Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (11) The rites of spring in Japan

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, March 27, 2007

WITH THE OFFICIAL ARRIVAL OF SPRING, if not spring weather, the focus of Japanese festivals turns from nearly naked men testing their endurance against the elements to events with warmer themes. One such festival was the Ondaue rice-planting festival in Aki-machi, Oita Prefecture on the 21st. Participants in this event mime the complete series of tasks required to plant a rice paddy. This includes sowing seeds, using an ox to plow the paddies, and having young boys play the role of saotome, or girls who sing as they plant rice. The indispensable element of all festivals is the enjoyment of the participants and viewers, so their performance is purposely comic.

The highlight for the onlookers came with the appearance of a papier-mâché black bull with two men inside. They pranced around wildly, neglecting their farm work while ignoring the farmer ordering them to plow.

The Ondaue Festival is an intangible culture property of the prefecture and has been performed for more than 180 years. It was formerly held on January 15, which was the old date for celebrating the start of the New Year, but lately it has been timed to coincide with the spring equinox.


Handa in Aichi Prefecture held their Otsukawa Festival on the 24th. Known locally as a harbinger of spring, the first part of the festival is performed for two days this month, and will continue on two more days each in April and May. The highlight is the shoving and tussling between groups of young men as they pull four floats weighing four tons apiece up a hill to the local shrine. The festival floats are the most elaborate of the 31 floats that have been used over the years in the city. Each float is pulled by a groups that number upwards of 100 men. They begin scuffling among themselves as they vie to take control of the floats’ steering mechanisms when they approach the foot of the hill.

They say that a young man’s fancy turns to love in the spring, but there are still some guys in Japan who’d rather dress up as a prancing bull or drag dead weight up a hill!

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