10 Of Japan’s Most Brilliantly Bizarre Festivals
Experience "Kisai" or Odd Cultural Adventures in 2017
If you’ve ever thought that the popular traditional Japanese matsuri is the ultimate cultural experience, you might be mistaken. This year, it’s time to dive off the deep end with these odd, and yet, equally beloved festivals called kisai — or bizarre festivals.
The rhythmic, hollow beats of taiko drums; the accompanying high-pitched whistle of the flute that follows; the wonderful food stalls and the pretty gold fish … Japanese matsuri (festival) are essential cultural experiences for anyone wishing to know about Japan and its people. Though usually happening in summer, there’s a long list of festivals held throughout the year, but not all of them include the standard rhythm sounds, peaceful dances and yakisoba. For expert matsuri adventurers, or those just bored with the same old festivals that happen every year in their ‘hood, kisai — festivals with bizarre or unusual rituals — should be on your bucket list. Here are 10 of the most unusual.
February: Somin-sai (蘇民祭)
Known as the “Festival of Naked Men and Fire,” or just the “Naked Festival” in English, this event boast a history of over 1,000 years and is one of the best-known traditions in the Tohoku region of northern Japan. Held in the chilly month of February when more days than not sink below freezing in the area, men wearing only fundoshi (loincloth) from across Japan visit the Kokuseki temple in Mizusawa, Iwate prefecture and test their endurance by trekking through difficult icy courses from the temple to the frozen Ruritsubo River. Their task is to push and shove other naked males to grab the prized somin bukuro (sacred bag), which is believed to bring them health and happiness all year long. This year, the festival will be held on February 3.
Where: Kokusekiji Temple, 17 Yamauchi, Kuroishi-cho, Mizusawa-ku, Oshu-shi, Iwate
April: Dorome Matsuri (どろめ祭り)© Photo by Kochi Visitors & Convention Association
Many would agree that this festival, held in Kochi Prefecture, is the most agreeable one as it’s full of nihonshu (Japanese sake). And what’s more — it’s a competition. Male participants are given a huge bowl containing 1.8 liters sake, while women get a fairly smaller one with 0.9 liters. Both are invited to drink it all up. Whoever can drink the most and the fastest, will claim good fortune for the year ahead — presumably commencing once the hangover wears off.
Where: Akaoka-cho, Konan-shi, Kochi Prefecture
April & May: Onbashira Matsuri (御柱祭)© Photo by SHIMOSUWA ONSEN RYOKAN ASSOCIATION
This six-day-long Nagano festival, known in English as the “Great Pillar Festival,” has been held at the Suwa Taisha Shrine for the past 1,200 years. Though it only comes around once every seven years, it sure leaves its mark. When Onbashira is held, the townspeople chop down four large, hand picked logs (the largest measuring 16m-long, 1m-wide, and weighing 10 tons) in the mountains and carry them by hand to the shrine. Once there, they plant the logs upright in the ground, one at each of the shrine’s four corners. It is believed that the entire area becomes spiritually renewed by the raising of these natural pillars, as divine spirits are supposed to dwell in the trees. The festival is divided into two main parts: yamadashi (riding the logs down the mountain) on three consecutive days in early April and satobiki (entering the shrine and raising the pillars) in mid-May. The festival will next be held in 2023, so this may be a good reason to stick around even after the Olympics.
Where: 1 Nakasumiyayama, Suwa-shi, Nagano
May: Nabe Kanmuri Matsuri (鍋冠祭)© Photo by Maibara city
Held on May 3 every year, this “pot-wearing” festival in Shiga Prefecture observes girls, around the age of eight, trek the city in mini red and green kimonos called kariginu (hunting clothes), wearing pots on their heads. There are multiple theories on the origins of the festival, but the most common ones link it to the townsmen’ willingness to give food (therefore the pot) to the gods in pray for good fortune, while the second one involves the proof of women’s innocence: the pot will fall off a young woman’s head if she is not a virgin. You get it, if it stays, she’s safe.
The legend goes like this: the ladies of Maibara city in the prefecture used to wear the same number of pots on their heads as the number of their ex-lovers while strolling to the local Chikuma shrine. One year, a woman decided to cheat on the real number of exes/pots on her head (perhaps the accumulated number of pots were too heavy for her neck), and the pots crashed to the ground in a heaping mess. The townspeople who knew the “real” number, made her into a laughing stock. Mentioned in the Tales of Ise from the Heian Period (794–1185), this is one of the oldest festivals in Japan and is currently registered as a Maibara city intangible folklore cultural asset.
Where: Asazumachikuma, Maibara, Shiga Prefecture
July: Abare Matsuri (あばれ祭り)© Photo by Ishikawa Prefecture Tourism League
Commonly known as the “Fire & Violence Festival,” this summer event in Ishikawa Prefecture is perhaps the only place in Japan when going absolutely C.R.A.Z.Y is more than welcome. The Abare (rampage) festival is the place to be if you want to let your hair down — all the way down. Apparently, the more insanely you behave, the more pleased the gods will be.
The festival began over 350 years ago when the town was suffering from a major illness. The townsmen were advised to begin a major festival which would help solve the problem and miraculously everybody was cured. The festival nowadays involves throwing and smashing large kiriko (lantern floats) and mikoshi (portable shrines) into the river running through the town; destroying and burning them, as well as pouring sake all over them. This year, the festival is held on July 7th and 8th.
Where: Yasaka Jinja Shrine in Ushitsu, Noto-cho, Ishikawa
July: Hirakata no Doro Inkyo (平方のどろいんきょ)
It’s a muddy time for the townspeople of Ageo, Saitama Prefecture when July rolls around, as every year they keep their tradition of bringing health and happiness by rolling themselves and mikoshi around in the mud. Yes, you read that correctly. The Ageo-ers dress their men up in diaper-like outfits, take the portable shrines called “Inkyo,” and visit the parishioners’ homes where water is sprinkled on the mikoshi. They then proceed to roll the mikoshi and themselves around in the muck. Designated as a folk cultural property by Ageo city in 1982 and as an intangible folk cultural property by Saitama Prefecture in March 2011, this is one of the largest Saitama events throughout the year. Held on July 17th annually.
Where: 488 Hirakata, Ageo-shi, Saitama
August: Muon Bon Odori (無音盆踊り)© Photo by tm-tokai
In Tokai city, Otacho in Aichi Prefecture there exists a festival that at first glance looks as though it is full of lunatics — but is actually a smashing party for those who like dancing to their own music. Literally. The newest festival on this list, the “Silent Bon Festival” started in 2009 as a result of complaints from the older, grouchier locals, who blamed the local matsuri sounds for their inability to sleep and get their own peace. So officials came up with the bright idea of making it a silent one. The result? People of all ages groove together to bon odori, a traditional Japanese style of dance, moves while their wireless pieces stream tunes through FM radio. Don’t be shy and join in the loony dancing! Held in mid-August.
Where: Donden Space in front of Otagawa station on the Meitetsu line, 52 Ushiroda, Ota-cho, Tokai-shi, Aichi
October: Ryusei Matsuri (龍勢祭り)© Photo by Chichibu City
Every year, on the second Sunday of October in Chichibu, Saitama Prefecture, there is a festival-slash-competition with over 400 years of tradition where 27 local schools launch bamboo and pinewood rockets high into the sky in a form of a Shinto ritual dedicated to the local Muku shrine. Each rocket is the culmination of two years hard work and displays each school’s unique characteristics by the addition of little paper umbrellas, fireworks and parachutes called shoimono (backpack things). It’s said that the rockets can reach over three hundred meters. Held on the second Sunday of October, annually.
Where: Yoshida Muku Shrine, 7377 Shimoyoshida, Chichibu, Saitama
October: Paantu Festival (パーントゥプナハ)© Photo by Miyakojima city
Paantu is a centuries-old festival which takes place in the island of Miyakojima, Okinawa three times in the year, though the largest takes place in October or November. During the festival, three men dressed as paantu — evil spirits covered from head to toe with mud and foliage — are given the task of driving out demons and cleansing the island of bad luck. The festival has these men run around the island chasing children and adults alike by throwing mud at them. It is believed that being touched by a paantu will bring good fortune for the coming year, though the scene of children crying (and some adults shouting) is not rare either.
Where: Miyakojima, Okinawa
December: Akutai Matsuri (悪態まつり)© Photo by Kasama City
Welcome to the annual cursing festival in Ibaraki Prefecture, where young and old are encouraged to verbally abuse 13 monks dressed as tengu (long-nosed goblin). Meanwhile, the people gathered around the tengu have a tug-of-war over what looks like a bamboo mat used to roll sushi with a small prize inside. Whoever manages to pry the mat from the other desperate contestants’ hands, according to the Atago shrine, will be lucky in the year to come. Cursing is welcome here, so spit all that stress out on the last days of the year.
Where: Atago Shrine, 102 Izumi, Kasama-shi, Ibaraki
So if you’re looking for a new adventure this year, pack those bags and head out into the mentioned corners of Japan to seek out the kisai festivals. There is something for everyone — the history, the novelty, the danger and excitement. If you’ve already been to any of the listed festivals above, leave us a comment or two and let’s get the word out.