance, fireworks displays have a matsuri atmosphere and are a much-loved cultural institution. The manufacture and choreography of fireworks in Japan approaches being an art form, reflecting the Japanese sense of aesthetics, and displays of pyrotechnic prowess here are significantly different to those in the West. Careful attention is given to color combinations and integration, not to mention mind-boggling designs such as kitschy Hello Kitty-shaped explosions.

Miyajima Island’s fireworks explode over the Inland Sea, reflecting back into the water as they explode, forming an impressive backdrop to UNESCO heritage-listed Itsukushima Shrine’s sacred, crimson red tori gates.

Aug. 14, Itsukushima Shrine, Miyajima, Hiroshima Prefecture, 7:50 p.m.-8:50 p.m., [0829] 442011

Sumida River Fireworks

Closer to Tokyo is the Sumida River Fireworks, the capital’s biggest such display, with more than 20,000 fireworks exploding above beautiful lantern-lit boats. The fireworks are launched from two separate locations, near the Sakura bridge and between the Umayabashi and Komagatabashi bridges, and the main vantage points are along the river, close to Asakusa Station. This year is the festival’s 30th anniversary and there will be a 6,000-firework finale that will last more than five minutes. More than a million visitors are expected, so secure your spot early.

July 28, Sumida Park, Asakusa, Tokyo, 7 p.m., [03] 5246-1111

Mantoro Matsuri

In contrast to the party atmosphere of most festivals, this exquisitely serene affair involves the lighting of 2,000 stone lanterns and 1,000 hanging bronze lanterns. These are placed on a path leading to the Kasuga Taisha Shrine buildings, and as the visitor meanders along this path one’s mind is meant to enter a state of nothingness necessary for prayer.

Another lantern festival is the Toro Nagashi, in central Honshu’s Fukui Prefecture, where hundreds of candlelit paper lanterns are released into the water at Kehi no Matsubara Beach in Tsuruga. The gentle current carries away these red, blue and yellow bobbing lights as fireworks explode overhead.

Aug. 14, 15, Kasuga Taisha, Nara-shi, Nara Prefecture, [0742] 22-7788

Ohara Hadaka Matsuri

One of many hadaka (naked) matsuri that take place around Japan throughout the year, this autumn festival features 18 floats carried out into the rough waters of Ohara Kaigan Beach by groups of young men in loincloths, who are jostled about by chanting locals. It began during the Edo Period (1603-1867) to pray for crops and good fishing and currently takes the guise of a show of unrestrained machismo.

Sept. 23, 24, Isumi City, Ohara, Chiba Prefecture, [0470] 621243

Osaka Danjiri Matsuri

Osaka is known for it’s shitamachi atmosphere and overtly boisterous locals. In keeping with this, the Danjiri Matsuri in the Kishiwada district of the city explodes over a weekend of absolute mayhem. Thirty 3- to 4-ton danjiri shrines (worth 100-200 million yen each) are paraded, then raced, around the local streets, with hundreds of festival goers following suite.

The floats, hauled by locals using giant ropes, are notoriously hard to maneuver, resulting in the destruction of many a telegraph pole and building roof.

Osaka local, Shura Fujimoto says, “It’s the equivalent of a Spanish Bull run, with the mikoshi as the bulls. Many of the houses have a special ‘matsuri insurance.’ This festival is close to the hearts of the locals, and Kishiwada-born people often return home just for this event. (baseball slugger) Kazuhiro Kiyohada is rumored to take a day off and return just for Danjiri Matsuri.”

Sept. 15, 16, Kishiwada, Osaka, [072] 423-2121

Coronavirus banner