Matsuri (festivals) both large and small are an integral part of Japanese life. These cultural ceremonies are based in religious Shinto and Buddhist rites and local contests. Communities come together each month to mark the passage of the seasons. Members prepare for spring and pray for health, harvest and family. You may have heard about the Sapporo Snow Festival, but let’s explore other fascinating matsuri that February travelers can experience across Japan:
Held at Kasuga Taisha Shrine in the ancient capital city of Nara, this 800-year-old festival feels mystical. Over 3,000 lanterns, donated over the centuries by worshippers, are lit for just three nights during the year: February 3rd and August 14th-15th. The February 3rd event marks the transition from winter to spring. Stone lanterns in the garden, and traditional hanging lanterns in shrine corridors all glow softly with candlelight. During festival days, you can purchase good luck charms. One example: A votive horse picture symbolizing religious blessings for a long healthy life.
Kasedori in Yamagata Prefecture from Flickr cc by f_a_r_e_w_e_l_l
This traditional folk event of Kaminoyama, in Yamagata Prefecture, dates back to the beginning of the Edo Period (1603~1867). People here pray for abundant crops and prosperity by splashing water from buckets on chosen participants or Kasedori. Kasedori wear mino (straw coats) called “kendai”. These represent a bird said to bring good luck. The kasedori dance and make bird-like calls for blessings from the gods.
Each piece of straw that falls from the kendai brings good fortune. Local legend says that a girl will become a beautiful woman with abundant black hair if she ties her tresses back with a piece of straw retrieved from this festival.
The Nagasaki Lantern Festival is a major event held in the international port city of Nagasaki. The festival originates from the “Shunsetsu-sai festival” celebrating the Chinese New Year. Central locations such as Nagasaki Chinatown, Minato Park, Chuo Park, Megane-bashi Bridge and Hamaichi Kanko-dori Arcade are festooned with over 15,000 colorful lanterns and decorations. Dragon dances, Chinese art, and musical performances are held daily. Events this year kick off around 17:30~18:00 with a “Lighting Ceremony” on Monday, 8th of February. Be sure to pick up the multilingual Lantern Festival information packet from the JR Nagasaki train station.
Namahage Sedo Festival from Flickr cc by Evan Blaser
The Namahage Sedo Festival is one of the “Top Five Snow Festivals” in northern Japan. This festival combines the Shinto ritual “Saitousai” (praying for a good harvest) and a local, traditional “Namahage” event. Namahage are visiting gods that warn against laziness and bring protection from illness and disasters. A blessing from Namahage ensures a good harvest with plenty of food from the mountains and sea. The festival includes music, blessings, drumming, dance and various ceremonies and the giving away of goma mochi (sesame rice cakes) over three days. On the final night of the festival, Namahage climb down the mountain one last time to visit the shrine. They bless the audience and “scare” the children. The Sedo Festival comes to a dramatic end. Oga’s Namahage are an official Important Intangible Cultural Asset.
Visiting Oga? Check out the Namahage Museum to learn more about the festival’s history and see impressive masks and costumes.
Participants in the Sominsai “Naked men and flames festival” in Iwate pray to ward off evil and ask for an abundant harvest. Naked men wearing loincloths write their wishes for the year on lanterns and head to the local river. First they perform “hadaka mairi” and bathe for purification. Next comes the “hitaki nobori”, where the men climb burning hitaki (stacks of wood and straw). They cheer and shout “jasso, jasso!” (ja=evil, so=fix), hoping to purify their wicked hearts and protect friends and family from misfortune. The “Sominbukuro Contest” marks the festival climax. Participants fight to capture sominbukuro, a sacred bag filled with pieces of wood tossed into the crowd. The winner and family are assured a healthy and happy year.
Hundreds of kamakura (snow huts) are constructed for this festival. Lit with candles, the soft glow reflecting in the winter snow is peaceful and magical. This 400-year-old festival evolved from the custom of burning your New Year talismans and “returning” them to the gods. Inside the kamakura, an altar is set up to honor the water gods and pray for clear, clean water for the new year. (Rice and sake, vital to Akita’s economy, depend on good quality water.) Sake and mochi (rice cakes) are offered up to the gods. Visitors are welcomed inside the kamakura to drink sweet fermented rice wine. Chatting and eating mochi and sweets inside the kamakura is a festival highlight. Hundreds of rows of mini kamakura in the Yokote Minami Elementary School yard are an additional and beautiful backdrop to this winter event.
Tayu dancers, singers, flute-players, drummers, and people ringing bells known as kane form groups of 10-30 members and then parade through the city. Participants practice all year in the lead up to the event. The groups and spectators celebrate and pray for a good harvest. In early versions of this festival, the dancers carried farm tools called eburi when performing their dance.
Each dance symbolizes some form of farm work, but all fall into two categories: the slow and sedate naga-enburi or the more lively dosai- enburi. Participants wear large eboshi (hats) designed in the shape of a horse’s neck because the horse was the farmer’s dispensable partner in planting and harvesting crops. The groups each start by praying at the Shinra Jinja early in the morning on the 17th, and then set off on their processions through the city. The dances last until night time.
One of the three most eccentric festivals of Japan! The origin of this festival dates back about 500 years. Worshippers competed to receive paper good luck charms called Go-o thrown by the priest. In the current version, men wearing loincloths fight over a pair of lucky shingi (sacred sticks). At midnight, the lights are all turned off and priests throw the shingi into the crowd. Anyone who gets hold of a shingi is considered lucky and will be blessed with a year of happiness.
Other lucky items thrown into the crowd include 100 bundles of willow strips. Even with 100 chances, these are difficult to catch! Despite the festival taking place in winter, cold water is splashed over the men for purification and to keep the masses from overheating. Spectators usually crowd around the men to share in the thrills and danger. If you wish to err on the side of caution, paid seats are available at a safer distance.
February festivals and cultural discoveries add excitement to your travels. Explore Japan off the beaten path with Odigo to make memories that will last a lifetime.
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