Matsuri is the Japanese word for festival. There are many many different matsuris that take place all over Japan. It is kind of hard to imagine any town not having at least one to call their own! Some of the common themes/purports of matsuris are the coming of new seasons, the honouring of ancestors and their spirits and making an appeal to the gods for bountiful harvests and safe journeys. When you are planning a trip to Japan, it would be remiss of you to not try and plan around the timing of a Japanese matsuri.
Being a first world country, the smart phone-toting, traffic jam-participating, Calvin Klein handbag-wearing modern Japanese people, at least superficially, lead a lifestyle that resembles those of persons from other first world countries. Thankfully, the matsuri presents a great chance to see Japanese people let all that go away for a day and step back in time to acknowledge their rich culture and traditions. The typical matsuri features dancing, singing, chanting, the playing of traditional instruments, feats of strength as the locals carry or tow portable shrines (mikoshi 神輿 and/or dashi 山車), the donning of traditional garb (especially 'happi' ハッピ), and of course, lots of food. Some matsuris have bonfires, some have lanterns. Some are completely on the land, some take place on or in the water. Variety indeed abounds.
In my time over here, I've been to a few. My very first one was the Ohara Hadaka matsuri 大原裸祭り, a festival that takes place each Autumn in Ohara, Chiba (east of Tokyo). The main draw card for this one is the shio-fumi 汐踏み ritual (translates to "treading on the sea water"). Numerous teams of loincloth-appareled men and boys carry large mikoshi from the apex of a sand dune and down into the sea! These heavy mikoshi are supported by two large beams of solid wood so it is no wonder that each team has approx 20 people carrying them.
At their most daring, the mikoshi bearers go out to about upper chest height at which point they chant and turn and head back to shallower ground. On return to land (and sometimes just before) the teams begin to rotate the mikoshi and later, in a great feat of strength, propel them up into the air with the 'heave-ho' equivalent, "Yo-ii-sho!" shouting proudly from their lips. I don't know if you can insure these expensive mikoshi or not, but for the Ohara mikoshi, the premiums would surely make you cry.
The whole ritual is performed to grant the particpants with luck and prosperity as well as to appeal to the gods of the shrines to bless them with good harvests of fish. Apparently the more spirited and rowdy the performance is, the more satisfied the gods will be! On completion of the main event the men, boys, and now, women and girls, return the mikoshi back to their home shrines. Often stopping along the way for a drink stop and spirited song. I can't wait to go to this one again.
Another cool festival I went to was the Podunk Autumn matsuri 秋祭り. The festival's purpose is to appeal to the gods for good crops, particularly those of rice as the festival's timing is very close to that of the big rice harvest. In fact you can see the kanji character for rice, kome 米, on some of the ハッピ of the participants. At this festival, the shrines are contained within the dashi 山車 or 'mountain vehicles.' These elaborate wooden carriages are shaped much like a mountain with a couple of distinct tiers. Starting at the top, there is an area for a number of people to stand and sit. Up there are banners for the region from where the team hails, lanterns, decorations, and commonly, a huge doll in the shape of a priest. At times, the dashi are like mobile bunraku 文楽 (Japanese puppet theatre) shows at the top. The dolls themselves are controlled by the top tier inhabitants and they are sometimes made to throw confetti and I think rice too.
Going down, you will see the base of the mountain. This structure contains many intricately carved images if creatures (real and mythical) and plants. A bigger banner is usually attached (check out the photo). Housed within the central structure are many of the local children who periodically peek out pillbox style, claiming many victims through their drive-by of cuteness. Also housed at base level is a large taiko drum which is played throughout the day and particularly during the nighttime street parade. To the sides hang the traditional kane 鐘, metal cymbal/bell things that are played by girls and younger boys. The whole structure is set on 4 wheels and 2 wooden struts.
Podunk's claim to fame/originality is the practice of rotating the 山車. Just as there were many different teams in the Ohara Hadaka matsuri, the Podunk Autumn matsuri contains many teams from many regions within Podunk itself, and also from greater Aichi and neighbouring prefectures as I understood.
The dashi are towed around town and stop every now and then for, what I'll call, the rotation ritual. The men brace themselves for the hard work to follow, the kids peak their heads out in anticipation and the top tier inhabitants get ready to cheer and manipulate the puppet. The best place to see the rotation ritual is in the plaza outside the main train station. They are all spread out and it is easy to see the simultaneous spinning of a number of the 山車. The puppets are waving around, tossing confetti and the crowd is tripping over each other taking photos.
The kids are cheering (maybe), the crowd is being sated and the local photographers are snapping away. We almost, almost complete the required rotations, but it goes down just short of the mark. We are encouraged and try once again and are better positioned and schooled. We get about 2/3 of the way through and are taught an interesting coping stratagem, "Look up and your pain will go away." So periodically we look up. How long before we realise that this is a hilarious placebo? I'm thinking that it clocked in at about 2 minutes, haha. Finally we get it around and then it is party o'clock. The onlookers applaud and our faces are beaming. Then we are offered a draught of deliciously blessed o-sake. They line us up one by one and I am literally lucky last, because being last, I got offered a double helping :D I was happy to oblige (read: indulge) and that garners more applause. What a fun time!
By night time the 山車 are mobilized once more with lanterns alight. In addition to the 山車 are some other lower set vehicles that also contain the taiko and kane. The drums and cymbals of traditional Japan beat and ring loudly across the town as the festival comes to an eventual close.
A really good time and I look forward to attending this year's installment later on in October.