Roots of Japan

Japanese Festivals

Originally, festivals were a time to give thanks and pray for a good harvest.
The origins of harvest festivals stretch back a long way. We know them as events held in autumn that coincided with the harvest.

In Japan, “Matsuri”, or festivals, originally referred to the act of worshipping gods or a related ceremony of worship.Traditional festivals are often connected to shrines and temples.Many of these events were strongly influenced by folk religion and the customs introduced from Taoism and Buddhism.

“Matsurigoto” is an ancient word used to refer both to government and worship. This is derived from the word “saisei itchi”, (unity of religion and government), as in ancient times, someone who performed religious services was the same as someone who engaged in politics.However, today, due to waning interest in religion, lively events connected to religious services or even events that are totally unrelated to religion are called “Matsuri”.

In Japan there are about 40,000 festivals each year.
Out of all these “Matsuri”, we'd like to introduce the traditional “Nihon Sandai Matsuri” or “Japan's three greatest festivals”.

When were they given the name “Japan's three greatest festivals” and what criteria was used to select them?Nothing can be said for certain as there seems to be various theories which are understood differently depending on the region.

Gion Matsuri - Yasaka Shrine, Kyoto Prefecture
A month-long “Matsuri” which starts July 1st. Held since the 9th century, it's now a well-known feature of Kyoto that makes it feel like summer.The festival's Yamahoko float ceremony was added to the UNESCO Important Tangible Folk Cultural Properties list. “Yamahoko Junko”, or the grand parade, goes through the main streets of the city and is sometimes compared to a “Moving Art Gallery”.Many night stalls open for an event preceding the big parade, called Yoiyama, attracting more than 300,000 visitors per day.The festival was originally a purification ritual, or “Goryo-e”, to appease the god of pestilence and dead spirits.From 863 to 869 a series of calamities spread throughout the country.The festival began as a religious festival held to worship the deity Gozu Tenno that included the use of 66 tall spears called “Hoko”, which symbolized the number of provinces at the time. These “Hoko” clear away impurities and evil spirits.

Tenjin Matsuri - Osaka Tenman-gu Shrine, Osaka Prefecture
Tenjin Matsuri are held at Tenmangu shrines across Japan on Ennichi, or the Holy Day, a day associated with the anniversary of the death of the enshrined deity, Michizane Sugawara (This Ennichi, means a day believed to have a special connection (en) to a Japanese deity. Often, it is a day when the deity is believed to have been born or left the world. Visiting a temple or a shrine on one of these holy days is believed to bring greater fortune than on regular days.)It's held for a period of one month, from late June to around July 25th.It's the same length as the Gion Matsuri.Of all the Tenjin Matsuri held at Tenmangu shrines around the country, the one held at Osaka Tenman-gu Shrine is the most famous.It's also known as the festival of “Fire and Water” due to the combination of floating boats that carry the spirits and the beautiful fireworks dedicated to the gods.The Tenjin Matsuri began in 951 and it has been ranked as one of “Japan's three greatest festivals” since the Edo period (1603 - 1868).

Kanda Matsuri - Kanda Myojin-Shine, Tokyo
A “Matsuri” held every two years in the middle of May at Kanda Myojin-Shine.“Horen” (phoenix-decorated palanquins that were once used as the official means of transport of the emperor. These days used as portable shrines), along with “Mikoshi” (also a portable Shinto shrine) are accompanied by people parading down the streets wearing clothing from the Heian period.Other “Matsuri” events are held from around 4pm, such as a parade of “Mikoshi” portable shrines, “Dashi”, or floats and a “Musha Gyoretsu”, or Samurai Procession.It's amazing to see the contrast between the charming, old-fashioned procession as it makes its way down the streets of Akihabara, Electric Town, an area known for cutting edge technology.As there are few documents about this matsuri remaining, details of its origins remain veiled in mystery.But it has been regarded as a major “Matsuri” since the Edo period.Tokugawa Ieyasu, a significant figure in Japanese history, ordered the Kanda Myojin-Shine to pray for victory in an upcoming battle. He also went in person to the shrine every day to pray. Then, on the date of the festival, Ieyasu won the battle and this outcome led to the unification Japan.To this day, Ieyasu is still highly revered, and the date has turned into a lucky “Matsuri”, held on a grand scale.

There are other categories of “three greatest festivals”, far too many to list, but they include the “Three major summer festivals”, the “Three most eccentric festivals”, the “Three major Tanabata festivals” etc.Each one is very popular and worthy of being named one of the “big three”.When you visit Japan, why not make it your goal to catch a festival?

A “Matsuri” is not always a major event.Each area has their own “Matsuri”, some for the local gods, some held in shopping streets or by the local municipality.Summer festivals are held nationwide, particularly in July and August.At neighborhood shrines, prayers are made to “Ujigami” (the local guardian deity) for good harvests, and purification rituals are performed to prevent disasters.
Also, “Bon”, or the “Festival of the Dead” is an event in Japan where rituals are performed to honor one's ancestors. riginally this was a Buddhist ceremony called “Ullambana”.Seeing the memorial services for the spirits of ancestors and the “Bon odori”, or “Bon festival dance” will really make it feel like summer.If you have the chance to visit a festival, have a go at dancing, too!

And of course, it wouldn't be a summer festival without fireworks!
Many fireworks festivals are held each year.At the end of the festival, fireworks will light up the summer night sky.If you go dressed in “Yukata”, an informal cotton kimono, or a casual summer garment called “Jimbei”, it will feel even more exciting!“Matsuri” have been held since ancient times and even today they deepen bonds in the local community and strengthen the ties between people.Some people say “Matsuri” gives life a purpose.It's the highlight of the year for many, especially those working in connection with the festivals.“Matsuri” - created by people filled with excitement and enthusiasm.Join us and you, too, will add to the excitement!

It is my opinion and summary. Please acknowledge that there are various opinions.