Summer Festivals of Japan | Japan Highlights Travel, for sightseeing around Tokaido

Kyoto Station [Gozan no Okuribi]

The Japanese people have worshiped natural phenomena as gods since ancient times, and have prayed to these nature gods for prosperity, thanked them for good harvests and held festivals in their honor to prevent disasters. Although their form, scale and content may have changed down the years, these festivals are still very much alive today. In particular, Bon festival dances, parades, fireworks festivals, fairs, floats and music processions liven up the summer all over Japan.

  • Toyohashi Stations [Tezutsu hand-held fireworks]

  • Mikawa-Anjo Station [Anjo Tanabata Matsuri]

  • If it's a festival you want, make it a summer one!

  • The word "matsuri" (festival) is a noun form of the verb "matsuru" (worship), and the original meaning was the act of worshiping a god or a ceremony of worship. In a typical ceremony, people make offerings of objects and actions to divine spirits. If the scale of a ceremony becomes so large that it involves the whole region, it will be called a matsuri.
  • Japan has four distinctive seasons, and matsuris reflect the characteristics of each. Matsuris have been held to pray for good harvests in spring, to give thanks for the rice harvest in autumn, and to thank the gods for the closing year and pray for good fortune for the next one in winter. What about summer, then? Well, in rural areas matsuris were held in summer to ease the fatigue of long months of hard work in the fields and pray for good health and a good harvest. In towns and cities on the other hand, summer matsuris were mainly associated with Obon, a custom of honoring the spirits of the dead. Events with this connection include "Tama Matsuri", in which people offer comfort to the souls of their ancestors, and "Nagoshi no Harae", in which people pray to ward off plague.
  • In fact, in the world of haiku (Japanese poems), the word "matsuri" usually means "summer matsuri". People use the specific terms "haru matsuri" and "aki matsuri" to indicate a festival in spring and autumn respectively, and there is no seasonal word with the meaning "winter festival". It is assumed that "matsuri" came to mean "summer festival" because the Aoi Matsuri, a grand festival that has been held in summer at Kamo Shrine in Kyoto since the Heian period (about 1,200 years ago), used to be a national event and came to be called just "Matsuri". By association, "matsuri" became a seasonal word for evoking the summer.
  • Today, matsuris provide an opportunity for children to experience the unity of their local community during the long summer holidays. They also play an important role for adults, as people who have left their home towns traditionally return during the period of Obon, and local people living both near and far can come together again at the matsuris held around this time.
  • Summer matsuris are larger in scale and richer in content than those which take place in other seasons. They are full of local color and originality. Seeing a summer festival is lots of fun, and you will enjoy it all the more if you actually join in. Give yourself a special summer treat, and experience local energy and passion with your whole being.
  • Kyoto Station [Gion Matsuri]

  • Shizuoka Station [Shimizu Minato Matsuri]

  • Shin-Osaka Station [Osaka Tenmangu Shrine Tenjin Matsuri]

  • Nagoya Station [Owari Tsushima Tenno Matsuri]

  • Atami Station [Atami Kogashi Matsuri]

  • Obon - A summer festival for welcoming your ancestors

  • In Japan, "summer holiday" pretty much means Obon. The word Bon is short for the Buddhist term "Urabon", which means a period in which people welcome and commemorate the spirits of their ancestors. It is said that Obon events first took place in Japan during the reign of Empress Suiko (606 A.D.). Commemorating one's ancestors in summer became an established custom in the eighth century.
  • So summer matsuris and Obon events have a deep connection. The details and practices vary from region to region, but typically people hang a lantern called a "mukaebi" (welcoming fire) at the entrance to their house or at their front gate on the evening of August 13th, and then on the 16th, the lantern is burned together with ogara (peeled hemp stems), becoming an "okuribi" (farewell fire). The "Gozan no Okuribi" in Kyoto is a famous summer matsuri during which large bonfires are lit on five mountains.
  • Shoryo-umas

    On the 13th, people make animals called "shoryo-umas" out of cucumbers and eggplants for their ancestors to ride home on. The cucumber and eggplant animals each represent different wishes. The cucumber animal is made to look like a horse who can run fast and bear the ancestors home quickly. The eggplant animal looks like a cow that will take the ancestors back to the spirit world slowly piled high with offerings from the world of the living. The shoryo-umas go back and forth between the worlds of the living and the dead guided by the mukaebis and okuribis.

    On the night of the 16th, people gather in the precincts of temples and shrines to dance a "Bon odori". The Bon odori is said to represent the ancestors dancing with joy at the commemorations which have been held in their honor. The dances also served as an entertainment which strengthened the bonds between people living in rural communities. Originally, the night of the Bon odori (July 15th in the old lunar calender) was a full moon, and on a bright night in an age when most would be dark, people would apparently get very excited and dance all night. Who knows, maybe the moon really does have an effect... Today, Bon odoris are not only held on the 16th, and not only in the precincts of temples and shrines. Some Bon odoris even involve competitions between groups with flamboyant costumes, choreography, festival implements and music. The Bon odori is the climax to the summer matsuri where anybody, be they a beginner or a stranger, can join in.
  • Nagoshi no Harae - A summer festival to ward off plague

  • Summer has always been a season in which disasters such as typhoons, drought and plague can easily occur. "Nagoshi no Harae", a festival held to ward off plague, was a particularly flourishing tradition in densely populated areas such as Kyoto, Osaka and Edo (now Tokyo). This was originally an official event called Oharae held in June and on the last day of December in the lunar calender by the Imperial Court during the reign of Emperor Tenmu. The December event ("Toshikoshi no Harae") fell out of practice, and only "Nagoshi no Harae" spread to the public. Specifically, people purify themselves by walking through a big circle called the "chi no wa" and transferring their ill fortune to a doll called a hitokata or katashiro, which they then send floating away on the ocean or down a river.
  • Kyoto Station [Gion Matsuri]

    Around 1,100 years ago, many people in Kyoto (then the capital of Japan) would die of plague every summer. The Kamo River was notorious for bursting its banks. When the rainy season came, floodwater from the river would wreak havoc as far afield as the capital, where it would then grow stagnant and cause widespread disease. In 863 A.D., the imperial court held a ceremony called "Goryo-e" in the temple of Shinsen-en to pray for an end to the plague and the repose of the souls of its victims. Goryos are evil spirits that cause harm in the human world. They are created when someone passes away with unresolved bitterness or regret. Goryo-e is said to be the origin of the Gion Matsuri. As a finale to the Gion Matsuri, a "Nagoshi no Harae" ceremony is performed at Yasaka Shrine, and people exorcise evil spirits by passing through a "chi no wa" placed under the torii, the shrine's sacred gate.
  • Nagoya Station [Owari Tsushima Tenno Matsuri]

  • In 951 A.D., the people of Osaka sent a "kamihoko" (sacred lance) floating off down the river in front of Osaka Tenmangu Shrine, which had been founded two years before. When they found the spot where the kamihoko had drifted back to the bank, they set up a shrine, transfered the divine spirit there and performed ablutions to purify themselves. The work of the shinryomin *1 and sukeisha*2, the people who prepared the boat and transfered the divine spirit, marks beginning of the Tenjin Matsuri. During the Tenjin Matsuri, a kamihoko and katashiro ("scapegoat") are released downriver from a boat in a Shinto ritual called "Hokonagashi".
  • The purpose of the Tenno faith's "Tenno Matsuri" festivals conducted all around Japan was also to suppress epidemics. The best known Tenno Matsuri is the Owari Tsushima Tenno Matsuri held at Tsushima Shrine, the center of the Tenno faith. The festival has more than 600 years of history, and is famous for being a magnificent river festival. This festival and the Tenjin Matsuri in Osaka are two of the so-called "Three Great River Festivals of Japan".
  • So we see that an important purpose of a summer festival was to ward off plague. Kyoto, Osaka and Nagoya are all cities which grew and flourished around large rivers. It is fair to say that there seems to be a connection between such riverside cultural zones and summer festivals related to purification.
  • *1 Formerly, people who lived within the territory of the shrine. Now means people who live in Ise City.
    *2 People whose place of residence had nothing to do with the shrine, but who regularly worshiped at it. Distinct from shrine parishioners ("ujikos").

updated on Jun 10, 2015

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