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Welcome Spring! Traditional Spring Festivals

As the days begin to lengthen and the weather warms, people in Japan celebrate the return of spring with festivals in all corners of the country. Many of these spring festivals (haru matsuri) are reenactments of historical events, and some have a bit of folklore thrown in as well. The level of skill of the performers is truly a marvel, and it is obvious how much time and energy has been spent in creating such glorious spectacles. The palpable excitement of appreciative spectators makes these festivals fun and boisterous affairs for everyone! Here is a sampling of some wonderful traditional haru matsuri!

Takayama Spring Festival / Sanno Matsuri, (Takayama, Gifu Prefecture) April 14 - 15, 2015

Takayama in Gifu is home to one of what are considered the three most beautiful festivals in Japan, the Takayama Spring Festival. Dancers wearing spectacular hats, a shishimai (lion dance) are, among other entertainment, wonderful crowd pleasers, but the apex of the festival is the procession of the festival floats, or yatai, all built by the local craftsmen, adorned with breathtakingly dexterous large marionettes and cleverly constructed for easy maneuverability around town. When night falls, the magnificent floats turn into a magical vision, illuminated by traditional lanterns and creating an almost otherworldly effect.

For more information, visit here.



Aoi Matsuri (Kyoto) May 15, 2015

Held every year in Kyoto on May 15th, the Aoi Matsuri, or Hollyhock Leaf Crest Festival, is one of the 3 main annual festivals of the city; the others are Jidai Matsuri (Festival of the Ages) and Gion Matsuri. Some sources claim it was the Emperor's offerings to the sacred spirits of the Shimogamo and Kamigamo shrines that appeased them and brought an end to a string of natural disasters that had devastated the region. This traditional offering became a festival that grew into the beautiful spectacle that it is today, with six hundred men, women and children parading in traditional Heian period dress, accompanied by oxcarts, men on horseback and giant flower bouquets. Hollyhock leaves were once believed to protect against natural disasters, and are used as decoration on clothes and vehicles of the procession. The parade, which takes about 5 hours, travels from the Kyoto Imperial Palace to the Shimogama Shrine and the Kamogamo Shrine, where rituals are performed by designated members of the procession. Horseracing and mounted archery demonstrations are also part of the festival, and you don't want to miss the thrill of watching these skilled equestrians dressed in traditional garb perform. Watching this splendid festival is sure to make you feel like you've been transported back to the Heian period yourself!

For more information, visit here.


Asakusa Sanja Matsuri (Tokyo) May 15 - 17, 2015

Every year, for three days in May, the Asakusa section of Tokyo, known for its "old town" feel due to traditional residences and streets that co-exist within the most modern of the modern cities, celebrates the Sanja Matsuri. This is one of the three main Shinto festivals held in Tokyo-and Sanja Matsuri is considered the rowdiest of them all! This festival is dedicated to the sacred spirits of the three men who founded the temple Senso-ji temple, which lies adjacent to the Asakusa Shrine. On the final (and most boisterous) day of the festival, three quite large and highly decorated mikoshi (portable shrines) that weigh about one ton each, are carried along the streets, bounced and jostled by the people shouldering them. Bouncing and jouncing the shrines up and down is believed to intensify the power of the spirit housed inside the mikoshi, and as a result, good luck will be showered down upon the onlookers and bearers. The proceeding two days of the festival are also chock-full of lavishly costumed performers and entertainers, musicians and the like, as well as other, smaller mikoshi which are also paraded through the streets. Shops and food stalls offer plenty of delicious food and souvenirs. This festival attracts about one and a half to two million visitors a year-this year, come join the fun!

For more information, visit here.


High Power Festivals

When the temperature rises, you might think the best thing to do is to get a nice chilled drink and try not to move - but you'd be wrong! The best thing to do is to get yourself over to one of the high-octane, rowdy, vibrant matsuri (festivals) that percolate throughout Japan and dance yourself into a frenzy of fun! The atmosphere is always genial and spectators are welcome to jump in!

Hanagasa Matsuri Festival (Yamagata City, Yamagata Prefecture) Aug. 5-7, 2015

Originating in 1963, this is a fairly recent festival, but it can hold its own with the oldest! This dance festival attracts over one million visitors annually. The hanagasa, straw hats decorated with the prefectural flower (safflower), are worn by dancers-about 10,000 individuals divided into more than 100 groups. The dance procession is led off by elaborate floats, and the vigorous shouts of "Yassho! Makkasho!" help to increase the mood to fever-pitch! A variety of traditional, perfectly synchronized dances are intertwined with unique and creative ones. Spectators are, of course, encouraged to participate!

For more information, please visit here.


Danjiri Matsuri (Kishiwada City, Osaka Prefecture) Sept. 13-14, 2015

You may be thinking that "danjiri" sounds a bit like "dangerous," and with good reason! Danjiri is a general term for "float-pulling", and there are several danjiri matsuri in Japan. This one, however, which started in 1703, stands out for the sheer intensity and (seeming) danger that is the core of the festival. Approximately 35 portable floats each weighing about four tons are raced by teams (usually about 500 - 1,000 people are needed to maneuver the floats) which tow their charges around the city streets at what seem to be recklessly high speeds. Leaders of each team jump up and down on top of the floats, shouting and yelling, and included in the cacophony are drums and bells being played at ear-splitting decibels. Visitors may join in the shouting and the rest of the fun-just be careful-you might not want to get too close to those four ton floats.

For more information, please visit here.


Nebuta Matsuri (Aomori City, Aomori Prefecture) Aug. 2-7, 2015

Nebuta means a float depicting a brave warrior figure, usually from Japan's history. There are other Nebuta festivals in other cities, but this one attracts the most visitors each year, and has been designated one of Japan's significant intangible cultural assets. It is one of the three largest festivals in the Tohoku area. About 20 huge beautifully illustrated paper floats illuminated from the inside are paraded through the streets of the city. Loud chanting during the procession, accompanied by musicians and dancers called "haneto" add to the dazzling atmosphere. Tourists are welcome to join, as long as they wear the proper costumes, of which can be bought or rented locally.

For more information, please visit here.


Awa Odori Dance Festival (Tokushima City, Tokushima Prefecture) Aug. 12-15, 2015

Nicknamed "Fool's Dance," Awa Odori harkens back to a time about 400 years ago. A mind-blowing dance spectacle, amateur and veteran dance groups assemble in downtown Tokushima accompanied by musicians playing traditional instruments and performing on outdoor stages, demonstrating unusual dance steps which they have often improvised to raise the difficulty bar on the original, and rather simple, steps. With a combination of streamlined and synchronized groups, and not-so-streamlined and synchronized groups creating a riotous and fun mood, visitors to the festival get the urge to jump on in! You may be lucky to get some impromptu dance lessons by members of the dance troupes!

For more information, please visit here.



Whether you've been dancing or not, all the activity around you is sure to give you a roaring appetite, and the wealth of food vendors (yatai) selling all sorts of local treats is quite a sight in itself to behold. The sheer variety and wonderful flavors of the carnival food create a fantastic background for the festivals, and add to the unique experience of the festivals.


Fire Flowers: Summertime Fireworks Festivals

Even during summer nights when the temperature doesn't seem to drop nearly as much as it should after the sun sets, the bedazzling spectacle of fireworks (there are over 200 fireworks festivals in Japan in August alone) usually works its magic and helps us forget the breathless, hot and muggy heat of the night and the promise of a sizzling tomorrow.

Originally used to ward off evil spirits, Japanese fireworks go back to the mid-16th century. Craftsmen trained for years, first in the art of···flower arranging! The Japanese word for fireworks is "hanabi", "hana" meaning flower and "bi" meaning fire, and the art of the fireworks craftsmen began with the art of arranging the flowers nature created. Hanabi are not only the large showy fireworks we have come to expect at summer festivals, but they include a more tranquil expression, a perfect example being the senko hanabi (literally "incense stick fireworks") or sparkler. Both types, however, represent an appreciation of the ephemeral beauty of the fireworks, as well as of this fleeting world, a very Japanese sentiment.

Of the thousands of fireworks festivals held in Japan every summer, here is a brief smattering of some of the greatest knock-your-socks-off displays. Most shows have about one to two hours of straight fireworks. Some have paid seating and some tickets can be purchased in advance, but if you go on the day of the festival, it's a good idea to arrive early to get good viewing spots. Once you've staked out your claim, it's always fun to wander around and drink in the atmosphere. People come with friends and family, and the mood is very convivial and relaxed; there are lots of food and game stalls to check out as well. Yukata, the casual cotton kimono worn in summer, are out in full force, and you can see some, especially those worn by young ladies, that are quite fashionable.

Sumida River Fireworks Festival, (Tokyo) July 25, 2015

Sumida river fireworks festival goes all the way back to the early 1700s. Since 1978, it has been an annual tradition, showcasing the marvelous talents of rival pyrotechnic companies who vie with each other to produce the most extravagant displays. Seen from the banks of the river, the gorgeous colors and fanciful forms of the displays say "summer" like nothing else!


Miyajima Water Fireworks Display (Hiroshima) August 11, 2015

Launched from boats off Miyajima's north shore, about 200 fireworks from the festival's total 5,000 fireworks burst above the water, illuminating both sky and sea. They can be seen from Itsukushima Shrine and from special sightseeing boats tours circling the bay. The fireworks theme changes annually, but it never fails to enchant and impress the onlookers who gather on Miyajima as well as on the nearby shore of Hiroshima.
Itsukushima Shrine has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


Nagaoka Festival (Niigata) August 1, 2015 (Pre-event festival), August 2, 3, 2015 (Main Festival)

The most spectacular of the three renowned Niigata shows, Nagaoka's festival has some of the largest fireworks shells in Japan. Both nights offer two hours straight of fireworks, and the finale stretches along almost 2 kilometers of riverbank - the widest span of fireworks in the world.



© Omagari Enterpreneurs Group

Omagari National Fireworks Competition (Akita) August 22, 2015

The only fireworks display competition that is held while it is still light outside (starting about 5:30pm) as well as at night! It is considered the most prestigious competition by fireworks experts. The fireworks artisans compete in shooting off their own crafted fireworks, and government awards are presented to the winner. Held annually on the fourth Saturday of August, the themes are predetermined, often with accompanying music, and the originality of the displays is testimony to the creativity and artistic sensibility of each fireworks creator.



Glowing Summer Festivals

Most festivals in Japan feature highly skilled dancers and musicians, almost magical appearing feats of strength and balance, and boisterous good fun. But many of the following summer festivals have a wonderful yin-yang feeling - the sheer pounding excitement of a hot summer's night festival accompanied by the beautifully lit and illustrated floats and lanterns.

Gion Festival, (Kyoto)
July 1-31, 2015

This highly elaborate festival includes dance and musical performances, comic plays, displays of artistic treasures and more. During Yoiyama (July 14-16) two types of floats, the smaller Yama and much larger Hoko are festooned with beautifully illuminated designed lanterns that lend a magical touch to the already enchanting atmosphere.


Akita Kanto Festival (Akita)
August 3-6, 2015

The "pole lantern festival" features incredible feats of balance and poise as men balance poles ranging from about 16 ft up to 40 ft and weighing between 11 lb and 110 lb which are festooned with up to 46 candle-lit lanterns. The poles, all 230 of them, are lifted at the same time at the start of the performance, then placed on foreheads, lower backs, shoulders, etc. as the men carefully adjust their stance to compensate for any swaying of the poles or lanterns due to wind or a shift in balance. The glowing spectacle of nearly 10,000 globes of light balanced on the men is enough to take your breath away (if you weren't already screaming in delight).


Aomori Nebuta Festival (Aomori)
August 2-7, 2015

Way up at the northernmost tip of the main island of Honshu lies the city of Aomori, home to the annual Aomori Nebuta Matsuri. This festival, designated one of Japan's significant cultural assets, parades about 20 huge beautifully illustrated paper floats illuminated from the inside, many of which represent famed historical figures, through the streets of the city. Specially costumed dancers add to the dazzling view.



©Kumamoto Prefecture Tourist Federation

Yamaga Toro Festival (Kumamoto)
August 15-16, 2015

About 1,000 women wear yukata and dance to traditional music with lanterns strapped to their heads while men wearing traditional costumes recreate the pathway that the emperor supposedly followed home long ago when he and his entourage became lost one foggy night. It was the light of the lanterns lit by the Yamaga locals that guided them home and it is this that is re-enacted during the festival.


Mikawa Isshiki Lantern Festival (Aichi)
August 26-27, 2015

Six pairs of giant lanterns adorned with mythical and historical pictures and patterns sway in the summer evening. The 400 year history of these lanterns tells the story of how in ancient times a bonfire was built to drive away sea monsters that kept terrorizing the people. The twelve huge lanterns measure a maximum length of almost 40 feet, and are hung in the Suwa Shrine. Large candles are lit inside the lanterns, creating a serene and romantic atmosphere, and then they are hoisted up by men not using any safety ropes in a performance that is both thrilling and heartstopping.



Summer Art Festivals

There are many local summer festivals throughout Japan. Two of the more remarkable events in Niigata Prefecture are featured below.

The Earth Celebration (Aug. 21 - 23, 2015)

Off the coast of the Niigata prefecture lies Sado Island, home to the famous "Kodo" taiko (Japanese drums) performing arts ensemble. The celebration includes many workshops and other daytime performances (called fringe performances) aside from the three main outdoor concerts each night. The first night, the Taiko drummers take the stage, the second night features guest artists, and the third night is a collaboration with the taiko group and the guests. Tickets will go on sale on 6/16/2015 (Japan Time). Check back here for more information.

Visitors to the celebration can also enjoy boat rides in the special tub-shaped boats of the island. Additionally, traditional Sado dance performances and a great market set up at the harbor selling many kinds of international foods and treats along with local goods are all available to visitors of the area.

For more information, please visit here.


The Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale (Jul. 26 - Sept. 13, 2015)

Originating in 2000, this is now one of the largest art festivals in the world being held every three years. Its mission is to reveal the arcadian beauty of the Echigo-Tsumari area to the world, and to invite artists and visitors to experience and reinforce their bonds to one another, and to the land. Another type of bonding, namely between the local people and the artists, has also serendipitously occurred - since the artists must use the local's land for their installations, a dialogue and growing understanding between the two groups has developed, and the locals often act as indispensable collaborators or advisors on projects.

While much artwork remains in place during the triennales, this year (the 6th triennale) there will be approximately 160 new works by artists from all over the globe, and these pieces of art will be located at over 200 villages instead of one single central location. Visitors are able to view each piece in a different perspective. The display encourages one to wander through the landscape, spending time to reach, and then appreciate, each one. Please visit here to find how to get to Echigo-Tsumari.

For more information, please visit here.


Autumn Festivals in Japan

The blaze of summer heat will soon be replaced by the warmth of autumn colors. For some of us, the most beautiful season in Japan will soon be upon us, and a fine way to celebrate is to enjoy the fall matsuri (festivals) which pop up in all their glory during the entire fall.

Takayama Akimatsuri , (Takayama City, Gifu Prefecture)
Oct. 9-10, 2015

This festival, considered by many to be one of the three most beautiful festivals in Japan, takes place every year on October 9th and 10th. Eleven huge tiered floats, all designated significant intangible folk cultural assets, are constructed and ornamented with intricate metalwork, gilded wood, lacquer, etc. Additionally, the insides are topped with large wooden marionettes, which are conducted in performances on top of the floats. These beautiful figures are also highly decorated with fabrics such as brocade, embroidered cloth, silk and the like. These floats also take part in a night procession, and each one is adorned with up to 100 lanterns. Despite their grand size, they seem to float gently in the pools of lantern light as they regally make their way through the city on wheeled carts.

For more information, please visit here.


Kyoto Jidai Matsuri , (Kyoto Prefecture)
Oct. 22, 2015

Held every year on October 22, this Festival of the Ages is a fantastic way to see history reenacted by actors in period clothing representing famous and common figures, portable shrines, horse-drawn carriages, etc., representing each era of Kyoto's 1,200 year history and adorned with decorations of each particular era. Costumes and ornaments are painstakingly hand-crafted by Kyoto's traditional artisans. The festival begins at the Old Imperial Palace and ends at the Heian Jingu Shrine. This is a beautiful glimpse of old Kyoto history in all its glory. It's almost like visiting a museum!

For more information, please visit here.


Nikko Shuki Taisai Grand Autumn Festival , (Tochigi Prefecture)
Oct. 16 & 17, 2015

This is the autumn festival of the Nikko Toshogu Shrine (there is also a spring festival held annually). The festival is part of a large UNESCO World Heritage Site that includes other shrines and temples in Nikko, and it is thought to represent the funeral ceremony of Tokugawa Ieyasu, whose remains are interred at the shrine, and who was the first shogun of the Edo era. You can see a grand procession of about eight hundred people all dressed in 17th century period clothing as warriors, samurai and the like. Watching this magnificent, slightly imposing reenactment temporarily transports one back four centuries in the blink of an eye! There is also a "yabusame" performance (archers performing their skills on horseback) which, though an ancient Japanese traditional contest, is now gaining popularity overseas as well.

For more information, please visit here.


Kurama Fire Festival , (Kyoto Prefecture)
Oct. 22, 2015

Held at the same time as the Jidai Matsuri, this is a more intimate, local festival, and should definitely be experienced if you are in Kyoto. The Fire Festival is a traditional village festival in the rural city of Kurama which is nestled in the northern mountains of Kyoto. It is held at the Yuki-Jinja, a shrine that is located on the way to the Kurama-dera temple located along the mountainside and hovering over the town. At nightfall, children holding small pine torches parade through the town and are followed by adults holding immense torches also made of pine weighing over 175 pounds which they also parade through the town streets.

Afterwards, two portable shrines are carried through the streets for a rousing climax to the festival. Earlier in the evening, watch fires are lit simultaneously in front of many homes so the whole town comes softly aglow before the raucous parade begins.

The festival is said to reenact the scene of the enshrined deity at Yuki-Jinja being greeted after traveling from the Kyoto Imperial Palace to Kurama.

For more information, please visit here.



Events in the US: Save the Date!

Frederik Meijer Gardens


Meijer Gardens proudly presents the grand opening of their Japanese Garden on June 13, 2015

One of the most revered and deeply appreciated international garden styles, the 8-acre addition will further Meijer Garden's dual mission of horticulture and sculpture. Opening to the public on June 13th, the Japanese Garden will feature waterfalls, a Zen-style garden, teahouse, zig-zag bridge among other authentic Japanese elements as well as internationally acclaimed sculpture.

For more information, please visit here.



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