Men in straw capes wearing ferocious horned masks with gleaming eyes and long, pointed fangs stare down at a group of reporters. Others donning masks of a devil, monkey and a long-nosed tengu birdman squat as they pose for photographs during a news conference on Nov. 30 — the day after UNESCO added a group of 10 rituals featuring Raiho-shin (visiting gods) to its Intangible Cultural Heritage list.
From the famous Namahage deity of Oga, Akita Prefecture, to the exotic Paantou, the mud-caked, foul smelling gods of Okinawa’s Miyako Island, the roster was an all-star lineup of some of the visually intriguing mythical creatures featured in festivals handed down through generations and practiced in communities across Japan.
It was also a rare occasion for the nation’s peculiar festivals, or kisai, to come under the international spotlight, and an opportunity to showcase these unique traditions to a wider audience while they still exist. In graying Japan, many festivals are struggling to survive.
“That was big news for kisai fans,” says Yuko Kato, president of Omatsuri Japan, a company that produces matsuri (festivals) on behalf of the organizers. “When you’re in my business, you get somewhat bored of regular festivals and tend to be drawn toward the stranger ones.”
With an estimated 300,000 festivals held across Japan each year, there seems to be no abundance of bizarre customs to look out for.
Take the annual Christ Festival held on the first Sunday of June in the village of Shingo in Honshu’s northern-most Aomori Prefecture.
According to local legend, Jesus Christ came to Japan when he was 21, returning to Judea at the age of 33. Condemned to crucifixion, his younger brother, Isukiri, took his place instead, sparing the life of Christ who returned to Japan via Siberia and settled in Herai, which is now Shingo. On a mound in the village are two graves — one of Christ, who is said to have married, had three children and lived until the ripe old age of 106, and another containing the locks of Isukiri.
The fantastical story derives from the so-called Takenouchi Documents, a set of apocryphal papers that present outlandish accounts on the history of humanity and Earth. In 1935, Kiyomaro Takenouchi, founder of a religion based on these documents, visited Shingo and discovered Christ’s grave. The following year, “archaeologists” found Christ’s will in Shingo, and the village began hosting the Christ Festival in 1964, where kimono-clad women take part in the etymologically mysterious nanyadoyara dance around the purported graves.
“I don’t think residents believe the story, and there are only a few Christians among them anyway,” says Kotoku Sugioka, a freelance writer and author of “Kisai: Peculiar Festival in Japan.” Nonetheless, the legend has become the primary tourist draw for a village of 2,455.
At Christop, a tiny shop in Shingo with a logo suspiciously like that of convenience store chain Ministop, customers can buy Star of David-shaped cookies and “Christ’s holy rice,” among various Christ-themed souvenirs.
Sugioka, 49, says he became enamored with Japan’s more offbeat rituals when he was commissioned to write a series of stories on festivals around 15 years ago.
“Until then I had absolutely no interest in festivals,” Sugioka says. “But during my research, I began noticing how there were some really weird ones out there.”
He went through lists of matsuri compiled into books by regional newspapers.
“There would be, say, 1 out of a 100 festivals that would stand out for its uniqueness,” he says.
Sugioka began visiting these strange festivals, featuring the more eye-catching ones in the aforementioned book, which he published in 2014.
Divided into four sections — “Peculiar,” “Humorous,” “Sexual” and “Scary” — the book takes readers on a journey across Japan involving heavy doses of legend and folklore.
The Kojiki (beggar) Festival that takes place on April 1 in Agata Shrine in Gifu Prefecture, features a soot-covered man in rags sitting cross-legged. A tradition said to continue from the Edo Period (1603-1868), the festival is based on the legend of a beggar who appeared out of nowhere and began living beneath the shrine during a terrible drought. Despite suffering from famine, the kind villagers took care of the beggar and, lo and behold, rain began falling from the heavens.
At the festival’s climax, villagers flip over a large tub of festive red rice in front of the deified beggar and scramble to grab a bite of it, which is supposed to bring good luck.
On the second Sunday of January, four men with fake handle-bar moustaches appear at Sobataka Shrine in Chiba Prefecture. Facing each other, one side offers the other two seemingly endless bowls of sake. Stroking their whiskers, they ask for refills. This process is repeated the other way around and, by the time it’s over, the four men are red-faced and visibly tipsy.
The Higenade (moustache-stroking) Festival is said to have originated around eight centuries ago during the Kamakura Period (1185-1333). It’s a ritual in which those tasked to manage the shrine hand over their duties to the next party.
During the Niu Festival, also known as the Laughing Festival, held on the second Sunday of October at Niu Shrine in Wakayama Prefecture, a man with white face makeup leads a group of men carrying a mikoshi (portable shrine), all while laughing his head off and encouraging the crowd to do the same.
There are also numerous sex-themed festivals, including the popular Kanamara Festival (also known as the penis festival) at Kanagawa Prefecture’s Kanayama Shrine featuring giant penis effigies and all things phallic. Local sex workers used to visit the shrine to seek protection from sexually transmitted diseases.
At the Onda Festival held on the first Sunday of February at the Asukaniimasu Shrine in Nara Prefecture, a man wearing a tengu mask squirts fluids on bowls of rice from a bamboo rod held in front of his crotch, and later performs a mock sex-act with Otafuku, the goddess of mirth, in celebration of fertility. After the two are finished making out, Otafuku stands up, wipes her groin with paper and throws it to the cheering crowd.
Down south in Kagoshima Prefecture is the 300-year-old Yokkabui Festival at Tamate Shrine where men wearing masks made of palm bark throw screaming children into straw bags. Depicted in photographer Charles Freger’s book, “Yokainoshima: Island of Monsters,” these masked men known as Garappa, a version of a kappa river spirit, are said to offer protection from water accidents.
Some celebrations, however, are generally off-limits to outsiders, including the secretive Akamata-Kuromata ritual of Okinawa’s Yaeyama Islands.
“From dusk until the early hours of the morning during these ritual events, young village men parade around the village houses accompanying the masked gods Akamata (red god) and Kuromata (black god), played by young male villagers dressed in billowing gowns fashioned from palm leaves, singing a repertory of ritual songs,” Matt Gillan writes in his book, “Songs from the Edge of Japan: Music-making in Yaeyama and Okinawa.”
Video and audio recordings and even taking notes are prohibited, Gillan says, and when he was able to see the ritual in Aragusuku in 2002, all outside participants were subjected to a body search to check for hidden cameras and recording devices.
“Perhaps because of this secrecy, and the high level of group identity that it seems to produce, the level of seriousness with which the musical performance is undertaken was probably the highest of any musical genre that I experienced in Yaeyama,” he says.
Hideo Nigata, vice-chairman of the Nippon Matsuri Network, a nonprofit organization working to protect Japan’s rural heritage, has visited and researched around 420 festivals across Japan. He has seen his share of unusual rituals during his travels.
The Kanchu Misogi festival of Kikonai in southwestern Hokkaido involves four men clutching go-shintai (objects of worship) and diving into the freezing waters of the Tsugaru Strait. Held each January, Nigata says the practice can be life-threatening.
“This one is intense,” Nigata says. “These men have icicles growing out of their noses as their bodies literally freeze in the icy water. Their mothers are crying as they watch their sons endure the ritual.”
And where there’s ice, there’s also fire. The origins of the Kebesu Festival held on Oct. 14 in Oita Prefecture’s Kunisaki Peninsula remain a mystery. The fire festival involves a battle between a masked creature called the Kebesu and the white-shrouded Touba. The Kebesu tries to charge into a bonfire while the Touba prevents it, although in the end both the Kebesu and Touba run riot, letting fire sparks fly into the air. Those hit by the sparks are said to be promised good health for the year.
But while Nigata has seen hundreds of festivals in his time, he says he still yearns for his hometown’s local festival.
The 73-year-old from Okayama Prefecture joined advertisement giant Hakuhodo Inc. after graduating university and worked for the company until retiring in 2006.
“All the while, I rarely had the time to go back home, and whenever I did, I would notice my hometown becoming deserted,” he says, a symptom that has become all too common as depopulation leaves its mark on the Japanese countryside. “But every time I return when the local festival is taking place, everything changes and my town is filled with vitality.”
That power to gather people and nurture their cultural identity lies at the heart of the festival, he says, and it’s something he believes should be preserved for educational and historical purposes.
While there is no comprehensive data on the number of festivals in Japan, Nigata says the nation’s low birthrate and aging population suggest it will be increasingly difficult for many matsuri to continue.
Kato, head of Omatsuri Japan, says her project aims at helping festival organizers who are grappling with a lack of funding and volunteers.
The idea first dawned on her while visiting Aomori’s famous Nebuta Festival in 2011, the year northeastern Japan was devastated by the March 11 magnitude 9 earthquake, tsunami and meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant.
While she had seen the festival featuring enormous lantern floats many times as a child spending summer break at her grandmother’s home in Aomori, this year was different. There were scarcely any tourists, she says. The Fukushima crisis had made overseas visitors wary of traveling to the region and the nation was shrouded in an air of self-restraint toward leisurely activities.
“Once the time came, however, hordes of locals showed up and stirred up a delightful festival with all its glory,” the 33-year-old says.
“Festivals are the lifeblood of communities,” she says, “and even the Nebuta Festival has been struggling with a dearth of participants.”
Kato launched her company in 2014 and has since been producing a steady stream of festivals with funding from municipalities looking to gather tourists and corporations interested in promoting products such as new alcoholic beverages and electronic cigarettes at events. Her company has quickly grown, now seeing revenue topping ¥100 million.
“The key is to have businesses and municipalities fund the festivals, not the local organizers who are often scrambling to find the necessary resources to host these celebrations,” she says.
Strange festivals are one of the draws. Last December, Omatsuri Japan and travel agency Club Tourism International Inc. hosted a bus tour to see the Akutai (cursing) Festival in Kasama, Ibaraki Prefecture. The festival features 13 priests from Atago Shrine trekking up Mount Atago, while participants hurl insults at them.
“With a growing number of foreign tourists there’s been increasing demand for tours of peculiar festivals,” Kato says.
In terms of absurdity, the Jalanpon held in the village of Kuna in Chichibu, Saitama Prefecture, may have an edge over the more well-known kisai.
Held on a Sunday in mid-March, the event takes place in a local auditorium and is essentially a mock funeral in which a villager donning a white burial robe sits in a coffin and gulps down a large bottle of sake as the priest, also a local dressed in monk’s attire, improvises a Buddhist sutra while chugging glasses of beer.
Shin Sasakubo, a Chichibu-based professional guitarist and avant-garde artist, first witnessed the peculiar ritual around 10 years ago when he was teaching guitar lessons in Kuna.
“One of my student’s father invited me to check it out,” he says. “But no one seemed to clearly know the history behind the festival.”
According to lore, the ritual traces its roots to when human sacrifices were made at Suwa Shrine in an effort to stave off a plague, and has continued for at least 130 years.
Despite the harrowing background, there’s not a hint of solemnity as grinning participants beat on drums and other instruments. Eventually the man playing the role of the deceased will stumble around the room asking for money so he can cross the mythical Sanzu River on the way to the afterlife.
Villagers will then carry the coffin to Suwa Shrine, led by the priest and the deceased. Once rested inside the shrine, the deceased will crawl back into the coffin and the lid will be shut. A few minutes later he is revived and climbs back out, wrapping up the event by wishing for the good health and happiness of attendees.
To the delight of the organizers, the Jalanpon has become something of a cult phenomenon, drawing both media and kisai fans alike eager to catch a glimpse of this bizarre spectacle.
“This festival is run entirely by villagers and there aren’t any real Buddhist monks or Shinto priests involved,” Sasakubo says. “But it’s still a tradition that lives on to this day, and that flexibility and evasiveness may encapsulate the essence and allure of festivals.”