Art & Culture

All over Japan summer sets the stage for annual traditions of spectacle and ceremony. This season's matsuri (festivals) beseech the gods to stave off illness and insect scourges, ensure a bountiful harvest, and provide safe passage for spirits of ancestors returning home.

The Japanese celebrate this joyous supplication with dazzling decorations, float-filled processions, glowing paper lanterns, bursts of fireworks, music and drumbeat, costumes and sometimes carnival atmosphere. Join Kateigaho International on a pictorial tour of 15 summer spectaculars.

From one end of the archipelago to the other, festivals fill the calendar of summer-time Japan. Originally observances of the indigenous Shinto faith, matsuri evolved through the ages to include certain seasonal rites of Chinese Buddhist origin as well. These ancient celebrations continue to hold an honored and beloved place in contemporary Japanese life.

The Shinto deities are called kami, divine forces of the unseen world. In a mutually beneficial relationship, gods serve the people and the people serve the gods, giving them their due at the proper time and place and in ancient, prescribed ways. Matsuri are the culmination of this worship, providing people opportunities to offer the gods their prayers, gifts, reverence, and joy.

When Slovenian photographer Gorazd Vilhar first arrived in Japan in 1985, he was immediately attracted to the visual power of matsuri. Having grown up in a family of artists and steeped himself academically in art history, Vilhar is passionate about color, form, and detail. In fact, it is his boundless fascination with the aesthetic richness and iconic symbolism in traditional Japanese culture that has compelled him to remain here through the years.

Vilhar was delighted to discover that the genial atmosphere of festivals offers a welcome opportunity for closer contact with the customarily reserved Japanese. Perhaps emboldened by the celebratory spirit, communal goodwill, and some sanctified sake too, people suddenly become more sociable, less restrained. Matsuri are not secret rites for true believers or initiates only, but celebrations for all who care to attend.

Foreign visitors are unquestionably welcome, and their sincere interest in the proceedings is appreciated and enjoyed.

Though many countries have festival customs, Vilhar believes Japan's exceed them all. Not only are they far more numerous and varied here, but the ancient practices are also extremely well preserved. Considerable attention is devoted to the ritual attire and accouterments. The finest materials and workmanship are essential. Details receive painstaking care and enormous investments of money and time, clearly reflecting Japan's affluence and renowned dedication to quality.

The matsuri is many things to the Japanese people: an opportunity for communion with their gods and ancestral spirits; an avowal of their common past reaching far back into mythical times; a celebration of nature and renewal with the cycle of the seasons; and, not least of all, an excuse for exuberant merrymaking with family and neighbors, thereby reaffirming communal bonds and providing welcome relief from the work and routine of daily life. In the past, when life was difficult for most, well-being seemed wholly at the mercy of the kami. Yet even today, the sense of protection and security they offer helps explain their appeal.

For visitors to Japan, festivals can offer a window into traditional culture, providing unforgettable moments and memories. With their roots in the distant past, matsuri embody the continuum of form and heritage upon which Japan was built and provide considerable insight into a society striving to hold on to its identity in a fast-changing world.