AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (29) Hot fun with summer festivals in Japan!

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, July 3, 2007

SUMMER’S HERE–yeah!–and that’s when the real Japanese festival action starts. Some of them are true extravaganzas, and one of the biggest is the Hakata Gion Yamakasa Festival in Fukuoka City. The Gion Yamakasa one comprises a series of events from July 1-15. One of the preliminaries coming up soon is the Zennagare Oshioitori. The term nagare refers to the seven teams of about 500 men each who will pull immense wheeled floats through the city on the 15th.

During this ceremony, the men in the nagare head to Hakozaki Beach in the city’s Higashi Ward to get o-shioi, which is sand for purification. Whenever the men go outdoors during the festival’s two-week period, they sprinkle the sand on their body to purify themselves and to prevent illness or disaster. What better way to spend the summer than to take the beach with you?

When they actually get to the beach, they wade into the water up to their knees and place the sand in boxes that are carried on poles. They later visit the Hakozaki shrine in the same ward to pray for safety during the festival period (the scene in the photo). The maneuvers with the wheeled floats start the next day. The main event on the 15th is a stunning spectacle, and wait until you see what that looks like.

Meanwhile, the Doronko Festival is slated for this week in Ehime Prefecture. Continuing a 120-year tradition, the festival is conducted at a rice paddy in a Shinto shrine after the farmers plant their own paddies to thank the divinities and pray for a good harvest.

This festival is a virtual variety show of performances. These include young men who pantomime planting soybeans and wind up throwing each other into the mud and wrestling with each other. (Doro means mud in Japanese, and as we’ve seen, is often an important element in events nationwide.) There’s a lineup of 10 trained bulls in a row plowing the muddy rice field. There are shrine maidens who pantomime planting the rice paddies (and who are preceded into the muck by men playing drums). One character in a demon’s mask pulls three people into the mud to the accompaniment of gongs and drums. The shrine maidens, dressed in colorful costumes, perform a dance on platforms above the paddy before the planting ceremony. There are several photos of these events to choose from, and I’ll choose the photos of women in colorful costumes dancing every time over pictures of hair-legged guys wrestling in the mud.

Finally, Tanabata Festivals will be held throughout the country on the 7th. This custom originated as a combination of Chinese and Japanese traditions. An ancient Chinese legend had it that the Weaver Star (Vega) and the Cowherd Star (Altair) were celestial lovers who could meet but once a year on the seventh night of the seventh lunar month. (Was the cowherd the seventh son of a seventh son?) This merged with a Japanese legend about the celestial weaving maiden Tanabatatsume, who made clothing for the gods. The festival was observed by the imperial court in the past.

Most of the modern Tanabata Festivals include a display of bamboo branches hung with strips of colored paper and other ornaments. People write their wishes or romantic requests on the paper before hanging them on the bamboo. It’s also common to see these branches in public places.

The photo here is of one of these branches with the paper written by the people wishing on two stars, decorating Shibuya Station in Tokyo. (The link is to a clever YouTube video.) This might be the closest the folks living in that concrete jungle ever come to bamboo.

The wish I stuck on a bamboo pole near my home is to meet one of those dancing shrine maidens in Ehime!

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