Matsuri (festivals) are held all year round throughout Japan, but summer is definitely the high season. There are many natsu matsuri (“natsu” means summer and “matsuri” means festival) taking place on both large and small scales every week during July and August. Hot summer nights are nice for going out, but there are more reasons why Japanese people enjoy matsuri during the summer.
Each region in Japan has its own style of natsu matsuri, which is deeply rooted in its local history, climate and culture. Although each one is unique, there are some commonalities. Most natsu matsuri are closely related to o-bon, a Buddhist custom to honor the spirits of one’s ancestors. During the o-bon period, usually the three days around August 15, people visit their ancestors’ tombs, offer food to them, and light fires to welcome the spirits. People customarily put a “mukae-bi” (welcome fire that guides spirits in finding their homes) on August 13th, and “okuri-bi” (farewell fire that guides spirits back to the other world) on August 16th. Therefore, many natsu matsuri held around that time are affiliated with lanterns, bonfire, and fireworks that can be said to be different forms of mukae-bi and okuri-bi. Also, natsu matsuri almost always have dance performances, which are a natural representation of bon-odori, a bon dance for the deceased.
Another custom that is associated with natsu matsuri are harvests. The harvest season comes at the end of summer, and at this time people celebrate the good harvest and express gratitude to nature and to the God of harvest. This is why Japanese matsuri, not only natsu matsuri but in general, often take place around Jinja (Shinto shrines). In fact, jinja traditionally played a central role in the community, as they where people gathered for all events. Even today when town’s physical centers have been moved somewhere else due to modern town l planning, ritualistic events and traditional festivals are held in the jinja precinct and its sando (roads leading to the main building).
Whether associated with o-bon or harvest, all natsu matsuri have accompanying music called o-hayashi. Although the tunes, rhythms and chants vary from region to region, natsu matsuri music always features taiko (drums) and fue (flutes). The powerful taiko sound is not only convenient to keep the attention of participants, but it is also believed to be able to communicate with deities.
People also enjoy community gatherings during the hot summer. They are different from traditional natsu matsuri that are associated with religion and folklore. These gatherings, often on a much smaller scale, are organized by the local chambers of commerce and municipal offices for the sake of boosting the economy. All the natsu matsuri elements, such as a yagura (a performance tower) as a main stage, o-hayashi, lanterns, and matsuri food are there to entertain local people and even welcome visitors from the outside community.
Here we introduce some of the internationally famous and upscale natsu matsuri, each of which has unique backgrounds, styles and features. The more you know the stories behind a certain region’s natsu matsuri, the more you can enjoy it.
Nebuta Matsuri (Aomori Prefecture)
Located in the northernmost part of Japan’s main island of Honshu, Aomori’s summer is short. The locals put all their energy that has accumulated during the cold season into their Nebuta Matsuri. One of its notable features is a huge lantern float with dimensions of about 30 ft. wide by 22 ft. deep by 16 ft. high that reproduces a fierce medieval battle scene. About 20 of these huge lanterns parade through the main streets of Aomori City. Each float is accompanied by haneto who dance wildly to o-hayashi matsuri music while chanting “rassera, rassera.”
The origin of Nebuta is believed to a varying form of Tanabata and the summer cleansing rituals in Shintoism. However, Nebuta is strongly attached to the local legend that Sakanoue no Tamuramaro, a famous warlord in the 8th century, defeated enemies in the area. This is why all the Nebuta lanterns depict battle scenes. The Nebuta Matsuri in Aomori City is the biggest one attracting over 2.5 million visitors, but there are about 30 cities and towns that observe their version of this matsuri. The Neputa* Matsuri in Hirosaki City is the second biggest with over 1.5 million visitors, but Hirosaki’s lantern floats are fan-shaped with beautiful drawings of battle scenes. Nebuta Matsuri was designated as a Signicant Intangible Folk Cultural Asset in 1980.
*In Hirosaki, it’s called Neputa, instead of Nebuta.
Kanto Matsuri (Akita Prefecture)
Adjacent to Aomori, Akita Prefecture also has a unique lantern festival called Kanto. It is completely different from the one in its neighboring prefecture, but equally exciting, magnificent and thrilling. “Kanto” literally means “a pole with lanterns”, and in Akita’s case it is a single pole that is 16-40 ft. long with 24 or 46 lanterns. The shape represents an ear of rice, so the Kanto Matsuri is a celebration for the harvest as well as a Shinto cleansing ritual.
Each pole–the biggest pole weighs 110 pounds–is borne by a man who has trained to be able to balance it on his shoulders, hips, hands and even forehead. There are about 270 Kanto poles and bearers exhibit their techniques in front of visitors. People chant “dokkoisho, dokkoisho” and encourage the Kanto bearers. The main performances are held three times a night, and during the day there is an event featuring the competing flnesse of Kanto bearing. Kanto Matsuri is also a Signicant Intangible Folk Cultural Asset.
Sendai Tanabata Matsuri (Miyagi Prefecture)
Tanabata matsuri are held throughout Japan, but the one in Sendai City in Miyagi Prefecture is the most upscale and attracts over 2 million people over the three days of August 6-8. During this period, the commercial area in Sendai City is adorned with 3,000 tanabata decorations consisting of gorgeous bamboo streamers with seven types of decorations. These decorations have various meanings, such as expressing wishes for good business and health. The decorations have been made months in advance but are kept hidden until morning of the event, where they are judged in the downtown shopping districts with a winner announced that night.