Matsuri, the Japanese Festivals

Matsuri - Ekibyobarai
Kyoto Gion Matsuri

Kyoto's most elaborate festival ensued from appeals to banish a devastating plague in the summer of 869. When it duly abated, a great festival of thanksgiving to the illustrious kami of Yasaka Shrine was held at the emperor's behest. A century later the festival was instituted as an annual event, in praise and continuing petition for ever-renewed blessings upon the city. Through the centuries the event has gained in splendor, reaching today's grand proportions as a nearly month-long series of rites and festivities.

Chichibu Kawase Matsuri

For more than 300 years, the townfolk of Chichibu, in the mountains of Saitama, have celebrated Kawase Matsuri. Inspired by the famous festival of Kyoto, it is also known as Chichibu's O-Gion. In fact, in the precincts of Chichibu Shrine is a small Yasaka Shrine associated with the main one in Kyoto, and the kami of both shrines are honored at this festival. Rites include an evening children's parade, a midnight drawing of sacred water from the river, and the next-day procession of magnificent floats bedecked with umbrellas of paper flowers.

Matsuri - Shinwa
Nachi-no Hi Matsuri

The deified waterfall at Kumano Nachi Taisha is the site of an annual fire festival which honors Emperor Jimmu who, according to legend, stopped here to pray before going on to conquer ancient Yamato. The twelve unique ogi mikoshi, each a tall fan-decorated standard in which a deity temporarily resides during the celebration, represent the sacred waterfall, which at 130 meters is the highest in Japan. Shrine priests convey offerings to an altar set among them near the foot of the falls.

Saikusa Matsuri

Wild lilies, yuri, once grew in abundance on sacred Mt. Miwa. There among them lived and played Princess Isuzu, and it is said that Japan's legendary first emperor Jimmu, great-great grandson of the sun goddess, once visited her on the mountainside in lily season. When she died, her spirit was there enshrined, and during Saikusa-no Matsuri, often simply called Yuri Matsuri, offerings of lilies are presented to her spirit, both in dance and as adornment for the cask of sacred sake.

Ko-no-mono Sai

Long ago, in gratitude for nature's bounty, villagers here placed vegetables and sea salt together in offering to the field god. It was discovered, after a time, that they had been transformed, and people gathered around to taste these strange "fragrant things" this gift from the gods. This is the origin of Japan's tsukemono, pickled vegetables. When Yamato Takeru, a legendary hero credited with extending the frontiers of Yamato, stopped here to rest and pray, villagers gave him some as a charm against all illnesses.

Torigoe Yo Matsuri

Warrior Yamato Takeru, enshrined and worshiped at Torigoe Shrine, is honored with an authentic "downtown" festival which draws huge crowds. The so-called obake (monster) mikoshi, said to be the heaviest in Tokyo at four tons, is paraded through parish streets by hundreds of happi-clad bearers to entertain and honor the deity within and ask for his favor. The parade carries on throughout the day, and then in the evening returns to the shrine by atmospheric lanternlight.

Matsuri - Hosaku
Sumiyoshi-no O-Taue Sai

During Sumiyoshi Shrine's Rice Planting Festival, eight ceremonial maidens called ue-me, wearing hana-gasa hats decorated with paper representations of cotton flowers, legendary dispellers of thunder, carry sanctified rice seedlings in procession to the shrine rice paddy. Shimo ue-me, planting girls dressed in white, red, and indigo field clothes and wearing straw hats, plant the seedlings to the accompaniment of traditional rice-planting songs and dances performed on a nearby stage and around the field to entertain both gods and onlookers.

Suneori Amagoi

In supplication for sufficient rain for the continuing growth of the rice crop, Tsurugashima-machi honors the legendary water-loving serpent said to have once lived in Kandachi Pond. Townfolk construct a giant bamboo-and-straw snake, parading it into the water, symbolically taking it back to its original dwelling place. Inside its great mouth are an ofuda charm from Kandachi Shrine and the Shinto zig-zag-folded paper shide and sprig of evergreen sakaki which mark the creature as sacred.

Yata-no Mushi Okuri

Insects, mushi, are the bane of rice fields in summer, and the village of Sobue-cho still preserves an eight-century-old mushi okuri ritual to banish them. A rice-straw effigy of a mounted horseman is dubbed Sanemori-san for the ancient warrior Heike Sanemori who was captured by Genji because he stumbled on rice stubble, and whose spirit in grudge tranformed itself into an insect. Paraded by torchlight through the fields, the effigy is finally burned, along with the insects drawn to the flames.

Mizudome-no Mai

Gonsho-ji's Stop-the-Rain Festival has been passed down from the 15th century when it was first held in supplication to the dragon god to bring torrential rains to an end. Here the role-playing "dragon god" blowing a conch shell hora-gai, is wrapped in a straw snake, for its traditional association with water. As he is rolled and dragged around the grounds, onlookers splash him with more and more water to pay their respects, until finally they symbolically decide, "No more!"

Matsuri - Nagoshi
Chinowa Kuguri

A procession of priests pass through a ring of chigaya, a river grass whose vivid green color and fragrance act as purifiers. On this day, or another in latter June, many parishioners will also make this ritual summer passage.

Minazuki-no Ooharai

Shinto purification by hito-gata utilizes a human-shaped paper doll which a worshiper rubs over the body and blows breath upon to transfer to it any illness or impurity. It is then inscribed with name and age and returned to the shrine with a small money offering. At Iwashimizu Hachiman Shrine, priests bundle these dolls together and place them in small rush boats to be set adrift in the river, thereby symbolically casting away any negative influences.

Yatori-no Shinji

On the last night of summer, in early August by traditional reckoning, Shimogamo Shrine celebrates the community's safe passage through that perilous hot season with Nagoshi Shinji rites. Fifty sacred arrow-like talismans, yatori-no ikushi, are set in the middle of Mitarashi Pond on shrine grounds. As the priests cast away parishioners' purifying hito-gata, young men dressed in loincloths rush into the water to claim one of the talismans, and with it the promise of good fortune, health and longevity.

Matsuri - Seirei
Chankoko Odori

On Japan's southern islands O-Bon retains an exotic flavor, almost unchanged for centuries. In Tamanoura in the Goto Islands, grass-skirted musicians parade through the village, pausing to dance at the grave of the local medieval lord, as well as at the homes of those who have lost a family member during the past year. The ancient rite adopted from China is named for the chan sound of finger cymbals and the ko-ko of drumming with which the spirits of ancestors are welcomed.


The people of Nishinoshima construct great straw "spirit ships" with a coiled prow ornament representing an elephant trunk, one of Buddhism's symbols. Kids prepare thousands of little paper prayer flags which they carry around from house to house to be inscribed to Buddha. In return for their efforts, they are given sweet treats, particularly at the homes memorializing the first Bon after a death. These so-called tsuzuki-bata are strung together and suspended to simulate sails.