When summer comes to Japan, you can tell by the start of the rainy season and rising temperatures. But with more rain means the start of the blooming season for many flowers, and in Bunkyo city in Tokyo, the blooming season of hydrangea flowers is celebrated with the Hydrangea Festival, Ajisai Matsuri. This festival is celebrated yearly at the Hakusan Shrine in Bunkyo during June, where hundreds gather to visit the shrine and see the many varieties of blooming hydrangea flowers. Thanks to the shrine’s proximity to the Toei Mita subway line, it’s easy to reach and visit if you’re on a summer trip to Tokyo and interested in local shrines to visit. We at JapanInfo recently attended the 2019 Ajisai Festival while it was held from June 8th to 16th, and have found some interesting activities for you to do when visiting small local Japanese festivals.
Like many festivals in Japan, the Hydrangea Festival has its historical origins as a celebration of harvest times. The blossoming of hydrangeas at the start of summer was seen as a good omen. Even though Bunkyo no longer has any kind of harvest period, this festival is still celebrated as a marker of good fortune for the year. Festival time is when the most people make the trek out to shrines to pay their respects. If you want to take part in the Japanese prayer tradition of donating to the shrine and ringing the bell, you’d better be ready to get in line. At peak festival attendance, the lines to visit the shrine can stretch across the entire shrine grounds with dozens of people waiting in queue.
The fun atmosphere of a Japanese festival isn’t complete without trying some festival food! If you plan on attending a festival when traveling in Japan, it’s best to save your appetite until you get to the festival grounds so you can try a variety of the tasty foods available. While you can try many standard food fare at these festivals like yakisoba and shaved ice, there’s lots of other food options to try as well. One booth I noticed when attending was selling locally-made cake pops for a sweeter alternative. It’s not summer in Japan without eating some delicious festival stand food.
An important part of many shrine festivals in Japan is the transportation of the shrine deity in and out of the shrine over the duration of the festival. This is done using a Mikoshi, a small portable shrine that is carried away from the shrine to be placed at a temporary location until it is returned at the end of the festival. The mikoshi is transported by being placed on a crosssection of poles carried by many people. If you come to a shrine festival at the right time at the beginning or close of the festival period, you can witness the carrying of the mikoshi take place. It’s an interesting sight as you can see a dozen or more locals carrying the mikoshi and shaking it about. Transporting the mikoshi in this way is a method to amuse the resident spirit inside.
A visit to the Ajisai Festival isn’t complete without admiring some of the many beautiful hydrangea arrangements on display around the shrine. While some some as the one pictured above are created for the festival, many hydrangea plants are maintained year-round. While Hydrangeas are most recognizable in their pale blue coloration, you can find flowers in a variety of colors such as white and red at the shrine grounds.
Japan has a variety of festivals for many occasions throughout the year, and the Hydrangea Festival is a simple one to find and participate in. For those looking for some activities to do during the hot Tokyo summer, Hakusan Shrine’s beautiful flower arrangements can be a surprising sight in the midst of the Japanese urban sprawl. Whether it’s cool and rainy outside or a clear sunny day, the Hakusan Shrine Hydrangea Festival is a nice slice of Japan’s smaller local shrines.