Natsu Matsuri (II): Japanese Summer Festival
In Japanese, the summer festivals are called Natsu Matsuri (夏祭り), which is a collective term for all the festivals that are held from early July to late August. Among all the festivals, Gion Matsuri, Tenjin Matsuri, and Sanno Matsuri are the three greatest Natsu Matsuri with their long duration, a huge number of participants, and grand scale. Moreover, they are located in Kyoto, Osaka, and Tokyo respectively, which are the three most popular tourist resorts in Japan.
Gion Matsuri is a festival held every July in Kyoto and lasts for a month. Featuring Natsu Matsuri, the Gion Matsuri is considered the largest and most famous festival in Japan. It was awarded the title of World Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2009.
Gion Matsuri originated in 869 A.D. when a plague struck Japan and claimed numerous victims. Therefore, people held a ceremony in Yasaka Shrine to pray for the deliverance from the disaster. Since 970, the Gion Gion Matsuri has been an annual event.
Gion Matsuri follows many traditions. For example, a local boy will be chosen as a “divine boy” to visit the shrine and pray for good luck. From July 13 to July 17, he is carried on a palanquin and his feet don’t touch the ground.
Various events are held throughout the month during the Gion Matsuri. However, the parade floats from the 17th to the 24th are the absolute highlight. Each district in Kyoto will design a gorgeous float to participate in the parade. During the parade, more than thirty giant floats will appear. Among them, the most remarkable is the traditional float called “Yamahoko” and Geisha in the parade.
Tenjin Matsuri means “the festival of the gods” and was first held in honor of Sugawara Michizane, a scholar who is regarded as the Shinto god of learning. Since then, the festival has been held on his death anniversary, from July 24 to 25, in Osaka for 1,000 years. It is the largest water festival in the world.
The Tenjin Festival is mainly composed of the Yomiya festival on July 24 and the Honmiya festival on July 25. During the festival, traditional Japanese arts such as kagura (Shinto ritual music) and bunraku (traditional Japanese puppet plays) are performed in various places around the city.
The highlight of the festival is the afternoon of the 25th. More than 3,000 people dressed in traditional attire of the Nara period and Heian period (8th to 12th century) carry a mikoshi (a portable shrine) through the city. The procession includes ceremonial floats, musicians, dancers, and costumed characters, who are led through the streets by Taiko drummers. Afterward, the procession boards boats from the shore of the Tenjinbashi Bridge, and proceed with their parade. There will be more than 100 boats sailing on the Okawa River. In the evening, there will be bonfires and fireworks, which mark the end of the festival.
Sanno Matsuri/Kanda Matsuri
Kanda Matsuri, Sanno Matsuri, and Fukagawa Matsuri are Tokyo’s three most famous festivals. Among them, Sanno Matsuri is held only in even-numbered years, alternating with the Kanda Matsuri held in odd-numbered years.
The Sanno Matsuri originated in the Edo period (1603-1867). It is held in June and will last for more than a week, featuring a variety of small-scale events, such as flower arranging, dancing, and performances and rituals, especially for children. The biggest event of the festival is a procession of three mikoshi (portable shrines) through central Tokyo in nine hours. The parade begins and ends at Hie Shrine, which enshrines the guardian deity of Tokyo.
Kanda Matsuri began in the Edo period (1603-1867) to celebrate the prosperity under the Tokugawa Shogunate’s governance. Kanda Matsuri is presided over by Kanda Myojin Shrine, which enshrines three gods: Daikokuten, Ebisu, and Taira Masakado. Since Daikokuten and Ebisu are in charge of the harvest and commerce respectively, Kanda Matsuri has gradually become a celebration of prosperity and good fortune. Kanda Matsuri is held on Saturday around May 15. On the evening before the festival, a Shinto ceremony is held to invite the three gods to enter three mikoshi. On the day of the festival, these three mikoshi and the accompanying thousand people, including musicians and monks on horseback, perform the first procession in the morning. In the afternoon, floats, musicians, and dancers join the procession for a second procession. The next day, nearly 100 mikoshi of various towns and villages will gather to continue the procession. These mikoshi carry the local god of each town and village, which is believed to bless his/her people during the procession.