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How to celebrate Japan’s local festivals

Matsuri is the catch-all term for the year-round local festivals that can take place in any corner of the city. The term matsuri can refer to secular events but is most often attached to the festivals centered around local shrines and temples. Matsuri combine ancient traditions and streetside festivities. Summer is the best season to experience the matsuri. Many of the city’s larger festivals take place in May and June, including Asakusa Shrine’s Sanja Matsuri, Hie Shrine's Sanno Matsuri, and Kanda Myojin's Kanda Matsuri, but there are festivals large and small all year round. For shrine festivals, the most popular type, the lanes around the shrine are full of street food vendors, carnival games and local residents in traditional garb. The highlight of the shrine festival is the procession of the mikoshi, the portable shrine.

Index

  • Catch the mikoshi

  • Stroll the yatai

  • Blend in

  • Take part in Bon Odori

  • Soak up the sacred

  • Catch the mikoshi

    Catch the mikoshi

    Catch the mikoshi

    The mikoshi is a chariot of sorts, carrying the kami spirits on a tour of the neighborhood before they are returned to the matsuri’s organizing shrine. The mikoshi, often ornate and ancient, comes down the block borne on the shoulders of local residents with cries of “Wasshoi, wasshoi! (Heave-ho!)” as they shake the shrine to the the accompaniment of drums. At some matsuri, the mikoshi will be carried to the riverside or the beach where water will be splashed and scooped in a ceremony known as hama-ori.

  • Stroll the yatai

    Stroll the yatai

    Stroll the yatai

    Stroll the yatai

    Stroll the yatai

    Nothing goes better than street drinking a can of Asahi or a plastic cup of chu-hi than a sloppy paper plate of yakisoba, okonomiyaki, or takoyaki from a matsuri yatai. For those with a sweet tooth, there are just as many options: chocolate-covered bananas, taiyaki, and all manners of sweet treats on sticks. Just like the carnival midway, there are new innovations in calorie-packed treats every year. None of the usual matsuri offerings will fit anybody’s diet plan, but a festival is a good excuse to cut loose. The kids have just as much fun, racing between carnival games (ring toss and shooting galleries, for example) and the goldfish scooping station, brandishing a toy gun in one hand and a waffle-on-a-stick in the other.

  • Blend in

    Blend in

    Blend in

    The matsuri is a great excuse to get dressed up in traditional clothing. For many young people, it’s one of the few times of the year when they put on a kimono or yukata. Tokyo has many places that rent traditional outfits, and wandering around the festive streets adds something special to the experience. Another reminder: taking pictures of revelers in traditional garb can be tempting but remember to be respectful and ask for permission.

  • Take part in Bon Odori

    Take part in Bon Odori

    Take part in Bon Odori

    Obon, a Japanese Buddhist tradition held in late summer (the date varies according to region, but it is held around around the 15th of July in Tokyo). The customary rites of Obon are somber and meant to honor ancestral spirits, but also include a street festival that includes the Bon Odori (Bon dance). Locals come out dressed in traditional garb and dance to regional folk songs (again, this differs greatly by region). One of the most famous Bon Odori celebrations on the summer matsuri calendar in Tokyo is the huge carnival that occupies the streets around Ebisu Station and welcomes folk dancers and musicians onto the yagura stage.

  • Soak up the sacred

    Soak up the sacred

    Soak up the sacred

    The religious aspect of matsuri is often forgotten while enjoying the yakisoba and street drinking, but most matsuri go back to shrine festivals connected to prayers for a good harvest or planting. As the day goes on and the mikoshi’s procession has finished, ceremonies take place at the organizing shrine or temple. The best bet is to go with the flow: watch the local crowd and take your cues from them.

    長浜曳山まつり
    Address
    滋賀県長浜市宮前町
    Phone
    0749-62-4111
    修正鬼会
    Address
    大分県国東市国東町岩戸寺
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    0978-72-5168
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