What do half-naked men, untruths and bullfinches, mountain fires and mercantile success have in common? All are associated with famous festivals — or matsuri — held during January in Japan. Often connected with shrines and temples and a vibrant part of local life, matsuri celebrate the changing seasons, bring communities together, and involve colorful customs, history and legends. If you are one of many foodies visiting Japan be sure to try some festival foods such as yakitori (grilled chicken skewers) or takoyaki (octopus balls), available at many of the matsuri street stalls or yatai.
Read on to find out more about our five, featured, January festivals:
Venue: Hakozaki-gu Shrine, Fukuoka
City: Higashi-ku, Fukuoka City
From about 13:00~14:30
January in Japan means hakada matsuri or “naked festivals,” nationwide ceremonies involving ritual purification while enduring frigid temperatures to win a coveted prize. One of the three main festivals of Kyushu, dating back more than 500 years, is Fukuoka’s Temaseseri Festival. Farmers and fishermen in skimpy loincloths compet to capture an 8-kilogram, 30-centimeter treasure ball or takara-no-tama, believed to bring good fortune upon anyone who can lift it over their head. As if fighting over these large sacred treasure balls — with the fate of the harvest or the year’s catch of fish on your shoulders! — was not enough, participants and spectators are doused with icy cold water during the contest. This festival also includes before-and-after celebrations of food and hot rice wine.
Venue: Dazaifu Tenman-gu Shrine, Fukuoka
City: Saifu, Dazaifu City, Fukuoka Prefecture
Earn a lucky year ahead by capturing your own golden bird! Held at a shrine dedicated to scholar, poet and politician Sugawara no Michizane, event visitors get wooden dolls carved in the shape of lucky uso (bullfinches). The festival derives its name from wordplay: uso also means untruths or lies. (Revered as a god of learning, Sugawara was also an honest man, never telling lies.) In order to exchange so-called lies told last year for truths in the next twelve months, people trade their old wooden uso dolls for new ones, all the while looking for a hidden golden bullfinch. The lucky recipient of this golden bullfinch will have a happy year ahead.
On the same evening, a fire festival to drive away evil spirits is also held at Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine. One of the three largest fire festivals of Japan, the drama of the flames and smoke is a memorable and moving sight.
Venue: Wakakusayama, Nara
Date: Fourth Saturday of January
City: Kasugano-cho, Nara City
Ebisu, or “Ebessan” in Kansai ben (Kansai dialect), is the god of business and of the fishing industry. During Toka Ebisu Festival, visitors can buy a bamboo branch decorated with items that embody good luck — sea bream, gold coins, and rice bales — as a popular charm for business success. An important Osaka tradition, the festival harks back to the Edo Period (1603-1867). The famous Ebisu Bridge over the Dotonbori River was originally built for pilgrims visiting Imamiya Ebisu Shrine. The 9th of January is called the Eve of Ebisu, and the 11th is the “Last Helping of Luck” day. On the 10th, an impressive good luck palanquin parade moves through the streets. Over 600 celebrities, geisha (traditional Japanese entertainers) and fuku-musume (good luck girls) give out lucky presents to visitors. In order to become a fuku-musume, you have to audition against more than 3,000 other candidates! At a morning market also on the 10th you can purchase sea bream, a special fish served for celebrations. This 3-day festival is a grand affair!
Place: Taiheizan Miyoshi Jinja Shrine, Akita
Dates and other information subject to change without notice. Be sure to check the latest information from the shrines in advance.
City: Akanuma, Akita City
A bonden is a sacred staff and basket four meters in length, serving as a location marker for the gods to come visit Earth and bestow their blessings. Present-day bonden are made by decorating bamboo baskets with colorful fabric and they symbolize the community’s prayers for good harvest and health. Although this festival is held across Akita, the festival at Taiheizan is famous for the passion of its participants! Men race to the shrine to become the first to make an offering of bonden. They tussle with one another and engage in “Bonden fighting.” The patron deity of Miyoshi Jinja is a god of power, so a fierce fight means a better blessing for the bonden carriers. After the contest, the bonden are dedicated to the shrine and placed on the snow-covered ground, (great for photo memories)!
Add excitement to your January travels by participating in one of these impressive festivals and explore Japan with Odigo!
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