PJ Leonard is an aspiring fiction author who has lived in Japan since 2010. He's a Tokyo office worker by day, frantic writer by night.
Get Your Festival On!
If you visit Japan, you should see a festival. No, I don't mean that as a strong recommendation; I mean that there's such a vast array of festivals in Japan that you would have to actively go out of your way to avoid them. Not that you'd want to though, because Japanese festivals are awesome.
What Are Japanese Festivals?
In Japan, festivals are known as ‘Matsuri’ (祭), and are hard to pin down and define because of their sheer variety. But here’s the basic premise: Japan is full of Shinto Shrines (see picture below). These shrines house the local Kami (a ‘God’ of sorts). Once a year, the local area surrounding the shrine holds a street party in the Kami’s honor. The Kami is lifted out of the shrine into a portable ‘Mikoshi’ (神輿, see picture above) that is then carried around the party so the Kami can live it up with the mortals.
What Is "Wasshoi"?
"Wasshoi" is the distinctive chant of many a festival across Japan, usually by the people who are carrying the mikoshi or wheeling the dashi around town. The exact meaning is shrouded in mystery and is debated to this day, but one popular theory is that is means "Carry Peace" (as the "Wa" part is the Japanese word for "peace"). Nowadays, "wasshoi!" may be devoid of any explicit meaning, but is a popular word to yell when giving the kami the old heave-ho!
The Endless Variety
That's the general idea. Beyond that, there's an endless number of interpretations and flavours. In Kyoto, the Gion Matsuri takes over the downtown area with giant floats known as a ‘dashi’ (山車), in a sort of Japanese-style Macy's Thanksgiving Parade. In the sleepy town of Minakami in the mountains north of Tokyo, each club or group (from the school's basketball club to the old people's home) strut down the main street in a choreographed dance. And up on the Noto peninsula, where a tiny town holds their local Kami in contempt for spoiling their crops for many years, the locals set fire to the mikoshi, smash it and drown it in the river. As if they're trying out the different Pokémon move types to see which is ‘Super Effective!’ against Kami.
The other hallmark of festivals are the food stalls that line the streets, with their colorful plastic awnings and smoke billowing into the crowds. These are called ‘Yatai’ (屋台). Typical offerings of Yatai revolve around street food such as yakisoba, okonomiyaki, fried chicken (aka. ‘Karaage’) and, for some reason, cucumbers on sticks. Coconut shy-style stalls are also paper, where you can sink money into a blatantly rigged shooting game with a false hope of winning prizes. Everyone knows it's rigged, but that's all part of the fun, right? Right?
Big Ones, Small Ones...
From the epic celebrations that consume a whole city for weekend to the quaint little get togethers of a farming village that barely fill the space of one field (like the town where I lived from 2010 to 2012, ah the memories!), festivals of all shapes and sizes define the landscape of events in Japan, especially in the summer months. Even every single school up and down the land has their own Festival, known as a ‘Bunkasai’ (文化祭). I recently went to the festival of the nearby High School, and the kids there had effectively transformed the school building into a theme park, with every classroom housing a different event to try, food to taste, or game to play.
Festivals are part of the social and cultural fabric here, which means that - yep - they’re big business too. Let’s say a supermarket has a themed marketing campaign, which is centered around foodstuffs from Hokkaido. You can bet that the campaign will be called ‘Hokkaido Matsuri’. Or if it's themed around a foreign country, for example France, it will probably be called フランスフェス (France Fest). Staff will be on hand to shout and cheer on the wares and whip up a Matsuri-esque atmosphere.
Did You Know?
While there may be traditions and rituals, these festivals are by no means serious or somber. If there is one thing they all have in common, it's 'lively'. Oh, and alcohol. Lots of alcohol. It's a rare occasion when the typically uptight Japanese relax and let loose. So get involved and enjoy!
The Life of the Party
Cynicism aside, I love a good Matsuri. The long history of festivals in Japan coupled with the sheer proliferation of them mean that no two festivals are the same. The heady mix of culture, religion and lively bonhomie makes me something a Matsuri chaser. It also brings together a community, even if that community seems to have long since disbanded. Recently, my wife and I visited the aforementioned Minakami, an onsen town tucked away in the Mountains of Gunma Prefecture. The town itself is well past its heyday, with many abandoned buildings and those that remain looking rundown, to put it politely. Yet the annual festival was that weekend, and this dilapidated town burst into life with music, dancing, laughing and fun. Exactly what a festival should be. The local Kami should be very proud.
Alright, so I've whet your appetite for seeing a good festival. But hold your horses before you don a "Happi" coat and tie that "Hachimaki" headband on! Which festival should you go to?
Well, you can't really go wrong with any festival, and attendance is always free. That being said, here's three festivals in the Kanto region (the area surrounding Tokyo) to give you a taste of what to expect...
Kumagaya Uchiwa Matsuri
This vast Festival takes place in Kumagaya, about one hour north of Tokyo, in the sweltering heat of mid-July. Most festivals usually involve just the local area, but not this one: the entire city is consumed by matsuri-fever, as each neighborhood rolls out their festival float ‘dashi’ to be paraded at a leisurely pace towards the city center. The whole shebang is spread across three days, culminating on the final day when all neighborhood floats gather at a giant crossroads just north of the train station to clash cymbals, bash taiko drums and yell speeches at one another.
Another festival just north of Tokyo, this one takes place in the much more agreeable weather of October. The Kawagoe Matsuri also boasts an impressive array of traditional dashi marching through the streets, but with two exciting differences: first, the focal point of the festival takes place in the famed Nakacho district, which is packed with buildings and structures that have been around since the Edo period. Seeing the festival march past the old shops and houses is a surefire way imagine yourself in a Japanese time warp.
The second cool addition are the acrobatic firefighters. No, really. Watch these daredevils climb ladders as tall as buildings and throw some heart-pounding shapes.
Be warned though: this festival gets very crowded. It's easy to escape those crowds by slipping into the quiet backstreets, however.
Chichibu Night Festival
One of the three great festivals of Japan, the Chichibu Night Festival takes place during—as you may have guessed—the evening, but also during the cold depths of December. Couple that with the fact that Chichibu is nestled within the mountain ranges north-west of Tokyo, and it means you’ll need to dress warm. It makes for an atmosphere very different to the standard summer festival: steam billowing from the ‘dashi’ becomes a welcome source of heat, and those crowds are less of a sweat drenched annoyance.
Chichibu rewards those who brave the chills with a double-whammy of festival goodness: a street festival and fireworks. Just be sure to not miss the last train back to wherever you are staying!
© 2017 PJ Leonard