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Japan has kept alive its traditional festivals or matsuri over the ages and they are becoming more popular as tourists discover them as well. Each matsuri is steeped in history and culture, and portrays the customs and values of the local people. It is hard to put into words the atmosphere of Japanese matsuri; they are something that need to be experienced firsthand to really capture what they are all about.
This is a spectacular performance held during Iiyama’s annual snow festival. The Narazawa Daitengu (big-nosed goblin) Festival features tengu dances performed by primary school children, and the grand finale of the Daitengu dance. The dance is very difficult and tiring for the performer (an adult man), because not only is he hopping from one foot to the other in a tengu mask which is hard to see out of, he is carrying a flaming 2.5m long torch which he waves around flinging the crowd with embers considered to be good luc if they fall on you.
Senda-yaki is a mid-winter ritual which takes place in February each year at the Fudouson Temple (close to the Snow Monkey Park). The ritual moves through the town’s various districts performing the ritual of blessing then cutting sacred straw ropes along the way. Once the ascetics arrive at the temple, the senda-yaki ritual begins. The ascetic pray for the resident’s good fortune and good health for the coming year and walk back and forth over red-hot coals!
Renowned as one of Japan’s most famous fire festivals, Dosojin is not for the faint hearted. It takes place on the 15th of January every year and like most fire festivals in the New Year, it is held to ward off evil and pray to the Gods for health and good fortune. A huge wooden shrine (shaden) that stands 18 metres tall is constructed from beech trees which the villagers have brought down from the surrounding mountains. The 25 and 42 years old men in the village build the shaden because those ages are considered to be unlucky in Japan. The shrine is then blessed by a priest before the matsuri begins. The 42 year old men sit on top of the shrine, and the 25 year old men surround the bottom to protect it. They are protecting it from villagers trying to set the shrine alight with large flaming torches. The battle at the base of the shrine can get quite boisterous, so the 41 and 43 year old men in the village protect the spectators from the flying flames and sticks. Dotted about the venue are beautiful tōrō poles which have been made by families who saw the birth of their first son that year. Once the shrine finally catches on fire, the 42 year olds descend and the whole structure becomes one huge blazing fire. The tōrō are also burned with the shrine at the end as the final offering to the Gods.
Myoko Kogen holds its fire festival in July each year, a tradition dating back over a thousand years. The festival takes place at Sekiyama shrine and other areas, and includes a variety of rituals such as traditional stick-fighting, pine-tree pulling, traditional dance and sumo wrestling. The Kariyamabushi no Boutsukai and Hashiramatsu Gyouji are also performed by children in the village. They demonstrate how Buddhist mountain monks would train with swords and spears. The o-mikoshi or portable shrine parade is also a must-see.
Kagura are traditional dances accompanied by traditional Shinto music. Every year during autumn and spring Iiyama’s Daidai Kagura takes places at a shrine (jinja) with a very long name: Takeminakata-tominomikoto-hikokamiwake Jinja. Ten different traditional dances are performed which date back to the 16th Century.
Hana-Ichi is a famous festival/market which celebrates the Nakano Clay Dolls (Tsuchibina). It attracts clay doll fans from all over Japan. Huge lanterns in the shape of clay dolls are paraded through the streets of Nakano which are lined with food stalls and doll exhibits. The festival takes place on the 31st of March & 1st of April. The Japan Clay Doll Museum is in Nakano, and visitors can even try their hand at decorating their own clay dolls.