As a Brit I am loathe to take a look at another culture’s customs and denigrate them in any way, particularly if you look at some of the strange things in which my own countrymen believe. However it is difficult not to see some of Japan’s festivals and not consider them, hmmm, a bit on the crazy side.
Japan has quite an extensive list of festivals or 祭り (matsuri), and it seems that every city, town and little hamlet has their own. In fact some estimates put the number at 200,000 happening throughout the year. Putting aside the festivals based on genitals (there is more than enough of this stuff on the internet all ready), we are going to have a look at some of the more eccentric, dramatic, spectacular, strange, picturesque and even terrifying matsuri that the country has to offer.
Right, let’s start with possibly the most crazy, insane festival of them all, the Onabashira Matsuri, the log riding festival. Held every six years – in the years of the tiger and monkey – in Nagano’s Suwa, it is claimed to have continued uninterrupted for the last 1,200 years and its purpose is cleanse the local shrine. The actual festival goes on for a couple of months, but the most famous bit is the ‘Yamadashi’. Huge logs are dragged down the mountain and at some points are skidded. During these moments young men prove their bravery by riding them down in a ceremony called ‘kiotoshi’, tree falling (pictured, above). In 2010 two people died partaking in kiotoshi.
From one festival that is physically dangerous to one that is potentially psychologically damaging. Naki Sumo is held in various places around the country, but the most famous one is held in May in Tokyo’s Sensoji Shrine. In it loincloth wearing sumo wrestlers each hold aloft a child born in the previous year and hope for them to cry (the babies, that is, not the wrestlers). Babies that cry the loudest and longest are declared winners and the tears are believed to bring good health in the coming year. If they don’t cry a priest dons an ‘oni’ demon mask and shouts at them in an attempt to force the tears. It’s one of those events that makes you roll your eyes and say ‘oh Japan’, but were it to happen anywhere else you’d have child protection services turning up in seconds.
If you like your sumo-based festivals but not keen on crying babies, then Hitori Zumo on Omi Island in Ehime, is the the festival for you. While the festival’s name literally means ‘Solo Sumo’, a close English idiom would be ‘Tilting at Windmills’, as a sumo wrestler battles agains an imaginary opponent in the ring. The unseen adversary is the spirit of a rice plant and the outcome of the epic battle determines the outcome of that season’s rice crop. You can see one such battle here.
From one loinclothed man to thousands, there are a few versions of the Hadaka Matsuri, or Naked Festival (including one in Aichi in which you can take part), but the daddy of them all is the one in Okayama. Up to 20,000 men clad in nothing but ‘fundoushi’ loincloths in the middle of February head towards Saidaiji temple. After dousing themselves in cleansing water, freezing and shivering they will pile into the temple where bundles of bamboo sticks are dropped from the ceiling. The men who can fight tooth and nail for them will have good luck and even cash prizes in the coming year. If he doesn’t get battered or catch ‘flu in the process.
A festival that is slightly more sedate, relatively better dressed, but equally up there on the strangeness scale is The Hokkai Heso Matsuri at the end of July in Furano, Hokkaido. Having started in 1969 it is a relatively new festival, meaning that whilst it doesn’t quite have the gravitas, at least its meaning is not lost to the mists of time. As Furano is in the very center of Hokkaido, and the Heso (belly button) is the center of the body, what better way to bring the citizens of this slightly far flung city together than to gather together, paint faces on their abdomens, and have a big dance? Has to be seen to be believed.
From the bizarre to the spectacular, The Yamayaki Matsuri (literally burning mountain festival) in Nara city is something that takes the breath away. Popular folklore has it that the festival has its origins in a dispute over the boundaries of two of the city’s most famous temples: Kofuku-ji and Todai-ji. The story has it that in 1760 a mediator was brought in and the centre of the dispute – Mt. Wasakusa – was set on fire. (Another theory is that the fire was set to clear out wild boars, but that’s less fun.) Today, each January, following a fireworks display the grass of the mountainside is set ablaze, a sight that can be seen all over the city. For a similar experience, check out the Daimonji Festival in Kyoto.
The island of Miyajima in Hiroshima prefecture is one of the most beautiful and tranquil places in the country (if you can ignore the hordes of tourists, that is). From the free-wandering deer to the sublime Itsukushima Shrine, it is quite breathtaking. However, in August it becomes even more dazzling as its Water Fireworks Festival takes place. Over 300,000 visitors turn up to snap pics of the 5,000 fireworks casting a gorgeous silhouette of the its ‘floating’ torii gate.
Keeping things elemental is the Fukagawa Hachiman Matsuri, one of the three largest festivals of Edo. As the summer in the capital city heats up, we all feel the need to cool down, and the Gods are no different. This festival sees 500,000 people cheer on 30,000 participants as they carry 53 ‘mikoshi’ portable shrines through the city. As they lug the 2,500 kilogram (5,500 pound) shrines around, tossing them in the air to show their strength, gallons of water are cannoned at the mikoshi from a crowd that includes hose-toting firemen. It is essentially a half-million person water fight.
In my elementary school days, one of the Sports Day events was a tug-of-war in which one class pitted their strength against another. It always ended in chaos with kids sprawled around the floor. But that was nothing in comparison with the Great Tug-of-War in Okinawa’s city of Naha. Here up to 250,000 people watch 15,000 competitors – half from the east side of the city, half from the west – battle to pull the immense rope (200m in length, 1.5m in diameter and weighing 40 tons, mentioned in the Guinness World Records as the world’s largest straw rope) 15 metres over a 30 minute duration. The team who pulls the furthest wins, and has the right to hack the rope to bits and take it home as a keepsake.
Image: www.telegraph.co.uk by EPA – Modified
Image: flickr.com "ALX_9518" by Alex Aw (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) – Modified
Image: flickr.com "Fukagawa Hachiman Matsuri 2014 53" by Hideya HAMANO (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) – Modified