What is Matsuri (Japanese cultural festival)?

Why do Japanese people have a passion for Matsuri? Let's feel Japan deeply, explore the reasons and get some information about well-known Japanese cultural festivals!

Japan is full of charm in each region and each season. Traditionally Japanese people have long believed that there are eight million gods that reside in everything. Matsuri are held to express gratitude to nature and the gods, to enjoy life, and to foster community.

Knowing Matsuri is knowing Japan. You can experience history you would not normally see, interact with the locals, and see a new side of Japanese people. Everyone is cheerful at Matsuri, and you can interact with them in a way that is unique to the occasion.

1. What is Matsuri?

The original purpose of the Matsuri is to thank God. The etymology of the word Matsuri is also "enshrined."

The concept of "Hare" and "Ke" is essential in understanding the feelings for Matsuri. "Hare" is "non-daily," and "Ke" is "every day." The festival is "Hare," and conducting it gorgeously allows us to reset "Ke."
The Japanese look forward to the opportunity of this "hare," and it is the source of vitality to live daily life.

There are also new Matsuri that are unrelated to God. For example, seasonal festivals derived from the season such as the snow festival and cherry blossom festival, parades for celebrating history, or festivals of foreign origin typified by the Samba Carnival.

2. What is Mikoshi (portable miniature shrine)?

Speaking of Matsuri, they can’t be separated from "Mikoshi."
Mikoshi is a portable shrine. The bearers who wear the festival costume called Hanten or Happi carry Mikoshi on their shoulder and go around the neighborhood of the shrine to absorb the disaster, purify, and pray for the harvest.

The charm of Mikoshi is the enthusiasm of the people carrying it. Several hundred kilograms of portable shrines are being carried by people who live in the area. It greatly contributes to the formation of local communities.

3. What is Float?

Floats and Taiko-dai (drum stands) are also portable miniature shrines with attached wheels. It is heavier than the Mikoshi and pulled by manpower.

Floats are made in the shape of natural mountains. Since it was believed that the gods descended from the rocks and trees on the mountains and mountaintops, floats were built to invite the gods to stay during the festival. Later, to make the gods more pleased, floats were decorated with gorgeous ornaments, added wheels to travel around town with performers on.

Taiko-dai have features such as hitting a drum in the middle, and the bearer's stick is attached, most of which can be seen in West Japan in areas such as Kansai and Shikoku.

Some floats and Taiko-dai, like the Danjiri in Kishiwada, move very vigorously, while others are decorated with flowers, dolls, and other gorgeous ornaments. The more elegant ones, such as the Gion Festival in Kyoto, allow visitors to experience the gorgeous world of a historical picture scroll.

4. What is a Fire Festival?

It has been believed that in many civilizations around the world, fire has extraordinary power. Japan was not an exception, and a variety of fire festivals were born in search of purification by fire and the strengthening of the spiritual power by the flame.

There are many intense Japanese fire festivals, such as walking on hot coals or jumping into the flames. A famous one is the "Toba Fire Festival" held in Aichi Prefecture. People compete by jumping into the fiery flames, sacred tree and 12 ropes, and the temple is terrific, as it conveys the primitive appearance of the Japanese festival.

Learn more about Fire Festivals

5. What is the Bon Odori (Japanese traditional folk dance)?

Bon Odori is a traditional Japanese folk dance that originates from Buddhism and is performed during the Bon season (July to August) to honor ancestors. It is held at night in parks and squares, and people dance while circling around a drum tower. Bon Odori is a popular summer event for locals as well as for tourists from abroad because anyone can easily participate.

There are more than 1,000 types of dances in Japan. Some of the most famous include "Nishimonai Bon Odori" in Akita Prefecture, "Gujo Odori" in Gifu Prefecture, and "Awa Odori" in Tokushima Prefecture.

6. What is Hadaka Matsuri (Naked Festival)?

Maturi that surprises foreign tourists the most may be the naked festival, in which participants wear near-nude clothing such as loincloths. Why are participants naked? It is said that this is because they look just like they were born. Many naked festivals are held at turning points, such as the first full moon of the lunar calendar and summer purification festivals.

A famous one is the Saidaiji Eyo Festival in Okayama Prefecture. In the freezing cold, 10,000 naked men clash and compete for "Shingi" (two sacred sticks of wood, which is a symbol of hope and luck).

7. What is Nebuta?

One of the Matsuri that impresses foreign tourists the most is Nebuta Festival in Aomori Prefecture. Giant lantern floats called “nebuta” parade through town in this spectacular festival.

Around nine meters across and five meters tall, Nebuta is designed with historic or mythical themes and is surrounded by “haneto” dancers who energetically bounce around. This Matsuri is the best stage for local people to enjoy the short summer of the northern provinces and explore the energy. The rental costume shop is available in Aomori City, so tourists can also participate as Haneto on that day. Join in the chant of “Rassera, rassera” and dance the night away.

8. What is Hanabi (Fireworks)?

Japanese Fireworks have a history dating back to the Edo period (1603-1868). Japanese fireworks, which mean "flower" and "fire" in Japanese, are characterized by the way they spread round and large in the night sky and change beautifully.

Fireworks can be enjoyed all over Japan, mainly in the summertime, but the famous ones include the Omagari Fireworks in Akita Prefecture, Sumida River Fireworks Festival in Tokyo, and Nagaoka Fireworks in Niigata Prefecture.

9. What is Tsunahiki Matsuri (Tug of War)?

In Japan, even tug of war becomes a Matsuri. Tug of war is both a pastime and a contest of strength and is an important event where villages compete against each other to strengthen community unity. In farming and fishing villages, it also has the meaning of predicting the fortunes of crops and fishing and praying for a rich harvest.

The famous tug of war is Naha Matsuri which is registered in Guinness Book Records as "the world's best rope made of rice straw." There is also a folk traditional arts parade or you can join and pull the rope. Why don't you join forces, shout out loud, and have fun together?

10. What is Raiho-shin (ritual visits of deities in masks and costumes)?

In 2018, Namahage in Akita prefecture, Amamehagi in Ishikawa prefecture and Paantu in Okinawa prefecture were registered as "Raiho-shin, ritual visits of deities in masks and costumes" by UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.

These visiting deities are messengers of the gods and visit the human world once a year, at New Year's or other milestones. They are represented as deformed figures, and people wearing these masks and in costume visit village homes. They look frightening, but it is said they discourage laziness and bring happiness.