Natsu Matsuri (III): Japanese Summer Festival
In Japanese, “Natsu” means “summer” and “Matsuri” means “festival”. Natsu Matsuri (夏祭り) is a collective term for all the festivals held from early July to late August. Normally, some festivals held in June and September can also be regarded as summer festivals. Every year, there are hundreds of summer festivals nationwide. The last article introduces you to the most famous ones among all the festivals (click here to read). This article will introduce the three great festivals of Tohoku, which refers to the northeastern region of Honshu, which includes six regions: Akita, Aomori, Fukushima, Iwate, Miyagi, and Yamagata. Tanabata Matsuri, Nebuta Matsuri, Kanto Matsuri are held in Yamagata, Aomori, and Akita respectively.
The Tanabata Festival, also known as the “Star Festival”, origins from a Chinese legend. It celebrates the meeting of Orihime and Hikoboshi. According to legend, the Milky Way separates the lovers and they can only meet once a year on June 7 of the lunar calendar, which is the day the stars Vega and Altair meet. The date of Tanabata Matsuri varies from July to August in different regions of the country.
The Sendai Tanabata Matsuri is held from August 6 to 8 every year and is the largest and most famous Tanabata Matsuri in Japan. As a traditional event, it dates back 400 years ago to the time of Date Masamune, the first lord of the Sendai domain. Today, the festival is known throughout the country for its splendid decorations. During the festival, the entire city, including all the main streets and shopping districts, is covered with colorful decorations made of ribbons, bamboo, and sasatake.
The Nebuta Matsuri is the oldest of three great festivals of Tohoku and is an Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property. Its history is so long that its origin is obscure. Some theories argue that it originated from the 8th-century Shogun, Sakanoue no Tamuramaro, who distracted his enemies with shrill drums and flutes. Others suggest that it is a variation of the Tanabata Festival and has roots in the star festival. Someone else believes the festival is held to drive away the demon that makes people sleepy and weary in summer, and to pray for harvest and prosperity.
Nebuta Matsuri is held in Aomori in early August for about a week. Nebuta lantern is a huge paper float depicting Japanese gods, mythological figures, and legendary historical figures. The giant lantern is propelled through the streets of Aomori by dancers in traditional costumes called haneto. It is accompanied by a procession of Taiko drummers, flutists, cymbal players, and hundreds of dancers. They chant songs, play music, and dance. They greet tourists and passersby to come and join the celebration. The parade continues for several hours each night of the festival, and on the last day of the festival, fireworks are lit to symbolize the end of the festival.
Kanto Matsuri (Lantern Festival), held in Akita from August 3 to August 6 every year, is a festival featuring street performances. During the festival, a large procession of young people in traditional costumes lifts nearly 300 long poles hung with huge lanterns and parades around the city accompanied by drums and flutes. The lantern pole called a “Kanto”, ranges in length from 16 to 39 feet, and weighs from20kg to 50kg.
The highlight of the festival is the performers balancing the Kanto, which is an impressive feat of strength and balance. Performers use their body parts, including palms, waists, shoulders, and even foreheads, to balance lantern poles. Performers increase the extension of the poles until they reach their maximum height. The event lasts about 90 minutes every night at the festivals. After the performance, audiences have 15 minutes to talk with the amazing performers, take photos, and if they are lucky, lift a Kanto.