In the summer, throughout Japan many festivals take place. Colorful parades march in the cities, in the temples and along the streets lanterns are hanged and in the evenings you can hear taiko drums and dance groups training. In the shops, depending on upcoming event, you can buy appropriate attributes – hats, bells, Japanese flip-flops (the best for dancing, right?), tenugui scarfs, fireworks, the last ones really beloved by the Japanese people. When we arrived to Japan in the winter, there were no festivals at that period of time, maybe only ice sculptures fest at Hokkaido, but we planned to visit the northern island on June 🙂 At the beginning of August, we were in the northern part of Honsiu and we decided to attend matsuri in Yamagata, Hanagasa festival that has been taking place since 1964, annualy from the 5th to 7th of August.
Hanagasa Matsuri, Yamagata
„Yassho, makasho!”, that’s how the traditional festival song sounds, shouted enthusiastically by the dancers.
Hanagasa Matsuri is one of the biggest four festivals in Tohoku region, northeast Honsiu area, together with matsuri in Sendai, Aomori and Akita.
Festival changes quiet city into a lively place, where thousands of tourists come and fill the streets to watch the dancers. Through the main street of the city, the parade of 10 thousands dancers goes each day of the fest; they all wear traditional kimonos, but also more modern versions of outfits or even those that promote a given team or company, like a group of car mechanics in their dirty clothes straight from the car garage.
There is a variety among the dancers, they are both older and younger, female and male, teenage groups from high schools and their teachers. The characteristic attribute of the dancers is a the round hat decorated with red flowers, but there are also group of dancers attributed with umbrellas or decorated poles.
Female kimono dancers are of course the number one of the festival but the same applause umbrella dancers deserve; this dance is called Kasa Mawashi, where colorful ribbons of the umbrellas rustle together with the dancers movement.
Every dance group is followed by the ‘support group’, who carry water and some snacks. They don’t dance and their role begins when the music goes down from time to time and then it’s their time to give water to the exhausted dancers. The parade route has about 1,5 km, so no wonder that the water must be carried along. At that moment, the street turns chaotic, the dancers leave the parade, drink and eat snacks, also this is the time for tourists to buy snacks from the numerous stalls!
Before the festival, the dance lessons are organised for all interested in taking part in the common dance. Everyone can try and join the end of the parade. Hanagasi hats, of course, are available in almost every shop in Yamagata 🙂
Nebuta Matsuri, Aomori
“Rassera, rassera!”, this shout comes from festival in Aomori, and may origin from words “Dase, Dase!”, that were supposed to encourage people to share sake and money with the dancers and artists.
Festival in Aomori is bigger than the one in Yamagata and its character differs, as the clue of this fest is presentation of huge illuminated floats.
The festival is kind of a city symbol and its cultural value, so there is also a museum Wa-Rasse devoted to Nebuta Matsuri open the all year round. They hold dance and drum playing workshops and show some of the floats. The festival takes place every year from the 2nd to 7th of August, bringing milions of tourists to the city. We couldn’t take part in the festival, but seeing museum and meeting artists who built the platforms gave us a chance to feel the atmosphere of Nebuta Matsuri.
The origins of the festival are (the most probable version) traditions of “Nemuri Nagashi”, which was supposed to frighten away the demons causing tiredness and drowsiness of farmers during hot Japanse summer. Scenes shown at the platforms are dramatic, they have a lot of emotions, energy and are very dynamic.
Every float is carefully built by the group of artists, every has different character and shows different picture. Inside of each platform, there is a wooden construction, with metal wires shaping the look of figures and finally covered with washi paper and painted at the end. The whole thing is a few metres wide and weights together with electric power generator even 4 tons! To freely move and rotate the platform, 30 men are needed. The effect of illuminated platforms is really impressive.
Also energetic dance “Haneto” and music “Nebuta Hayashi”, rytmically played at taiko drums, are performed during the festival. We regret not having a chance to see the real fest, but we need to have some of the attractions left to see in Japan in the future 🙂