Matsuri, Japanese festivals 日本の祭り
Matsuri, Japanese festivals
Sanja matsuri Asakusa, Tokyo
Credit: Yoshikazu TAKADA
The food stands of the matsuri, the yatai
Credit: Tokyo Times
Awa Odori, Tokushima
Credit: Jose Cruz
Goldfish fishing, popular activity at a matsuri
Credit: Al Case
Festivals all year round
Matsuri are ceremonies during which the Japanese pray to deities and honor their ancestors. Today, matsuri refers mainly to the popular festivals that take place all over the country.
Originally, the word matsuri was a generic name for all Japanese Shinto ceremonies. In Japanese, the verb matsuru means "to honor", or "celebrate the gods". In contemporary Japan, matsuri means both "festival" and "feast" in the religious sense. It has become a public holiday and every town or village celebrates its own matsuri. The reputations of the best known festivals even travel beyond the borders of Japan, like the famous Gion matsuri.
During these popular festivals, the participants parade through the city carrying mikoshi, portable shrines, and dashi floats, which are taken out for this occasion. The relic from the shrine, the physical incarnation of the kami, is placed inside the mikoshi by the priests. Sacred incantations are recited, then the kami is invited to incarnate in the portable shrine, which is then sealed and transported into the city.
Originally, the Japanese thought that the gods descended on earth during the matsuri. To accommodate them, small mountains or small mounds of earth were prepared. Over time, these small mountains became vehicles that could be moved: these are the dashi festival floats we see today. That's why the characters forming the word dashi are those of "mountain" 山 and "wheel" 車.
A festive atmosphere
The procession that accompanies the mikoshi is often composed of musicians and dancers, in addition to porters. In traditional holiday dresses, yukata (lightweight summer kimono) or festival happi coats, participants parade and dance to the sound of traditional Japanese instruments such as the taiko (Japanese drum) or the flute. Extremely popular, the yukata is worn all through the summer, and especially during matsuri: Summer is the season of yukata.
Read also: Traditional instruments
The shrine which is the focus of the matsuri is surrounded by games and food stalls, called yatai. The most popular foods are takoyaki (octopus dumplings), kara-age (fried chicken), yakisoba (fried noodles), yakitori (kebabs) and kakigori (shaved ice topped with syrup). During summer matsuri, children enjoy catching goldfish using fishing nets.
Natsu matsuri, summer festivals, are distinguished from the other festivals that take place during the rest of the year, because it is during this season that the O-bon dance takes place, Tanabata wishes hang on bamboo trees, and summer firework displays abound. There are many parades and other shows. Summer festivals are social events and are very specific to summer in Japan. If you are in Japan in the summer, don't miss this experience!
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