In Japan, numerous festivals are held in all four seasons throughout the country. Many Japanese festivals originated from the belief that gods reside in everything; not only trees, flowers, mountains, oceans, and other natural creations, but also thunder, rain, and other weather phenomena, as well as even tableware and utensils. Often festivals were held to thank the gods, to pray, and sometimes even to appease their anger.
Ancient festivals had a strong religious element to worship the gods, but as time went by, external factors such as the introduction of Buddhism were incorporated, and these events gradually became deeply rooted in people's daily lives. A variety of festivals are held; to offer offerings to ancestors, to thank the gods and Buddha, to pray for a good harvest, to ward off epidemics, to plead for peace, and more.
Festival Fun and Guidelines
Japanese festivals are often associated with the four seasons, with those in spring concerned with rice planting, and people praying for a good harvest of crops or perhaps a big catch in the fishing industry. In summer, there are many religious events related to Obon (the period when the deceased and ancestors are said to return from the afterlife), and many large-scale festivals are held. Autumn and winter include festivals to give thanks for the harvest, as well as events of foreign origin such as Halloween and Christmas. No matter what time of year you visit Japan, you can encounter a variety of festivals.
Mikoshi (portable shrines) and floats often appear at Japanese festivals. The mikoshi is carried by people and ridden by the gods as they leave the shrine. The floats have various names such as yatai, hikiyama, or saisha, depending on the region, but they are all large, equipped with wheels, and pulled or pushed by people. It is believed that the gods descend onto the top of the float, and people sometimes ride on the inside of the float to entertain the gods with musical performances. Beware, however: they are the gods’ vehicles and should not be touched or ridden without permission!
Certainly, many visitors would like to take part in festivals, not just watch from the sidelines, but people are not allowed to participate without permission from the local government, shrine, or other organizers. Since festivals attract multitudes, various rules may be established, such as traffic regulations, no-go zones, prohibition of alcohol consumption, and guidelines against loud voices. Follow the rules and enjoy the festivities!
Major Festivals in the Chubu Region *Schedules are subject to change.
Inuyama Festival in Inuyama City is a celebration that has been held in the castle town area of Inuyama Castle, a National Treasure, since 1635. It takes place on Saturday and Sunday of the first week of April. The floats, known as yama, are decorated with magnificent mechanical dolls called karakuri, and are registered as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.
The Kamezaki Shiohi Festival is held annually on May 3 and 4 in Kamezaki-cho, Handa City. A spectacular event in which five gorgeously decorated floats are pulled down to the beach culminating in a splash in the water, the festival is registered as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.
The Atsuta/Shobu Festival of Nagoya City is a solemn festival attended by an imperial envoy of the Emperor of Japan and held annually on June 5 at Atsuta Shrine. Demonstrations of martial arts and performing arts are dedicated to the gods, makiwara (straw lanterns) are offered and fireworks are set off.
The Hamamatsu Festival is a citizens' festival held every year from May 3 to 5 in Hamamatsu City, celebrating the birth and growth of children with kite-flying competitions. At night, the town is decorated with gorgeous floats called goten-yatai.
Fujinomiya Festival in the city of the same name is an annual event held from November 3 to 5 at the Fujisan Hongu Sengen Taisha shrine, where ujiko (shrine parishioners) pull floats and stalls to give thanks for a safe year and harvest. The highlights include the heated competition between floats and the lively Fujinomiya music.
The Onbashira Festival of Suwa City is officially called Shikinen-zoei Mihashira-taisai, or the "Honored Pillars Festival," and it is held every seven years to rebuild the Suwa Taisha Shrine Treasure Hall and reinforce the giant fir tree pillars, or gobashira, located at the four corners of the shrine building. The "Yama-dashi" mountain bounty ceremony when towering trees are felled and towed by manpower is held in April, the "Satobiki" pulling ceremony in May. The upper and lower shrines each cut four huge trees weighing up to 10 tons. Highlights of this adventurous festival include the "Kiotoshi" where shrine parishioners slide down a steep slope on the sacred pillars, and the "Kawakoshi" crossing of the cold river.
Matsumoto Bon Bon, Matsumoto City's largest summer festival, is held every year on the first Saturday in August. More than 200 groups called "ren" are formed, and a total of 20,000 dancers perform through the central area of Matsumoto City.
Takayama Festival in Takayama City is held in spring and fall. The Sanno Festival in spring is an annual event of Hie Shrine and is held on April 14 and 15 every year, and the Hachiman Festival in fall is for the Sakurayama Hachiman Shrine and is held on October 9 and 10. There are many highlights of the latter festival, such as the progress of glittering floats, the karakuri doll dedication, the festival procession with traditional costumes and gagaku (Japanese imperial court music) playing, and the fantastic lantern-lit floats at night. It is registered as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Gujo Odori is a Bon Odori dance festival that has been held in Gujo Hachiman for more than 400 years and features more than 30 nights of dancing from mid-July to early September. Gracing one venue per night, the festival tours the entire city during the summer. The last four days of the festival are called "all-night odori," and the dancing lasts from 8:00 p.m. until dawn.
Ishidori Matsuri in Kuwana City is a festival to dedicate stones to Kasuga Shrine and is held every year on the first Sunday of August and the preceding Saturday. At midnight, as many as 40 floats line up around the shrine, beating gongs and drums. The festival is infamously the “noisiest festival in Japan” and is registered as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.
The Kumano Grand Fireworks Festival of Kumano City has a tradition of over 300 years and is held every year on August 17. It is said that the festival originated when simple fireworks were set off as a memorial service for the first spirit during the Obon Festival, and today as many as 10,000 fireworks are exploded. The fireworks display at the World Heritage Site Onigajo is a must-see.
Nagahama Hikiyama Festival of Nagahama City, held from April 9 to 17, is an annual festival for Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine. The festival is said to have originated when gold dust was given to Toyotomi Hideyoshi to celebrate the birth of his first son. Floats were thus decorated and pulled around, and the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage-registered festival was born. In the Edo Period, children's kabuki started being performed on the hikiyama floats, a tradition continued to this day.
The Otsu Festival in Otsu City is an annual festival of the Tenson Shrine and is held every October. The floats, which were created in the Edo Period, feature mechanical karakuri dolls depicting historical events and Noh plays. Additionally, chimaki rice cakes which have been purified at Tenjin Shrine, said to ward off bad luck, are scattered to onlookers.
Katsuyama Sagicho Festival in Katsuyama City was originally held as a small New Year's event, but it is now held on the last Saturday and Sunday of February. The unique Sagicho dance is performed on 12 turrets in the town. On Sunday night, the festival concludes with dondoyaki, in which New Year's decorations and sacred straw ropes are burned then extinguished to send the gods on their way with prayers for a bountiful harvest.
Mikuni Festival of Sakai City is one of the three major Hokuriku festivals, held at Mikuni Shrine for three days from May 19 to 21 every year. Floats with giant warrior dolls (over 6 meters high) and a procession of warriors parade through the town.
The Kanazawa Hyakumangoku Festival in Kanazawa City is held at the beginning of June to commemorate the entry of Maeda Toshiie, the founder of the Kaga clan, into Kanazawa Castle in June 1583. There are many attractions such as the spectacular parade, taiko drum performances, and the acclaimed dancing procession.
Wajima Grand Festivals is the customary name for festivals held at shrines in the four districts of Wajima City, which take place over four days from August 22 to 25 each year. Huge lanterns with carrying poles called kiriko are paraded through the town.
Takaoka Mikurumayama Matsuri in Takaoka City is held every year on May 1. Gorgeous floats decorated with traditional Takaoka crafts parade through the town, featuring the halberd pole weapon standing on top of the goshoguruma carriage. The floats are registered as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.
The Etchu Owara Kaze no Bon Festival is held in Toyama City every year from September 1 to 3 to pray for a good harvest, in particular that rice plants will not be damaged during typhoon season. Each of the 11 towns perform their own unique and traditional dances to the melancholy owara bushi melody. The beautiful and graceful dances performed to the delicate sounds of the Japanese violin kokyu and other musical instruments such as taiko drums are fascinating for the audience.
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