Japanese Festival "Matsuri"

Brief Overview of Festivals in Japan

Japan's Uniquely Developed Traditional Festival
The Japanese term "matsuri" (festival, written as 祭 or 祭り) refers to ceremonies or Shinto rituals worshipping Shinreikon (the spirit of God). It is also called Sairei (rites and festivals) or Saishi (religious service). Moreover, events associated with it is also called 'matsuri' in some cases.

There are no specific matsuri days for all of Japan; dates vary from area to area, and even within a specific area, but festival days do tend to cluster around traditional holidays such as Setsubun or Obon. Almost every locale has at least one matsuri in late summer/early autumn, usually related to the rice harvest.

Festivals are often based around one event, with food stalls, entertainment, and carnival games to keep people entertained. Some are based around temples or shrines, others hanabi (fireworks), and still others around contests where the participants sport loin cloths.

There are also various local festivals (e.g. Tobata Gion) that are mostly unknown outside a given prefecture. It is commonly said that you will always find a festival somewhere in Japan. It is said that there are more than 10,000 Matsuri festivals in all around Japan.

Typical Japanese Matsuri Festival Scene in Chichibu Yomatsuri
Typical Japanese Matsuri Festival Scene in Chichibu Yomatsuri
Must See Videos
Video Contents
1. Noshiro Tanabata Matsuri (2:58)
2. Yabusame in Aoi Matsuri (1:28)
3. Suwa Onbashira Matsuri (3:53)
4. Nachi no Hi Matsuri (0:37)
5. Kishiwada danjir Matsuri (2:32)
6. Nagasaki Kunchi (4:30)
7. Morioka Sansa odori (1:55)
8. Kikonai kanchu Misogi (2:46)
9. Hakata Gion Yamagasa (3:27)
10. Yasukuni Mitama Matsuri (5:53)
11. Awa Odori (6:44)
12. Dogo Onsen Matsuri (3:43)
13. Yamaga Tourou Matsuri (6:27)
14. Akita Kanto Matsuri (5:06)
15. Kyoto Gion Matsuri (11:40)

Origin and History of Japanese Festival

Meanings of The Term "Matsuri"
The ancient word, 'matsuri' or 'matsuru' (both means worship) in Japanese, came first, and thereafter, due to inflow of Chinese characters, characters such as '祭り,' '奉り' (dedication), '祀り' (worship), '政り' (ruling), '纏り' (organizing) and so on were allocated. At present, it is said that the Japanese terms 'matsuri' (祭り and 祀り, meaning worship) have the same meaning, and 'matsuri' (祀り and 奉り, meaning dedication) have the same meaning. However, since the meanings of these terms were divided in accordance with the origin from Chinese characters, each meaning is described in the following.

The Japanese term 'matsuri' (祀り) refers to a prayer for gods and Mikoto (personal god), or its ceremony. This is because a worship leads to a prayer, and a worship refers to 'a prayer' or 'fortune-telling as a result of communication with a god' which is conducted by Shinto priesthood or a person subject to it (such as fukuotoko [the luckiest man], fukumusume [Good fortune girls], or arrow picker of Yumiya [bow and arrow]), and is so called a worship as an essence of 'Shrine Shinto. 'This matsuri refers to Miko no mai (shrine maidens dancing) such as Kagura (sacred music and dancing performed at shrines) and so on, or acrobatics and shishimai (lion dance) such as Daikagura (Street performances of a lion dance and jugglery) and so on, and a festival in honor of Ebisu and so on is popularized broadly. It also originated from Japanese folk beliefs such as the Ancient Shinto and so on, and in ancient times, it was called Kannagi referring to prayer 'so as to prevent spirits or deity dwelling there from becoming violent gods. 'Such prayer led to an establishment of Doso-jin (a god who prevents evil spirits from coming), Jizo (guardian deity of children), hokora (a small shrine) or mound as a memorial tower, or to praying for daily gratitude with one's palms together, and it is the same to offer a prayer and make a wish at shrines of Shrine Shinto.

The Japanese term 'matsuri' (祭り) refers to anything consoling deities, spirits, souls and departed souls (comforting the sprit). In the meaning of Chinese character, the term 'matsuri' (祭) refers to a funeral ceremony in the countries which use Chinese characters, and in present-day Japan, the term 'matsuri' (祭り) has a meaning in contradiction to that in China, but, when focusing on the comfort, this term has the same meaning in essentials. As an ancestor worship, one of the essences of Ancient Shinto, which is passed down to the present day through syncretization with Buddhism (syncretization of Shinto with Buddhism), the Obon festival (a Festival of the Dead or Buddhist All Souls' Day) is named (as a pure Buddhist event, the Urabon festival [a Festival of the Dead or Buddhist All Souls' day] worshiping the Buddha is held in the same period), and a dictionary explains that it is a festival for ancestor worship. Matsuri called whaling festival are held all over Japan in order to comfort whales dying by whale piking (whaling).

The Japanese term 'matsuri' (奉り) is also pronounced as tatematsuru in Japanese. This term also means presentation, to present, to respect and so on, and generally refers to acts conducted to humanized divinities (deities created in Japan which had human portraits and humane minds) in the Japanese Mythology, the Imperial Court and Court nobles. This means that it is 'a matsuri' containing a spirit of modesty for 'Mikoto' whose essence existed in the Imperial Household Shinto although many of Sai no kami (guardian deity) in the Shrine Shinto were humanized divinities. Its origin goes back to the Ancient Shinto worshipping the nature, and as described in Umisachihiko and Yamasachihiko of the Japanese Mythology, fish hooks (grains and fish hooks were categorized in the same concept in ancient times), bow and arrows were called Sachi which referred to sacred things obtained by fishing and hunting (catches, tools and sacred weapons) 'offered' to a deity as altarage (seafood and mountain vegetables). From ancient times, fishermen and hunters returned part of their catches to the land and the sea as a quota of deities when they obtained catches. Not only fishermen and hunters, but also those who make a living from agriculture, forestry, or fishery, as well as those engaged in present-day "sacred callings" such as the brewing of sake or soy products such as soy sauce return part of their "catch" at the 'Omatsuri' (festivals) held in each of Japan's regions. In Jichinsai (ground-breaking ceremony) and Jotoshiki (the roof-raying ceremony), omiki (sacred wine or sake) or okome (sacred rice) is also returned to the ground.

According to the beliefs of ancient Japanese society, which followed what is known as "ancient Shinto," someone who conducted religious services ("matsuri" in Japanese) was essentially the same as someone who was engaged in politics (also "matsuri" in Japanese); this was a case of what is called saisei itchi (the unity of shrine, temple and state; in other words, theocracy), and this led to politics occasionally being called matsurigoto (a word that can be used to refer both to government and worship) in Japan. It is said that in the ancient times, Himiko who was also a shrine maiden or shaman conducting rites and festivals controlled the administration by prayer or fortune-telling. In the Heian period, the Shinto priesthood, who adopted Inyo (also referred as Onmyo) gogyo shiso (Yin-Yang Wu-Zing Idea) of Taoism and obtained the idea of Onmyodo (way of Yin and Yang; occult divination system based on the Taoist theory of five elements) and the position of Onmyoji (Master of Ying yang), controlled the administration with a strong power as a bureaucrat. Such unity of politics and religion was not limited to the central government, however; in the provinces, towns and villages of Japan, festivals were held to determine whether the area in question could expect to enjoy good fortune or to conduct construction work so as to raise funds for 'autonomous matsurigoto' and, based on the results of the fortune telling, to determine when to start social infrastructure work and provide guidance for the administration.

Ambiguity of Japanese Traditional Matsuri Festival
Many matsuri (祭り) originated from the Ancient Shinto. Since it was called a primitive religion, shamanism, animism and so on, and the target of its belief extended to shinrabansho (all things in nature), it is difficult to define matsuri which is also the action. It was also the essence of Japanese culture to enjoy gods (many deities such as guest deities, Tsukumogami [divine spirit that resided in an extremely old tool or creature], and so on), Mikoto, spirit, deities, departed soul and soul without defining or discriminating against them.

For example, a grand sumo tournament was originally a matsuri for dedication as the Imperial Household Shinto, and was also the Shinto ritual. However, due to lessened interest in the religion, 'being a matsuri as a Shinto ritual or rite and festival' is sometimes forgotten like a grand sumo tournament, and only cheerful events associated with rites and festivals are sometimes recognized as 'matsuri,' and therefore, cheerful events which were originally held independently of rites and festivals were called 'matsuri' in some cases. The participation of individuals in such ceremonies was called 'festival,' and a prayer for good luck charm such as Jichinsai, Doll's Festival, Setsubun (the traditional end of winter) and so on is equivalent to it even now. At the time of rites and festivals are held, various things including altarage, acts and so on were presented to the divine spirit, and a ceremony was held. Its scale was big, and the whole of event held across the region is sometimes called 'matsuri. '

Matsuri Festival in Ancient Japan
The Shinto in ancient times, so-called Ancient Shinto, originally had elements of animism and shamanism, and was categorized into a racial religion before the world religion. Matsuri passed down today also include folk beliefs in the sense of originating from native's, and many of them are categorized as Shinto-related's. However, since a long time has passed after the introduction of Taoism, Buddhism and Esoteric Buddhism, some matsuri are influenced by the syncretization of Shinto with Buddhism and imported folkways.

The matsuri symbolizes a space of extraordinariness, 'hare and ke' (sacred-profane dichotomy), in the folklore. A ceremony modeling the story of Ama no Iwato (Cave of heaven) in the Japanese Mythology is known as the oldest one in Japan. The primitive 'matsuri' was held secretly at a secluded spot. Even today, a core ceremony is held by limited people in some matsuri. (Service by the Shinto priest of Ise-jingu Shrine and so on, generally called hosan [support given to a temple or shrine] or hono [dedication]. )

At present, many matsuri in the general sense are held under the initiative of shrines or temples, or by having settings in shrines or temples. The purpose and meaning are diversified because some feasts are held for 'the productiveness of grain' for good harvests, and a prayer for good luck charm and prayer for warding off evil such as 'good catch and memorial service,' 'prosperous trade,' 'an attempt to secure protection from a plague,' 'state of perfect health,' 'safety of one's family,' 'peace and longevity,' 'harmonious marriage,' 'fertility and family prosperity,' 'ancestor worship,' 'abundance and joy to all people,' 'universal peace' and so on, some are held in appreciation for accomplishments of such prayers, some are held as a result of development of annual events such as Sekku and so on, or some are held to console spirits of great people. The time of holding and contents of events are of great variety depending on the purpose. In spite of the same purpose, and festival for enshrined deity, a style or variety of religious service, or a tradition differs greatly according to a province or region in many cases.

In many cases, the purpose of matsuri departed from the interests of participants due to changes of the times, and details of events of some matsuri were forced to be changed due to changes in the social environment and so on. As a result of those, many matsuri fell into the state of losing substance from the viewpoint of purpose as shown by an example that the holding of matsuri itself became a purpose. Therefore, in many cases, complete outsiders, viewers and concerned people called participants only have a recognition at a level of 'matsuri equaling to cheerful event' (omatsuri sawagi), and now is in the situation where it is almost far from clear to take days off for a feast compared with cases of taking days off for funeral service and so on.

Generally, at the rites and festivals held at shrines, large floats used to carry taiko (drums) at festivals such as dashi (float), taiko-dai (dashi including a drum), decorative portable shrine and so on, including mikoshi (portable shrine carried in festivals) (carriage of deity). These are sometimes regarded as an incarnation of ujigami (a guardian god or spirit of a particular place in the Shinto religion) in some provinces, or parade with a role of outrider leading mikoshi, and joyous events are held along the street for the purpose of entertaining mikoshi. In many matsuri, although there are exceptions due to a difference of tradition, shrine parishioners often participate in the rites and festivals by putting on an artful and beautiful costume, and makeup or heavy makeup, as chigo (beautifully dressed children parading at festivals), miko (a shrine maiden), performers of tekomai (float leading dance), dancers, performers of festival music, participants in the parade and so on. Although the secularity advances today, the matsuri still has a function of unifying a spirit of local residents whose interpersonal relation becomes poor due to urbanization. By producing an extraordinary space in the ordinary daily life, people continued activities realizing the meaning.

The matsuri as Shinto ritual basically has a bilateral character of solemn scene and joyous scene, and in the solemn scene, people are required to keep traditions and order more strictly than usual. On the other hand, order disallowed in the daily life and acts beyond the bounds of common sense (naked except for one's loincloth, dressing as a woman by men and so on) are recognized to be allowed traditionally 'only during the matsuri' in many provinces, and therefore, the term 'omatsuri sawagi' referring to a joyous scene was derived.

As a matsuri influenced by Buddhism and having a strong character of syncretization of Shinto with Buddhism, Bon Festival Dance incorporating a native ancestor worship or nenbutsu-odori dance (a dance with an invocation to the Buddha) with a magic of kotodama (soul or power of language) is named, and is conductive to Urabon-e Festival (a Festival of the Dead or Buddhist All Souls' day, around July or August 15, depending on local customs) syncretized. In addition, Dengaku (ritual music and dancing in shrines and temples), sarugaku (form of theater popular in Japan during the 11th to 14th centuries) and so on which were developed from Shinto rituals became the base to form later Japanese medieval traditional performing arts such as Noh and so on.

Huge Nebuta in Aomori Nebuta Matsuri
Huge Nebuta Float Made by Paper in Aomori Nebuta Matsuri
Saidaiji Hadaka Matsuri in Okayama
Saidaiji Hadaka Matsuri in Okayama

Mikoshi (Portable Shrine)

Overview of Mikoshi
A mikoshi or shinyo refers to a litter on which a divine spirit temporarily rides when the divine spirit moves to a place where the sacred litter is lodged during a festival celebrated by shrines in Japan. Since it is a litter, it usually refers to an object that is carried on the shoulders of bearers to be moved but, it also refers to the other objects of different shapes that are placed on a float and pulled by people. Depending on the festival, there are occasions when dashi (festival cars, float), hoko (long-handled spears), danjiri (decorative portable shrines) and yatai (float) accompany the mikoshi's route.

Mikoshi' is made up with a word 'koshi (litter)' with an honorific prefix 'mi' but it is usually referred to as 'omikoshi' with an additional honorific prefix 'o. 'Since it is a litter that a god rides, it is written as 'god's litter. '

Shapes of Mikoshi
Many of them are modeled as a small shrine. The other types of mikoshi include shinboku (the sacred tree) (Suwa Taisha, Suwa City, Nagano Prefecture), the one in the form of human genitalia (Tagata-jinja Shrine, Komaki City, Aichi Prefecture) and the ones with dolls. The unit of size is usually measured by the width of a part known as architrave and Japan's largest mikoshi is Gohonsha ichinomiya mikoshi at Tomioka Hachimangu in Tokyo Prefecture.

The common features in all mikoshi are the attached poles for people to use to shoulder the mikoshi but, depending upon the area, there are mikoshi with poles extending both in front and in the rear (nitenbo-style) or with poles extending on either side in addition to the front and the mikoshi (yontenbo-style).

Mikoshi festivals are roughly broken down into 2 categories. One of them is 'Ochogata Shinkosai Festival,' which simulates an Imperial visit by the Emperor of Japan whereby carrying of the otori ren-shaped mikoshi housing the divine spirit is performed. Examples of 'Ochogata Shinkosai Festival' includes Shinko-sai at Iwashimizu-Hachimangu in Kyoto Prefecture and Hie-Jinja Shrine in Tokyo Prefecture. The other category is the 'Hiegata togyo-sai Festival,' which puts emphasis on mikoshifuri (shaking a portable shrine) by wildly waving the mikoshi to increase the divine power praying for good harvest and bumper catch. This type of festival is seen in various areas across the country including the Sanno-Matsuri Festival at Hiyoshi-taisha Shrine in Shiba Prefecture, Gion-Matsuri Festival at Yasaka-jinja Shrine in Kyoto Prefecture, Sanja-Matsuri Festival at Asakusa-jinja Shrine and Torigoe Shrine-Matsuri Festival at Torigoe-jinja Shrine in Tokyo Prefecture. These are known as abare-mikoshi (wild mikoshi).

Traveling Pattern (How to shoulder a Mikoshi)
The role that the mikoshi plays in the festival varies tremendously, in some instances, with the mikoshi being simply carried through a town visiting one Otabisho (or Miki-sho meaning a station where the sacred sake is dedicated to god) to the next or, in the other instances, with mikoshi being shaken violently or two mikoshi clashing against one another. Violent shaking of the mikoshi intends to shake and energize the divine spirit (Tamafuri).

The typical way of shouldering the mikoshi is Hira-katsugi, which is also considered the most popular way of shouldering the mikoshi in Japan, whereby bearers walk at normal pace without shaking the mikoshi while calling out, 'Wasshoi-wasshoi. '

In the Tokyo Metropolitan area, shouldering the mikoshi in the Edomae-katsugi style while calling out, 'Soiya, seiya' is well-known.

Edomae-katsugi is seen during the festivals including Asakusa sanja-matsuri Festival, Torigoe-matsuri Festival and Kanda-myojin-matsuri Festival.

This way of shouldering the mikoshi has been adopted by the various regions where the mikoshi began to be used in recent years and it is gaining popularity across the country.

Within the same Tokyo Metropolitan Prefecture, however, in the Shinagawa Ward area, they shoulder the mikoshi in the distinctive Jonan-katsugi style whereby bearers move the mikoshi to simulate the heave of the sea while crying out 'Choi, choi. 'Additionally, in the Fukagawa and Gyotoku areas, they shoulder the mikoshi in the Fukagawa-katsugi style and the Gyotoku-katsugi style whereby bearers lift the mikoshi high up and throw it up in the air or lower the mikoshi until it almost touches the ground.

In the Shonan region, it is common to shoulder the mikoshi in the Dokkoi-katsugi style while crying out 'Dokkoi-dokkoi, dokkoi-sorya. 'As a culmination of Dokkoi-katsugi, Akatsuki no Saiten Hamaori-sai Festival is held annually around July 20 in Chigasaki City.

Additionally, in Odawara City, the Odawara-katsugi style, in which the mikoshi touches another mikoshi or bearers run shouldering the mikoshi while singing the Kiyari song can be seen at the Gosharengo Reitai-sai Festival (the joint festival of 5 shrines including Igami-jinja Shrine, Sanno-jinja Shrine, Shimo Fuchu-jinja Shrine, Dai Inari-jinja Shrine and Matsubara-jinja Shrine) and Matsubara-jinja Reitai-sai Festival.

Further, in the Kansai area including Kyoto Prefecture, they only move forward while wildly shaking the mikoshi in a seesaw fashion and also crying out 'hoitto, hoitto' as represented by Gion-matsuri Festival organized by Yasaka-jinja Shrine. It is characterized by the hard beating of a special metal instrument Narikan. During Haiden mawashi, to go around the front shrine wildly, the bearers move the mikoshi forward keep turning sharply to negotiate corners while wildly shaking the mikoshi in a seesaw fashion as mentioned above. On the small shrine grounds, centering on the mikoshi, the bearers may walk in circles while violently moving the mikoshi.

Kakegoe (Cries when shouldering a Mikoshi)
It is common to say, 'Wasshoi,' 'Essa' or 'Soiya' when shouldering the mikoshi in many areas. There are various explanations for the origin of these cries people use when shouldering the mikoshi with one of them being that 'Wasshoi' originated from 'Wajo Dokei,' 'to carry harmony,' 'to stay with harmony,' or 'to carry a wheel,' whereas, 'Essa' was derived from Ancient Hebrew (in which the word 'essa' meant 'to carry'), or they are just cries that go 'Essa, hoisa. '

The Origin of Mikoshi
There are various arguments surrounding the origin of mikoshi including the one as described below:

The origin is an altar for the harvest festival held during times when Japanese continuously migrated from one place to the next to hunt wild life and gather food to sustain their lives and, in those days, the mikoshi was taken down after the festival and, every year, a new mikoshi was built to invite a god to come down from heaven.

When people started to settle in one place with farming becoming their way of life, they wanted their god to stay in one place and hence Shinto shrine came into the existence as a domicile of the god. The mikoshi as a vehicle of god was subsequently handed down through generations and it has settled into the shape of the present mikoshi.

Adopting the foregoing argument, some tourist agencies explained mikoshi as a 'Portable Shrine' which has become generally accepted as an English translation for 'Mikoshi. '

It was first documented in conjunction with 'Hayato no Ran (The Uprise of the Hayato clan)' that took place in 720 during the era of Impress Gensho in the Nara Period. In February of that year, the Hayato clan in the Osumi Province Hyuga Area in southern Kyushu killed the magistrate of the Osumi Province and staged a coup d'etat. The Imperial Court appointed the famous Manyo kajin (poet) Tabito OTOMO as Seiihayatojisetsu Taishogun and deployed an army of over 10,000 solders. On that occasion, the Imperial Court dispatched an imperial messenger to Usa-Hachimangu Shrine to offer prayers asking for guarding of the nation and for a successful punitive expedition against the Hayato clan. Hachiman (God of War) who was enshrined at the nearby Oyamada and not his present location Kokurayama, Usa City, Oita Prefecture responded to the prayers offered by the imperial messenger and issued an oracle to betake himself to subdue the Hayato Clan leading Shin-gun (god's army) by saying, 'I will go and they should surrender. 'The Imperial Court ordered the magistrate of the Buzen Province UNU no Obito-Ohito to have a mikoshi made that the divine spirit of Hachiman would ride. According to 'Hachimanusagu gotakusenshu (the Collection of oracles issued by Hachiman),' '(The Imperial Court) ordered the magistrate of the Buzen Province and a mikoshi was made for the first time. '

When Emperor Shomu had Todai-ji Temple built and had the statue of Birushanabutsu (the Great Buddha of Nara Prefecture) erected as the national symbol, in 749 to support this undertaking, Usahachiman-shin visited the capitol city of Nara riding a vehicle of emperor (an otori ren-shaped vehicle) with a glittering golden mythical Firebird Goddess on its roof. This otori ren is the original form of the present-day mikoshi that goes back 1300 years.

In the Heian Period, mikoshi was made for various shrines including Hiyoshi-taisha Shrine in the Omi area, Gion-sha Shrine (present-day Yasaka-jinja Shrine), Imamiya-jinja Shrine (Kyoto City) and Kitano-tenmangu Shrine in Kyoto Prefecture and Osaka-tenmagu Shrine in Osaka Prefecture. Using the otori ren as the basic form, Tomoe-mon or Shin-mon has been added to keep evil spirits away and a torii (Shinto shrine archway), the fence around a shrine and bannister have been put up to give the mikoshi a miniature shrine-like appearance. Thus, mikoshi has become popular in the areas centering on Nara Prefecture and Kyoto Prefecture.

Traditional Mikoshi carrried by Thousand of People in Sanja Matsuri in Tokyo
Traditional Mikoshi Carrried by Hundreds of People at Sanja Matsuri in Tokyo

Dashi (Festival Float)

Overview of Dashi
Dashi is a float used in a procession during a festival. It is often gorgeously decorated. At some festivals, like the Shinko-sai festival, floats are pulled around town in long processions.

Dashi is also called "Yama" which is described in kanji (Chinese characters of Japanese language) as "Yama (literally, mountain)" or "Yama plus Kuruma (literally, vehicle)" and also in kokuji (native script, kana kanji made in Japan) as Yama with radical Kuruma at left, and, more specifically, Dashi or Yama is called Hikiyama, Kakiyama, Katsugiyama, Yamaboko, Hoko, Yamagasa, Saisha, Mikuruma, Yatai (used mainly in Chubu region like Nagano Prefecture, Hida region in Gifu Prefecture, and so on), and Danjiri (used mainly in Kansai region. )

The word "Dashi" is said to have originated from festival pageants where they were removed from a shrine or other building to parade around town, or from higeko or yorishiro which is an object representing a divine spirit protruding from the body of Dashi. "Dashi" refers to the whole "pageant" but often indicates a single Hikiyama (pulled-type float) by adding kanji for Kuruma (vehicle) to Yama (mountain).

Yama (Original Form of Dashi)
The term "Yama" used here is equivalent to yorishiro (an object representative of a divine spirit) which is fabricated to imitate natural mountains, for use at a festival.

According to ancient folklore, Gods were believed to have descended from heaven to yorishiro like mountains or rocks with trees on top, so people have set up funeral halls at the top or foot of the mountains to perform rituals. Today, these funeral halls are preserved as monuments of mountain worship, or as shrines belonging to the mountains that are considered "shintai (kami-body). "One typical example is the Omiwa-jinja shrine of mount Miwayama, and even smaller shrines located at the foot of shintai mountains (mountains regarded as kami-body) that often maintain iwakura (dwelling place of a god on top, usually a large rock) or shinboku (sacred tree. )

Along with expansion of villages, people began to perform rituals in provisional funeral halls set up in plain fields. In such cases, people constructed yorishiro to welcome descending gods, and these funeral halls with yorishiro have developed into permanent structures like present shrines. One of those yorishiro is the said "Yama" which is made up in the image of real mountains and is called Tsukuriyama (forged mountain) or Kazariyama (mountain for decoration. )In parallel with permanent yorishiro fixed inside shrines, these Yama (imitation mountains) have been fabricated and used in festivals as temporary yorishiro to represent or reconfirm the descent of gods.

The first record of such Yama was "Aoba-yama (literally, mountain covered with green leaves)" written in the paragraph on Emperor Suinin in the "Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters)," according to which Satsumi KIHI, patriarch of Izumonokuni no Miyatsuko, had built a mountain decorated with green leaves as a garden dedicated to Ashihara no Shikoo (Okuninushi). One notable Yama used in a pageant for systemized festival, is the Shirushinoyama (also called Hyonoyama and Shimeyama) which was pulled around in the Onieno-matsuri festival held in November, 833 (the festival for the first ceremonial offering of rice by newly-enthroned Emperor Ninmyo) according to the "Shoku-nihon-koki. (historical records published in 869, Heian era. )"Because Shirushinoyama had played a role as ido-shinza (mobile divine seat), it is now considered as the origin of current Dashi. When Onieno-matsuri was suspended for some period in the past, the Shirushinoyama was apparently abolished forever.

Since then, many similar Yama have appeared in private festivals, with various types including an altar-like one, but mostly Yama-related mobile floats such as Hikiyama (pulling type), Kakiyama (shouldering type) and others, all of which are collectively called Dashi and two kanjis of Yama (mountain) plus Kuruma (vehicle) are used. In current festivals, fixed-type yama, called Okiyama, are rarely used, while Dashi (mobile-type Yama) for moving around town are dominant.

Types of Dashi
The term "Dashi" includes Hikiyama (pulled-type float), Kakiyama (shouldered-type float) and other types of floats, while Okiyama (fixed-type float) may also be included in this category from the meaning of its kanjiThe most popular Dashi is Hikiyama equipped with wheels, followed by Kakiyama with long bars to shoulder. As was mentioned in the beginning, there are many names applied to Dashi, so it becomes necessary to be careful to discern the types of Dashi correctly, since, on the one hand, the same kind of Dashi have different names depending upon the region, but at the same time the same names are used for different types.

Everywhere in Japan, there exist many kinds of Dashi, while increasing number of Dashi have been elaborated in elegant taste. Although many yorishiro roles have decreased importance as a representative of a divine spirit, there are still some reminders of the roles of old yorishiro, such as beautifully attired little children or dolls on a float stage and other ornaments decorated as substitutes of yorishiro.

Hikiyama (pulling-type float)
A huge Hikiyama is pulled around the town, occupying the full width of town roads. The scene of tsuji-mawashi (turning a float) around a narrow corner is spectacular.

Sometimes, a float stage is used for performing kodomo-kabuki (Japanese classical drama played by children. )

Some Hikiyama-type Dashi have very elaborate mechanism, and their sizes range from the normal size of portable shrine to more than ten fold that, weighing a few tons. Among them, the biggest Dashi in Japan is said to be Dekayama (literally, huge mountain) weighing about 20 tons, used at Seihaku-sai festival in Nanao City, Ishikawa Prefecture. The appearance of such huge Dashi could be attributed to more effective pulling methods making it possible to move such enormous objects, to the preference of yorishiro for taller, more attractive Dashi, and contest among shrine parishioners to produce elegant Dashi.

There are many different types of undercarriages for Dashi, depending upon regions and districts, for example, wheels inside or outside the carriage, wooden or metal wheels of different sizes, with different structural designs for the frame of the carriage, etc.

Dashi usually have four wheels, but some may have additional wheels. Hikiyama (pull-type Dashi) seen at the Otsu-matsuri Festival held in Otsu city, Shiga prefecture, and the Dashi used at Ishidori-Matsuri Festival in northern Mie prefecture, have three wheels, while the Nirin Yatai with two wheels are pulled in the central eastern part of Totoumi Province from Morimachi, Shizuoka Prefecture and in Iwata City, and Dashi at the Hamasaki Gion Yamagasa have six wheels. Accordingly, different types of undercarriages require different methods of handling. Ogi-gion festival once had a yama without wheels and it was moved by feeding numbers of logs, one after another, under the yama and moving the Yama along on the rolling logs, but such a primitive method was abolished, and the yama is now equipped with regular wheels.

Dashi are usually moved by human power, but some are equipped with engines and steering wheels which can be driven like an automobile.

Traditional Dashi Traveling on The Japanese Bridge in Tateyama Matsuri
Traditional Dashi Traveling on The Japanese Bridge in Tateyama Matsuri

Danjiri (Decoratibe Festival Float)

Overview of Danjiri
Danjiri is a type of dashi (float) used at shrine festivals. It is a float with decorative carvings all around it and a unique form of gabled roof that is split into a small one and a large one. It is seen at rites and festivals in areas such as Izumi Province, Kawachi Province and Settsu Province in the Kinki regionIn particular, Kishiwada Danjiri Matsuri in Kishiwada City, Osaka Prefecture is nationally famous.

It is considered that when Hideyoshi TOYOTOMI built Osaka-jo Castle danjiri bayashi music became its 'theme song. 'Of course, building of a castle is a large-scale construction project just like building of a tumulus, and therefore timber chutes were used. It can be considered that danjiri and hayashi (Japanese music played to keep measure or enliven the mood) were already established in Settsu Province and its vicinity (castles were being built in areas outside of Kinai region (provinces surrounding Kyoto and Nara), and therefore, there is an inconsistency in this view). Furthermore, there is a record that danjiri's miyairi (ending of a festival by bringing portable shrines or floats back to the shrine) began at Osaka Tenman-gu Shrine during the Kanei era, which was the era of the Third Seiitaishogun (literally, 'great general who subdues the barbarians') Iemitsu TOKUGAWA. It can be considered that the hayashi music of the Shokuho era (Oda-Toyotomi era) had been passed down.

Forms of Danjiri
The form of danjiri can be divided into two main groups of 'shimo danjiri' and 'kami danjiri. ''Shimo' (lower) and 'kami' (upper) indicate whether the center of gravity of danjiri is located 'below' or 'above. '

The danjiri that is currently called shimo danjiri has been continuously improved according to the way it was pulled, since Kitamachi, a former city in Kishiwada, purchased it from Izumiotsu. From this, in the areas further south, danjiri was created in a form that was different from the conventional form, and according to one view, this type of danjiri is called shimo danjiri as opposed to the traditional form which is called kami danjiri.

In general, 'danjiri' refers to the nationally famous one in Kishiwada City in Senshu Region (former Izumi Province. Southwestern Osaka Prefecture). However, there are many places that are in possession of danjiri in Kawachi Region (former Kawachi Province. Eastern and southeastern Osaka Prefecture) and Settsu Region (former Settsu Province. Northern Osaka Prefecture, southeastern Hyogo Prefecture). In the Senshu area, the danjiri decorations and the way it is pulled are considered to be important. On the other hand, in the Kawachi Region, in addition to these, danjiri bayashi and the hikiuta (song for pulling danjiri) are also considered important. Moreover, in Settsu Region, in the case of southern Osaka City, eastern Osaka City, Kobe City and in the areas between Osaka and Kobe, danjiri decorations, the way it is pulled and danjiri bayashi are emphasized.

Shimo Danjiri (Lower Danjiri)
It is also called the Kishiwada form. This form is often seen in danjiri in Senshu Region of Osaka Prefecture (coastal regions in southern Osaka Prefecture). It is larger and heavier kami danjiri, but the center of gravity is lower and it is more stable that it when maneuvering yarimawashi (making a turn). It requires more than 100 million yen to make a new danjiri. There is a rear lever used for yarimawashi and changing directions, and there are three horns called toribusuma (long, curved, cylindrical decorative tiles) on the larger roof. Toribusuma may also be found on a kami danjiri.

Kami Danjiri (Upper Danjiri)
Other than the ones in Senshu Region of Osaka Prefecture, most are kami danjiri. Unique features can be found in the form of kami danjiri depending on the region, and various types exist, such as Sumiyoshi-type (Taisa danjiri), Sakai-type, Osaka-type, Ishikawa-type (Niwaka danjiri), Kitakawachi-type, Yamato-type, Kobe-type, Amagasaki-type, Ship-type, Shinto-shrine-type and Takarazuka-type.

It is relatively light-weight, and it can even go uphill.

There is no front lever, which is found in shimo danjiri, and it features wooden beams called 'ninaibo' (shoulder carrying poles) that surround it.

Because of these carrying poles it can be 'wheelied' by raising the danjiri during a parade known as 'rengo biki,'. This is called 'sashiage' (lifting up, raising,) and is performed in most regions in southern Osaka that uses kami danjiri.

Other maneuvers include 'yokoshakuri' in which the danjiri is swayed sideways, 'tateshakuri' in which the 'danjiri' is swayed forward and backward by using the principle of leverage, and moving it forward and backward. These acrobatic maneuvers are performed in some areas in southern Kawachi and Sakai City.

In particular, 'Ishikawa gata danjiri' (the Ishikawa-type danjiri) used mainly in Minamikawachi (southern Kawachi) has a unique shape with a high center of gravity, and therefore it is easy to perform these maneuvers.

In addition, in recent years, there are areas where 'ichirin dachi' (standing up on one wheel) is performed, in which one of the rear wheels is lifted up from the sashiage position. The showing of maneuvers while pulling danjiri using these methods is called 'shikori,' 'den den' or 'outa, outa. '

However, performing the above-mentioned acts can damage the carvings, break the danjiri itself or injure people, and therefore, these acts are performed only in some regions.

Moreover, in one area within southern Osaka, a high-speed spinning called 'bunmawashi' has become quite a sight, in which the rear wheels of the danjiri are raised at an intersection, and then the danjiri is forcefully spun to the left and to the right from that position.

Sumiyoshi-type (Taisa danjiri) or Sakai-type danjiri is used in most regions in which bunmawashi is performed

In particular, many such regions are located on the outskirts of Sakai City, and they have a strong connection with Sakai since the ancient days.

In the Izumiotsu region, 'kachiai,' in which the danjiri belonging to different groups are smashed into each other, has become quite a sight. .

In southern Amagasaki City, Hyogo Prefecture, 'yama awase' has become an attraction in which the front wheels of the danjiri are lifted and the ninaibo (katabo) of the opposing groups are placed on top of each other to decide who wins.

Furthermore, in many cases there is an engraving of a face that looks like a combination of a lion and a demon called shigami on the roof.

The ones that are considered to be of the Sakai-type belong to the above-mentioned category.

Depending on the region, an electric generator is loaded on the danjiri to ensure large electric power in order to equip the danjiri with bold decorations with neon lights and lighting.

Danjiri Bayashi (Danjiri Festival Music)
The danjiri bayashi in each of the three regions, Settsu, Kawachi and Senshu, has its own flavor, and is rated in various ways. In the Senshu region, drums, sho (bells or gongs) and Japanese flutes are used. In the Kawachi Region, large drums, small drums and sho are used. A microphone is used for hiki uta (limited to southern Kawachi region). In the Settsu Region, oyadaiko (parent drum), osho (male gong), mesho (female gong) and kodaiko (child drum) are used.

In northern Osaka City, there are areas that can put emphasis only on the music performance because they are missing dashi for various reasons, such as they were burnt during the Rebellion of Heihachiro Oshima, they were burnt due to the U. S. air raid during the Asia Pacific War, or no repair budget was secured. Thus, there are areas which can hardly be called to be in possession of danjiri, but places such as (north) Nagara and Minami Nagara in these areas view danjiri bayashi as an independent music. In some areas, such as the Hirano region, Juso region and Higashi Osaka region, there are a lot of associations that perform bold music of the Nagara and Minami Nagara regions.

Traditional Danjiri Hikimawashi in Kishiwada Danjiri Matsuri
Traditional Danjiri Hikimawashi in Kishiwada Danjiri Matsuri

Seasonal Japanese Festivals

Natsu-Matsuri (Summer Festival)

Overview of Natsu-matsuri (Summer Festival)
"Natsu-matsuri" is a collective term for festivals observed in summer.

In many cases, it means a festival held in Japan mostly from the beginning of July through the end of August.

Any festival held before June, even though it is in 'early summer', is hardly called 'Natsu-matsuri'.

To the contrary, festivals in and after September, if held in July under the lunar calendar, are often treated according to summer festivals.

Typical Summer Festivals in Japan
Many summer festivals in Japan were either originally associated with Urabon-e festival, Tanabata festival, Gion festival, and other festivals, or had a peripheral relationship with them. Therefore, people celebrate them from June to July under the lunar calendar. Also many of the Natsu-matsuri festivals tend to have originated in the events observed in rural communities to relieve farmers' fatigue from their agricultural work in the summer season, or originated in the events observed in urban communities to hold memorial services for the people who died from epidemic in summer before the Edo Period.

At the same time, however, a large number of summer festivals have changed their nature in the process of modernization, so that their origins have become obscure in the minds of people who tend to observe Natsu-matsuri as a glamorous event rather than a solemn ceremony.

Besides, there are many Natsu-matsuri that had not existed before the Edo Period but began solely as modern festivals or otherwise started as an imitation of some traditional festivals in other regions (or under their influence).

Above all, Natsu-matsuri festivals held in a few days before or after the Bon festival of lunar calendar are said to be deeply emotional because many people return to their homes in this season and reunite with each other.

According to folklore research, a Natsu-matsuri festival is also interpreted to be a result of development of ancient utagaki (a poetry reading party).

At some port towns, a variety of Natsu-matsuri with abundant local colors are unfurled, including 'Minato Matsuri' (port festivals). A lot of festivals at shrines are also observed in this season.

Typical Events Held For a Natsu-matsuri Festival in Japan

  • Bon festival dance
  • Fireworks
  • Street stalls
  • Events performed on a specially arranged stage
  • Performances of popular songs
  • Performances of characters (in many cases, characters of animated cartoons on TV, or those of squadron series, and so on. )
  • Magic show
  • Karaoke contest

Bon Odori is a Typical Matsuri Event for Japanese Summer Season
Bon Odori is a Typical Matsuri Event for Japanese Summer Season

Fuyu-Matsuri (Winter Festival)

Overview of Fuyu-matsuri (Winter Festivals)
Winter festivals are the festivals celebrated during the winter. Winter festivals often indicate the festivals celebrated during the three months (November, December and January) from ritto (the first day of winter in the Japanese calendar) through risshun (the first day of spring in the Japanese calendar).

Winter festivals have both the elements of the harvest festival that autumn festivals have and the elements of the Kinen-sai festival (prayer service for a good crop) that spring festivals have. However, the position of the winter festivals in the annual festivals are unclear. Originally, as October (in the old lunar calendar) was supposed to be a taboo month, the harvest festival was celebrated in November (in the old lunar calendar) when the season changes from autumn to winter in the Japanese calendar. And it is said that later the taboo lost its meaning and the autumn festivals came to be celebrated just after harvesting. Shinobu ORIGUCHI perceived the period which is from autumn through the next spring as the period that all souls including the ones of human beings are renewed by holding the ceremony of tamafuri (shaking of souls). And he claimed that autumn festivals, winter festivals and spring festivals were originally a series of festivals (harvest, renewal of souls and prayer for a good crop), and then autumn festivals and spring festivals were separated, and the rest became winter festivals. In addition, Kunio YANAGITA claimed that, in Japanese festivals, November in the old lunar calendar was regarded as important because November when the most winter festivals were cerebrated includes the winter solstice and it indicates the turning point going towards spring. In Shiji-sai festivals (festivals of four seasons) of jingikan (officer of the institution for dedicating to religious ceremony) in the Imperial Court, the festivals of Ainame (the festival offering newly-harvested grains to deities), Tamashizume (mass or ceremony for the repose of a soul) and Niiname (festival of consumption of the new grains) in November in the old lunar calendar were defined as winter festivals. Though the festivals of Tsukinami (festival of the months), Chinka (fire prevention festival) and Michiae (banquet of the road) in December were not peculiar to winter, they were celebrated as winter festivals.

Nowadays, the festivals celebrated as winter festivals are the ones that still include the elements of the Tamashizume no matsuri festival (mass or ceremony for the repose of a soul). And in the winter festivals of the present day, yudate or boiling water kagura (sacred music and dancing performed at shrine) whose origin dates back to shimotsuki kagura (November kagura) is often performed at the Tamashizume no matsuri festival.

Kamakura Snow House in Yokote Kamakura Matsuri
Kamakura Snow House in Yokote Kamakura Matsuri

Representative Festivals in Japan

Yosakoi Soran Matsuri

Hokkaido Prefecture

Sapporo Yuki Matsuri

Hokkaido Prefecture

Obihiro Matsuri

Hokkaido Prefecture

Kikonai Kanchu Misogi

Hokkaido Prefecture

Aomori Nebuta Matsuri

Aomori Prefecture

Hirosaki Neputa

Aomori Prefecture

Goshogawara Tachi Nebuta

Aomori Prefecture

Hachinohe Sanja Matsuri

Aomori Prefecture

Noshiro Tanabata

Akita Prefecture

Akita Kanto Matsuri

Akita Prefecture

Namahage Sedo Matsuri

Akita Prefecture

Yamagata Hanagasa Odori

Yamagata Prefecture

Morioka Sansa Odori

Iwate Prefecture


Iwate Prefecture

Sendai Tanabata Matsuri

Miyagi Prefecture

Iisaka Kenka Matsuri

Fukushima Prefecture

Chichibu Yo-Matsuri

Saitama Prefecture

Kawagoe Matsuri

Saitama Prefecture

Sanja Matsuri

Tokyo Prefecture

Hiratsuka Tanabata Matsuri

Kanagawa Prefecture

Tsuruoka Hachimangu Yabusame

Kanagawa Prefecture

Hamamatsu Matsuri

Shizuoka Prefecture

Onbashira Matsuri

Nagano Prefecture

Owara Kaze no Bon

Toyama Prefecture

Takayama Matsuri

Gifu Prefecture

Gujo Odori

Gifu Prefecture

Nagahama Hikiyama

Shiga Prefecture

Aoi Matsuri

Kyoto Prefecture

Daimonji Okuribi

Kyoto Prefecture

Gion Matsuri

Kyoto Prefecture

Gozan Okuribi

Kyoto Prefecture

Jidai Matsuri

Kyoto Prefecture

Tenjin Matsuri

Osaka Prefecture

Kishiwada Danjiri

Osaka Prefecture

Nachi Himatsuri

Wakayama Prefecture

Todaiji Omizutori

Nara Prefecture

Nada Kenka Matsuri

Hyogo Prefecture

Saidaiji Hadaka Matsuri

Okayama Prefecture

Awa Odori

Tokushima Prefecture

Niihama Taiko Matsuri

Ehime Prefecture

Yosakoi Matsuri

Kochi Prefecture

Hakata Dontaku

Fukuoka Prefecture

Hakata Gion Yamagasa

Fukuoka Prefecture

Imari Ton Ten Ton Matsuri

Saga Prefecture

Nagasaki Kunchi

Nagasaki Prefecture

Eisa Matsuri

Okinawa Prefecture

For More Information
google plus
See Also
Encyclopedia of Japan