There’s a festival for that: Japan and its matsuri

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A trip to Japan at any time is a cultural adventure, with plenty of very ‘Japanese’ experiences to try on your travels through the country. Staying in a traditional ryokan guest house, heading to a local izakaya, riding the Shinkansen, tucking into a bowl of good ramen and eating some fine sushi usually top most people’s lists. However, we’d argue that if there were one thing you should do to get a taste of Japan’s culture, society, religion, food and sense of fun, it’s attending a matsuri – or festival.

Nebuta festival floats

Some matsuri are huge and attract visitors from all over Japan. Aomori’s Nebuta festival, with its illuminated floats and unique dancing, draws millions over one August week. Hundreds of thousands of people descend on the little town of Takayama to watch the huge floats during its spring and autumn festivals. But there are thousands of smaller, more off-beat, quirky festivals across Japan. Most happen in summer and are a celebration of community, the local shrine, traditional dance, music and the opportunity to wear yukata or happi, eat festival food and drink more than a few drops of sake.  

Festival yukata

Despite their diversity, these smaller matsuri are a way to maintain tradition and connect whole communities across generations. Most are hundreds, some thousands of years old; the oldest festivals date back 1,200 years. With the straight-laced, seemingly conservative attitude of the everyday, some of these festivals seem unusually weird, wacky and downright dangerous… sometimes insane.

Insider tour leader Brett Plotz rounds them up for you. 

Saidaiji Eyo Matsuri / Naked Man Festival (Saidaiji, Okayama)

My first experience of a matsuri came in July 2008, when, straight out of college, I arrived in rural Okayama. Each year in Saidai, just south of the city, the infamous Hadaka Matsuri (literally, “naked festival”) is held in February – perhaps the coldest month of the year. It is not the only “Hadaka” festival to take place in Japan, but is certainly the most famous.

I found myself naked in a large canvas tent, standing in line with only a pair of split-toed sock booties and a long, rolled up length of cloth. An old woman proceeded to tie the tightest fundoshi (buttock-revealing loincloth) just covering my nether regions (if nothing else). I then emerged from the tent in said loincloth shivering and joined 40,000 other participants doing laps around the temple grounds – including a run through an ice-cold pond. Fuelled by machismo and a fair amount of sake, myself and 40,000 others did this circuit repeatedly, shouting “washoi, washoi!” until it was time to gather on the raised stone platform of the temple. 

The origins of the festival go back over 500 years, but centre around competition for a limited number of lucky talismans. At a certain time, all the lights are turned out and the priests drop several shingi sticks with a lucky handwritten Buddhist sutra. The goal is to catch the the shingi through the giant free-for-all and run out one of the temple gates with everything intact. The winner is crowned the area’s lucky man for the year and wins a decent cash prize too. This video from Sankei News gives you an idea.

It was quite the introduction to Japan and its festivals – and I soon realised that there were plenty more strange traditional festivals throughout the year. Here are just a few.  

Nada Kenka Matsuri / Fighting Festival (Nada, Himeji, Hyogo)

Festivals and the honour of taking part often attracts Japans’ traditional underworld members, the Yakuza. Although not a threat to most people, you can usually distinguish them by their impressive tattoos. Tokyo’s Sanja Matsuri in Asakusa attracts many local Yakuza vying for the honour of carrying Mikoshi. However, there are other festivals, such as the Nada Kenka (“fight”) Matsuri in Himeji, which attracts Yakuza and local gang members to display their tattoos and fight for their shrine. Again, there are many “Kenka” festivals around Japan, but Nada is probably the most famous. In this festival, held in the centre of a deep concrete amphitheatre, three mikoshi (portable miniature shrines made of wood and carried by teams of men) are literally smashed into each other while each team fights with the other. 

Abare Matsuri / Fire violence Festival (Ushitsu, Noto Peninsula, Ishikawa)

This is another summer festival featuring portable mikoshi shrines, as well as large tall lantern floats called kiriko. Even in a list of over-the-top festivals, this one stands out. The local kami (spirit/god) in Ushitsu Town is said to enjoy boisterous activity – and therefore locals go on a bit of a rampage, making as much noise as possible and celebrating with fire and alcohol (that great combination). The culmination of the festival is when the mikoshi are thrown into the ocean, then chopped up and thrown onto a bonfire! A great video from here.

Onbashira Matsuri / Great Pillar Festival (Suwa, Nagano)

This Spring festival is known as one of the most dangerous in the country, which makes it hard to look away from! Held only every seven years, the festival is based around the felling and transporting of 16 large trees for the rebuilding of Suwa Grand Shrine. The signature event of the festival is when teams ride the trunks down a mountainside to show their bravado. This video from Oh Matsuri will give you some idea of the insanity.  

Suigun Matsuri, AKA the Pirate Festival (Oshima Island, Ehime)

This summer festival spans three days to celebrate the legacy of the Murakami Pirates, a clan which controlled the entire Seto Inland Sea area between Honshu and Shikoku from the 14th-16th century. The “pirates” were in fact more like a naval force than thieves, and are still celebrated by their descendants on the islands. Highlights include a massive nighttime fireworks display and a beach dance in full pirate gear, which is accompanied by huge torches and culminates in a massive bonfire. Participants try to brace and fire larger and larger teppo (early, single shot guns introduced from Europe, which were effectively hand cannons) towards the sea until they are knocked over by the recoil.   

Nakizumo Matsuri /Crying Sumo Festival (Asakusa, Tokyo)

Baby. Scaring. Festival. Babies are brought up in pairs to face off like a mini sumo match. Ostensibly the goal is to crown one kiddo as the first and loudest crier, as this is said to indicate good health for the rest of their lives. And if you think this is going to scar kids, check out the Namahage Festival from Akita, or Okinawa’s Paantu Matsuri.  

Akutai Matsuri, AKA Cursing Festival (Kasama, Ibaraki)

Started about 200 years ago during the Edo period as a way for garment workers to let off steam, this winter festival encourages participants to yell insults at priests dressed as Tengu – a type of mythical devil with a long nose. This one is perfect for those who grew up scarred after being scared by sumo wrestlers as children. 

Kanamara Matsuri / Phallus Festival (Kawasaki, Kanagawa)

If all of these ways of venting seem a bit too violent and you’re wondering where the love is, it’s at Kanayama Shrine every April. This festival is all about phalluses (including one large pink one) and fertility. It’s relatively new, but there are many phallic shrines around the country, plus festivals celebrating fertility that go back hundreds of years. Take a look at this video for more on the Kanamara fertility festival. Make love, not war.

This should give you an insight into the huge variety of traditional shenanigans that take place across Japan – and a taster of how exciting a festival can be. If you don’t fancy a fight, first degree burns or throwing yourself down a mountain, perhaps a small local festival will suit. Either way, if you’re able to plan for one of the big festivals or you stumble across a small local event, there’s not really anything more Japanese than a matsuri. 

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