Index: Mikoshi, Cherry Blossom Viewing, Setsubun, White Day, Stupid Holidays,The Japan International Birdman Rally, Danjiri, Hakata Gion Yamakasa, The Shiritsumi 'Rump-Bumping Festival', Onbashira, Kanamara Penis Festival, Kenka Mikoshi, Tagata Jinja Hounen Penis Festival, Hadaka (Naked) Festival, The Hari Kuyo Pin Festival, Tezutsuhanabi Fireworks Festival, Hamamatsu Kite Festival, Takeuchi Festival

One of the best things about Japan is how pagan and other-worldly it can be. You really know that you're not in Kansas anymore when you go to a festival and there are thousands of half-naked people dancing and beating wildly on drums, huge portable shrines covered in graven images are being pulled through the streets, and six of the Ten Commandments are being broken right in front of your eyes. You see things here that would send a God-fearing Christian into convulsions: people bowing down before heathen idols, shrines that house millions of individual gods, and giant phalluses being paraded through the streets in front of crowds of women and children.
Festivals are a wonderful chance to see a Japan that has largely disappeared and everyone should take the opportunity to go and see some of these odd and unusual reminders of the past.

DANJIRI - It may not quite have the body count of the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, but Osaka’s Danjiri festival will definitely give you what you’re looking for if you’re an adrenalin junkie. There are broken bones and crashes most every year, and deaths are not unheard of. The idea is to take a giant, unwieldy float, and get a team of drunken men to pull it through Osaka’s narrow streets at ridiculous speeds.
Held on September 14th and 15th, the Danjiri festival is said to have originated in 1703 and started as a harvest festival. The floats are intricately carved with scenes from famous battles and there are 30 different Danjiri (floats), each one is owned by a different neighborhood. On the fourteenth, they are pulled around the neighborhoods relatively slowly, but if two teams happen to run into one another, the floats are rammed into one another and things can get very rough. On the fifteenth, the floats are taken along the same routes, but this time, the idea is to see how fast the course can be done. The floats weigh about four tons, can be as tall as four meters, and have a very high center of gravity, making them extremely difficult to control on the corners. As if pulling the floats wasn’t dangerous enough, there are always three or four people riding on the top of them like they’re surfing. Attend this festival and you’ll never see Kyoto’s stately Gion Matsuri the same way again.

HAKATA GION YAMAKASA – Held in Fukuoka city, Kyushu, this dangerous festival is similar to Osaka’s Danjiri festival. In the Fukuoka version, the floats are even larger, and there is a race along a five kilometer course. You’ll have to get up early for this one, though, because it starts at precisely 4:59am. The festival runs from July 1st to 15th, with the race on the last day.

SHIRITSUMI - The ‘Rump-bumping’ festival is held in the small resort town of Ito Onsen in the Izu Peninsula on November 10th at the Otonashi shrine. The event is also known as the Oshiri Sumo Taikai (Rear End Sumo Competition). Participants stand back to back on an upturned wooden tub about a meter in diameter and try to push each other off using only their bums.

THE ONBASHIRA FESTIVAL - This ridiculously dangerous festival is only held every six years, and with good reason. It involves thirty or forty people sitting on a log, and plummeting down a steep slope. The logs can be more than 15 meters long, and weigh well over ten tons. If you see an Onbashiri festival without injuries or deaths, you’ve been cheated. The festival is held in Suwa city, Nagano, and the next one will be held in April 2004. The festival is incredibly popular and attracted about two million people the last time it was held in 2004, so it’s probably not too early to start thinking about making reservations if you want to see it. The festival is actually divided into two sections. Be careful that you don’t go to the May version as all you will see is a bunch of logs being raised up into the air.

Note: I saw this festival on TV and it turned out to be really boring. The logs never seemed to go very far or very fast, and most of the participants fell off after just a few meters. I also got this email:
Onbashira festival sounded like a once in a lifetime experience.....an almost 2000 year old festival held only once every 7 years with mad Shinto
warriors sliding down great mountains on enormous logs up in Nagano which I love so much for the snowboarding.
The train trip there took four hours (the express is still 2 1/2 and costs 3 times as much), the walk to the muddy slope took an hour uphill through
throngs of people, the waiting for the log to arrive took 3 hours in the blazing sun and the log sliding down the "hill" took all of 15 seconds.
It was definetly a once in a lifetime experience...watch it on TV but DONT GO!!!!! Its simply not worth the effort.
Hamish Scott...ex-keen festival attendee

KANAMARA MATSURI - Held every April 15th at Wakamiya Hachimangu Shrine in Kawasaki Japan, this festival is about as wild and pagan as they get. People of all ages participate in a parade in which most of the participants sport a gigantic penis, and a giant lingam is carried through the streets. Females ride a penis-shaped seesaw, and men, women and children get their picture taken embracing a phallic statue. You can also buy penis shaped candies, or dress up as your favorite cartoon character with one part of his anatomy dramatically enlarged. The whole thing is presided over by a priest, and arcane Shinto rituals are carried out as well.
The festival is said to celebrate the vanquishing of a demon that lived in a woman's vagina and would bite off the penises of her lovers! According to legend, a local craftsman fashioned a steel phallus which broke the demon's teeth. In the Edo period courtesans would come to pray for good business and protection from sexually transmitted diseases and today it is used to promote AIDS awareness and safe sex. The Kanamara festival is held at Kawasaki Daishi Station on the Keihin Daishi in the beginning of April.   If you would like to see a great free video of the Kanamara festival visit TokyoDV.com, a site   featuring amateur videos from Japan.  You can see the penis festival, rock bands and goths in Inokashiro park, or the cheesy graduation ceremony of a kimono school.   There's a lot of hilarious stuff here.  The URL is: http://www.tokyodv.com/
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(Pictures courtesy of Tokyo DV.COM) 

KENKA MIKOSHI - Sometimes Japanese gods get lonely and bored sitting all alone in their shrines. That's why local neighborhood residents like to take their local kami for a little stroll around the neighborhood in a Mikoshi (portable shrine) once or twice a year. These festivals are among the most colourful and exciting in Japan and every summer, from Hokkaido to Kyushu you will see events where people carry huge Mikoshi through their neighborhoods for hours on end.  It takes a team of 50 to 100 people, working in shifts of 30 to 50 to carry a Mikoshi, which can weigh several tons. After the festival, most of the participants sport huge welts and bruises on their shoulders that take weeks to heal, but people who carry Mikoshi always claim that, despite the anguished expressions on their faces, they are having fun.
Carrying Mikoshi is a uniquely Japanese activity, emphasizing harmony and group action.  As the people walk, they bounce the Mikoshi up and down while chanting.  If one person is out of step it makes it difficult for the rest of the people, so it takes a great deal of teamwork and synchronization to move these heavy and unwieldy objects. The most famous Mikoshi festival is called Sanja Matsuri.  It is held every year on the third Saturday and Sunday in May at the Asakusa Kannon Temple in Tokyo.  (Take the Ginza Subway Line to Asakusa station and follow the crowds.)  It features more than 100 Mikoshi every year, and the crowds can be so thick that it is impossible to move.  Other famous Mikoshi festivals include the Kanda Matsuri (with 70 Mikoshi on May 15th at the Kanda Jinja Shrine in Tokyo near Kanda station), and the Sanno Matsuri from June 10-16th at the Hie-jinja in Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo.  There is a Mikoshi festival somewhere in Japan every weekend throughout the summer.  If you are interested, check magazines like the Tokyo Journal for details.
Mikoshi festivals are exciting, but several communities in Japan have come up with an interesting and exciting variation of the traditional versions, the Kenka Mikoshi (fighting Mikoshi). In these events, the participants try to destroy the opposing side’s shrine. At the Nada Kenka Matsuri (Nada Fighting Festival) they use bamboo poles (and sometimes kicks). At others, such as the festivals in Obihiro, Hokkaido (mid August), Imari, Saga (October 24) or Itoigawa, Niigata (April 10), they ram their shrines into each other, until one or the other is completely destroyed (this is not a religious ceremony--the gods are not 'present' in the Mikoshi). Between 'rounds', the Mikoshi are often tipped on their ends and participants climb up the poles that are used to carry them and the Mikoshi are spun around while the men perform acrobatics. These festivals can get very rough and tramplings are not uncommon.

TAGATA-JINJA HOUNEN MATSURI - In this festival, a large wooden phallus is carried around on  a mikoshi.  The penis is eight feet long and weighs a thousand pounds.   During the festival, you can eat penis shaped candy, touch phalluses for good luck, and drink free sake.  If you visit the shrine, you will see that the walls of the shrine are lined with phalluses.  There is a vagina festival one week later.  It is held on March 15th at the Tagata-jinja Shrine in Komaki city, Aichi prefecture.  The shrine's address is Tagata-cho 152. To learn more about the festival, visit: http://www.whatsgoingon.com/100things/tagata/  or  http://www.mindspring.com/~peterthoeny/tagata/index.htm

HADAKA MATSURI - Although Hadaka Matsuri means ‘Naked Festival’, the participants aren’t strictly nude because everyone wears loin cloths. The most famous one is held at Konomiya Shrine in Inazawa, Aichi Prefecture on February 17th every year. In this bizarre festival, participants pursue a Shin-otoko, or "Naked Man" through the streets, trying to touch him as he passes by. The “Naked man”, is a sort of scapegoat, who absorbs evil and is said to bring good luck to anyone who comes in contact with him. This festival is over 1200 years old, attracts more than 10,000 participants and is seen by some 300,000 spectators every year. Most of the participants drink heavily during the event and there are a lot of injuries.  For more information visit:  http://www.whatsgoingon.com/coolest/place/20000217 or call: 587-32-1111
There is also a Hadaka-matsuri on Jan 14 in Kyoto at Hino Hokai-ji temple. In this festival, a loin-clothed wearing mob chants and according to the festivals organizers, ‘rub against one another’, whatever that means. In the Hadaka-matsuri in Okayama city on February 3, hundreds of youth in loin cloths in outer temple hall, try to catch phallic talisman tossed by priests.

THE JAPAN INTERNATIONAL BIRDMAN RALLY - If you’re going to be in the Kyoto area during the last weekend in July, don't miss this incredible event held at Lake Biwa every year. It's one of the most exciting and unusual competitions you will ever see. The contestants, mainly students from Japanese universities and engineers from big companies, compete to see who can build the best HPV (human powered vehicle). Entrants spend months designing and building their aircraft, and then climb up on a ten-meter-high platform to test them out. Some of the craft sail majestically over Lake Biwa for many kilometers, while others plunge straight into the water.
The aircraft are aeronautical wonders built from super-light carbon fiber and plastics. The 1992 winner, the Gokuraku Tombo (Super-Happy Dragonfly), which set a record of 23 kilometers had a wingspan of 32 meters, yet weighed just 32 kg!
There are three categories: Human Powered Aircraft, Gliders, and the "Challenge category", where the look and artistry of the aircraft are more important than the distance flown. The Birdman Rally is held on Matsubara beach on the shores of Lake Biwa. Lake Biwa is in Hikone City, Shiga Prefecture, only about an hour by train from Kyoto.

HARI KUYO - Memorial services for old needles and pins are held in late January and early February every year. A memorial service for pins and needles may seem a little odd, but in the days before mass production, these simple objects were among a woman’s most important possessions. A pan of tofu is laid out, and all the broken and bent needles are put into it while prayers are recited. The tofu is then wrapped in paper and the needles are floated down a river or out to sea. Some of the more famous versions of this ritual can be seen in Tokyo at Shojuin Temple near Shinjuku Gyoen-mae station, Shinganji Temple near Shimokitazawa Station (Tokyo), and Sensoji Temple in Asakusa.

TEZUTSUHANABI – This is a fireworks festival with a twist. Instead of shooting off the pyrotechnics from a safe distance, these brave souls hold onto the launchers with their bare hands. And yes, they do get burned. Festival participants proudly show off the scars from their burns which cover more and more of their torsos every time they participate in the festival.

HAMAMATSU MATSURI - Japanese kites are unique in the world, and some are as beautiful as anything you will see in the art museums. During the Hamamatsu Matsuri, which will be held from May 3rd to 5th this year, more than 150 teams compete in a spectacular ‘Kite Fighting’ competition in which giant kites are flown in a battle to cut the strings of the other teams’ kites. The kites are as large as three to five meters per side, and many of the teams spend the better part of a year making them and preparing for the festival. Hamamatsu is located in Shizuoka prefecture.

TAKEUCHI MATSURI - More of a street fight than a festival, the Takeuchi Matsuri is one of the most rough and tumble events in Japan. Every year on February 15th, people in the town of Rokugo, in Akita prefecture divide themselves into two teams and whack each other with long bamboo poles. The sight of hundreds of helmeted men hitting each over the head with bamboo poles is one of those 'only in Japan things' and if you're curious to see it, check out http://www.akitafan.com/movie/ (the link is the second one from the top on the left side). What you don't usually hear about in descriptions of the festivals, is how violent and dangerous it is. The first and second rounds are three minutes each, and are limited to fighting with the bamboo poles, but the third round is apparently and anything goes free-for-all where participants are more interested in punching and kicking each other than they are in the bamboo poles. You can read a very graphic description of one English teacher's experience at the festival at: http://andmisadventuresof.blogspot.com/2005_02_13_andmisadventuresof_archive.html


Perhaps you have an image of a Cherry Blossom Viewing Party in your mind :   Men and women clad in gaily coloured
kimono sitting under the pink blossoms, laughing happily, sipping sake and reciting poetry.   The gorgeous pink blossoms blown by the wind cascade softly to the ground, causing the celebrants to meditate on  the beauty and ephemerality of life.

and experience...

The reality:  Thousands of salarimen and office ladies sprawled drunkenly on ugly b
lue plastic mats.  There are mountains of reeking garbage everywhere, portable karaoke machines play J-Pop at ear-splitting levels, and when you walk you have to be careful not to trip over the people passed out in a pool of their own vomit.  Ueno Park in Tokyo, though renowned for its beautiful cherry trees, is one of the ugliest places in the world during cherry blossom season.

Setsubun (Bean-Throwing Festival)--If you walked around your house throwing beans into the street and shouting "Good luck come in.  Devils get out! (Fuku wa uchi! Onni wa soto!)" anywhere else in the world, you would probably be taken to the laughing academy, but in Japan, millions of people celebrate this extremely quirky festival every year.  By the old Japanese lunar calendar, the end of winter comes on February second or third, so to ensure that there were no devils or demons lurking around their homes, people threw beans to scare them off.  Apparently beans are a symbol of the impregnation of the earth and therefore scare demons.  Setsubun nowadays is mostly for children, who have a great deal of fun shouting and tossing beans at imaginary demons.

White Day
   It's the world's first corporate holiday. Japan's department stores and confectioneries decided that they weren't selling enough Chocolate on Valentine's day, so they went out and invented a second opportunity to sell sweets. In Japan, the custom is for women to give chocolate to their lovers or men that they want to date, so some years ago, the department stores started selling chocolate for White Day, which falls on March 14th, a month after Valentine's.  On this day, men are expected to reciprocate for the gifts they received in February. 
   In Japan, there is also a thing called Girichoco (obligation chocolate). On Valentine's day, women are not just expected to give chocolate to their significant other. They are expected to give something to all of their co-workers as well, and any man who is given Girichoco on Valentine's day, is expected to reciprocate on White Day.

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