There are countless local festivals (matsuri) in Japan because almost every shrine celebrates its own one. Most festivals are held annually and celebrate the shrine's deity or a seasonal or historical event. Some festivals are held over several days.
An important element of Japanese festivals is processions, in which the local shrine's kami (Shinto deity) is carried through the town in mikoshi (palanquins). It is the only time of the year when the kami leaves the shrine to be carried around town.
Many festivals also feature decorated floats (dashi), which are pulled through the town, accompanied by drum and flute music by the people sitting on the floats. Every festival has its own characteristics. While some festivals are calm and meditative, many are energetic and noisy.
The birth of Japan
Japan's mythological origins could have come from the pen of J.R.R. Tolkien. According to the oldest written records, the Kojiki and the Nihon-shoki, the god Izanagi-no-Mikoto and goddess Izanami-no-Mikoto leant down from the Floating Bridge of Heaven and stirred the ocean with a jewelled spear. Drops of brine falling from the spear created the first island of Japan, Onogoro-jima, where the couple gave birth to an "eight-island country", complete with kami. Amaterasu, the sun goddess and ultimate ancestress of the imperial family, was created out of a bronze mirror held in Izanagi's left hand and sent to rule the heavens. Her younger brother, Susanoo, was put in charge of the earth. Unhappy with this situation, he started causing turmoil in the heavens, and so upset Amaterasu that she hid herself in a celestial cave, plunging the world into darkness.
The other gods banished Susanoo to the underworld. Then, in an effort to coax Amaterasu out of the cave, they performed a comical dance involving a spear. Upon hearing the somewhat ribald laughter, Amaterasu's curiosity got the better of her and she poked her head out to see the fun. Enticed out a little further by a beautiful jewel, Amaterasu was then captivated by a bronze mirror. While she was preoccupied, the gods quickly sealed the cave entrance and sunlight returned to the world.
In time, Amaterasu's grandson, Ninigi, was sent down to rule Japan. She gave him three gifts which were to be his imperial regalia: a bronze mirror, a sword and a curved jewel. Here myth finally merges into proto-history, when Jimmu, said to be Ninigi's great grandson, became the first emperor of Japan on the first day of spring 660 BC.
Shinto is an ancient Japanese religion. Starting about 500 BCE (or earlier) it was originally "an amorphous mix of nature worship, fertility cults, divination techniques, hero worship, and shamanism." 4 Its name was derived from the Chinese words "shin tao" ("The Way of the Gods") in the 8th Century CE. At that time:
The complete separation of Japanese religion from politics did not occur until just after World War II. The Emperor was forced by the American army to renounce his divinity at that time.
- The Yamato dynasty consolidated its rule over most of Japan.
- Divine origins were ascribed to the imperial family.
- Shinto established itself as an official religion of Japan, along with Buddhism.
Unlike most other religions, Shinto has no real founder, no written scriptures, no body of religious law, and only a very loosely-organized priesthood.
An interesting list of some of Japan's most famous festivals:
- Sapporo Snow Festival (One week in early February)
The main site is the Odori Site in Sapporo's centrally located 1.5 kilometer long Odori Park. The festival's famous large snow sculptures, some more than 15 meters tall and 25 meters wide, are exhibited there. They are lit up daily until 22:00.
Besides about a dozen large snow sculptures, the Odori Site exhibits more than one hundred smaller snow and ice statues and hosts several concerts and events, many of which use the sculptures as their stage.
- Takayama Matsuri (April 14-15 and October 9-10)
Large and elaborately decorated floats are pulled through the old town of Takayama. Held in spring and autumn.
The Takayama Festival (Takayama Matsuri) is ranked as one of Japan's three most beautiful festivals. It is held twice a year in spring and autumn in the old town of Takayama and attracts large numbers of spectators.
- Sanja Matsuri (Weekend in mid May)
The Sanja Matsuri, or the Sanja Festival, is one of the three great Shinto festivals in Tokyo, along with the Kanda Matsuri and Sanno Matsuri, and it is considered one of the wildest and largest. Its purpose is to honor Hinokuma Hamanari, Hinokuma Takenari and Hajino Nakatomo, the three men who established and founded Senso-ji. The festival is held on the third weekend of every May at Asakusa Shrine. Its prominent parades revolve around three mikoshi (the three shrines referenced in the name Sanja), as well as traditional music and dancing.
- Kyoto Gion Matsuri (July)
The festival of Yasaka Shrine, Gion Matsuri is ranked as one of Japan's three best festivals, featuring six meter tall festival floats. The highlight of the festival takes place on July 17.
- Nebuta Matsuri (August 2-7) Aomori City, Aomori Prefecture.
The Nebuta Matsuri features festival floats with huge lanterns, some measuring more than 10 meters. The festival attracts several million visitors every year.
- Awaodori (August 12-15) Tokushima City, Tokushima Prefecture This is the most famous of many traditional dancing festivals held across Japan during obon.
- Nagasaki Kunchi (October 7-9) Nagasaki City, Nagasaki Prefecture The festival of Nagasaki's Suwa Shrine, the Nagasaki Kunchi features Chinese style dragons and floats shaped like ships.
- Chichibu Yomatsuri (December 2-3) Chichibu City, Saitama Prefecture The Chichibu Night Festival is considered one of Japan's three best festivals featuring large festival floats (yatai). The festival's highlight takes place in the evening of December 3.