Japan has a special affinity for traditional festivals (matsuri) as evidenced by the 100,000 – 300,000 festivals recorded by matsuri enthusiasts in the country. Many of these festivals are closely linked to a particular season of the year that depict a central theme, i.e. harvest and spring, warding off evil spirits and summer, thanksgiving and autumn, and purification and winter. Festivals mark the changing of the season. Some of these festivals are successful in attracting tourists.
Spring is the planting season of rice which also symbolizes the beginning of a new year. A traditional festival linked to this event is the Otaue Matsuri (i.e. the Rice Field Planting Festival). There are several versions of this festival nationwide and people take part to pray to their gods for a successful harvest. Every 15th day of June, Otaue Shinji is held in the Sumiyoshi Ward of Osaka while Onda Matsuri is held every first Sunday of February in the village of Asakusa in Nara. Both festivals are symbols of rice-planting.
The festivals of summer vary among urban to rural areas. The frequent outbreaks of diseases in the city are believed to be the result of angry spirits and displeased gods. Some of the traditional matsuri are held to ward off illness and disease are Gion Matsuri in Kyoto and the Tenjin Matsuri in Osaka, with both festivals held in July.
In the countryside, festivals are held to protect farmers’ crops that are under threat from insects, typhoons and floods. An example of this festival is the Nebuta Matsuri in Aomori Prefecture held between August 2-7 and the Etchu Oware-Kaze-no-Bon in Toyama Prefecture (September 1-3). Perhaps the closest word that could be tied together with summer in Japan is Bon. Bon is a Buddhist festival which is celebrated in August nationwide to honor the spirits of the dead. This is a time to visit family graves. It could be said it is somewhat similar to All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day in the Philippines. Buddhists, on the other hand, light fires to guide the spirits back to the spirit world–a ceremony which is called okuribi. The most famous ceremony of this kind is the Gozan Okuribi in Kyoto every August 16.
Autumn marks the season to give thanks for the successful harvest. One of the most important events in this season is the Ninamesai which is celebrated every 23 of November (also known as the Labor Thanksgiving Day). This event is a court ceremony where the emperor offers new rice to the gods at Ise Jingu in Mie Prefecture which is the most important Shinto Shrine. Every year, there are more than 1,000 festivals held at Ise Jingu and one of the most popular festivals is the Shiken Sengu in which the completion of rebuilding the main shrine every 20 years takes place–a tradition that has been celebrated since 690.
Also known as the lean season for farmers, winter depicts a time to replenish the spirit in protection from the cold. There are several winter festivals that are based on the purification and cleansing of the soul during this period of hibernation. The hadaka matsuri or the naked festival, for example, shows participants dressed only in their loincloths which allows them to cleanse their bodies and spirits much better (e.g. the winter festival in Eyo, Okayama Prefecture which occurs every third Saturday of February). There are also festivals where fire is the main focus (such as Dosojin Matsuri in Nagano Prefecture every January 13-15). While there are also festivals held in the New Year, there is also a festival marking the end of winter in the traditional East Asia calendar which is called setsubun.
As you can tell, festivals are an important part of each season in Japan! Which seasonal festival would you like to attend?
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