Every summer, hundreds of local festivals known as “matsuri” take place throughout Japan. Celebrating religious traditions, folklore, historical events, and regional culture, each matsuri has its own special characteristics.
Though different festivals have different attractions, some common sights include parades, dances, music performances, special clothing, fireworks, floats, games, and food stalls.
With so many to choose from, here is a small sampling of unique summer festivals to let you know what you might be in for during Japan’s festival season.
Held nearby Yakasa Shrine in Kyoto throughout the entire month of July, Gion Matsuri was deemed a “World Intangible Cultural Heritage Event” by UNESCO in 2009. Dating back to the ninth century, the first Gion Matsuri was held to pray for the end of a plague. The emperor believed that the gods could be appeased through a purification ritual and ordered that portable shrines be placed wherever outbreaks occurred.
Today, religious components can be seen in the design of floats, as well as the ongoing tradition of selecting a local boy as a “sacred messenger”. The boy’s feet cannot touch the ground from July 13th until the parade on July 17th.
The main attraction of Gion Matsuri is the procession of 33 floats known as “yamaboko”. The largest yamaboko called “hoko” are multiple stories tall and can weigh up to 12 tons each. Teams of several dozen men pull the wooden floats through the streets.
Sendai Tanabata Matsuri
Known as the “world’s most elegant festival of paper and bamboo”, the Sendai Tanabata Matsuri celebrates Tanabata, an ancient star festival that stems from Chinese tradition. According to legend, Tanabata is the only time when the two stars Altair and Vega, which are usually separated from each other by the milky way, are able to reunite.
Tanabata is celebrated on the seventh day of the seventh month. Some areas of Japan interpret this as July 7th, while others adhere to the formerly used lunar calendar and celebrate on August 7th.
In Sendai, Tanabata is celebrated in August. On August 4th, the day before the Tanabata Matsuri begins, bamboo poles longer than 10 meters are brought into the shopping districts of Sendai. Shopkeepers prepare decorations months in advance to hang from the poles. Different decorations express different wishes. For example, nets invite a good harvest while cranes symbolize long life. Customarily, each shop owner makes a set of five poles.
As visitors browse the busy shopping streets, they can enjoy the brightly-colored paper decorations flapping in the wind.
Founded 1000 years by Taira no Kojiro Masakado, the founder of the Soma clan, Soma Nomaoi in Fukushima celebrates the region’s horse-breeding heritage.
Throughout the course of the 3-day festival held in late July, over 400 armored soldiers participate in ritual performances and competitions.
There are three main events, Ogyouretsu, Kachu Keiba, and Nomakade. Ogyouretsu is the procession of horse riders in full samurai gear. Riders don banners of various houses and clans as they gallop down the streets. In Kachu Keiba, 12 horsemen compete in an exhilarating 1000-meter race wearing traditional samurai gear. In Nomakade, several horses are released and pursued on foot by young men wearing white. The first horse that is captured is brought to Odaka Shrine to be worshipped.
Soma Nomaoi is held concurrently at three different shrines: Ota Shrine, Nakamura Shrine, and Odaka Shrine.
About the author:
Britney Budiman (@booritney) is a writer, minimalist, aspiring effective altruist, and runner-in-progress with a penchant for saying “yes.” Previously, she has worked in Cambodia at a traditional arts NGO, in Brazil as a social sciences researcher, and in San Francisco at a housing start-up. She currently lives in the countryside of Kagoshima, Japan, where she teaches English. Her favorite thing in the world is good conversation.