We were caught up in the colour, noise and energy of a centuries-old annual festival in the northern Japan harbour city of Aomori on the main island of Honshu.
We joined in, lustily chanting “rassera, rassera” to the rhythm of the massive drums. Who cared what it meant — maybe something like “let’s go”. It was just great to be part of the exuberant spectacle.
Japan has more festivals than almost any other country in the world. Their high-energy matsuri — in all their colour, tradition, and exuberance — are often spectacular. It is Japan at its liveliest.
Festivals vary widely depending on the occasion but are very traditional and considered “nationally important intangible folk cultural property”.
Almost always they involve spirited processions of participants vigorously chanting, dancing, and bearing massive, intricately-decorated omikoshi (portable shrines), lanterns or floats.
Aomori’s Nebuta Matsuri festival is one of Japan’s most visually striking and thought to have originated as a fire festival. It lasts several days in early August when the streets of Aomori — at other times a sleepy seaside city — come alive with breathtakingly vibrant floats.
Up to 80 floats depicting imposing gods, warriors, kabuki actors, animals, and even TV celebrities parade in the streets of the city. Made with washi (Japanese paper), hideous characters in bold colours stare back at us. Stuff of nightmares. Each is carried by a team of at least 20 men.
Festival-goers are invited to join in the lively street procession of dancers, who do a jig in time to the music and chant, provided they also wear the traditional haneto dancers’ costume (readily available to buy or rent throughout the city).
The floats take up to a year to build. In fact, one nearby village is a full-time centre for making them. There’s fierce competition among neighbourhood groups to win the prize as the best float. Points are given for the quality of the float, how well it is paraded and the quality of its band.
Later, the best floats take to the harbour for a final night show when tens-of-thousands of locals and visitors sit around the harbour watching them parade on the water. Mounted on barges, backlit by generators, the winning floats glide past us as the sun sets.
Accompanying are groups of dozens of dancers, taiko drummers, who set the pounding rhythm, flautists, and hand cymbals which give a clanging sound so strongly associated with the festival. The noise is deafening and powers the dancers long into the night.
We’d prepared ourselves by earlier visiting Aomori’s Nebuta Wa-rasse Matsuri museum (entry AUD$10 adult) to get a closer look at some of the enormous floats and to discover how craftsmen turn paper, wood and wire into these monsters. They begin work on next year’s floats immediately after each festival ends.
The final night of the festival also features a fireworks display — certainly nothing to match Sydney Harbour on New Year’s Eve — over Aomori’s harbour.
A Japanese matsuri is also one of the best places to sample an incredible array of unique, casual, and seasonal Japanese foods. Surprisingly, street food stalls are not common in Japan. However, they come out in big numbers for festivals.
We strolled a street of food stalls (yatai) offering everything in the way of Japanese food — from sushi to fried octopus and chicken kebabs.
Akita is also in the mountainous northern prefecture and home to hot springs and the famous Kanto Matsuri: a festival no less noisy or energetic. Participants, however, manipulate 12m high bamboo poles carrying up to 46 paper lanterns and weighing up to 50kg.
The swaying lanterns look like ears of rice. It has been held annually for 260 years to ward off bad luck, perform ablutions and pray for bountiful harvests. It is thought to have originated in a Buddhist event for warding off midsummer diseases and evil spirits.
Their chanting of “dokkoisyo, dokkoisyo”, together with drums and flutes played by women and girls, resonates down the city streets lined with thousands of onlookers. At night, the 10,000 or so lanterns are lit from inside with candles.
Performers — men and boys only — deftly balance the bamboo poles on the palm of one hand, forehead, shoulders and even hips in a display which, they say, involves 40 per cent strength and 60 per cent technique. Each is performed for 30 seconds, using only one hand. They are said to train daily.
Youngsters join in with cutdown versions of the poles and lanterns. Kanto-bayashi, or festival music, is played at top volume accompanying each group.
Again, we’ve prepared by visiting the Kanto museum to get a close look at the poles and lanterns — and even tried lifting and balancing one.
Kochi’s Yosakoi Festival is a much more recent addition to the festival circuit. It was started in 1954 to help boost an ailing local economy. About 190 teams from across Japan totalling almost 20,000 dancers take part in the four-day event. We’ve bought our frontrow seats at the venue for about AUD$20 for the final night.
Creative and energetic dances, unique costumes, music and choreography envelop the numerous venues where dancers — many using wooden clappers to add to the deafening noise produced by “ghettoblasters” — of all ages work up a sweat.
Another old festival is the Awa Odori
(Awa Dance) festival which originated in rural Tokushima on the island of Shikoku.
It is believed to date back to the late 16th century when the feudal lord of Awa held a giant celebration at the opening of
Tokushima castle. After drinking throughout the night, the attendees are said to have begun drunken singing and dancing, while musicians played a simple, syncopated beat. This became a lively annual event, and one of Japan’s most fun-loving matsuri.
The festival features fantastic traditional costumes, a dynamic (if stylised) dance, and highly energetic singing, chanting, and instrumentation. More than anything, it’s at its core a very friendly and colourful dance competition.
The procession comprises teams of dancers. Each team has its own unique costumes and spin on the traditional dance. The atmosphere is party-like, and the dance is known as the “fool’s dance.” The lyrics say it all: “The dancers are fools, and the people watching are fools. Since everyone is a fool, why not dance!”
GRACEFUL BEAUTY: Dancers perform in the Kochi festival.