Matsuri means both festival and worship, indicating the Shinto origins of Japanese festivals. Some are nationwide, others are local to individual temples and shrines. Matsuri are a link between the human and the divine, often marking stages in the rice-growing cycle (mainly planting and harvest) or historical events.
The aim of the matsuri is to preserve the goodwill of the deities (kami). All matsuri follow a basic form: purification (often by water or fire); then offerings; then a procession in which the kami is invoked at the shrine and escorted in a portable shrine (mikoshi) to a temporary dwelling where there is entertainment such as dancing or archery. The kami is then taken back to the shrine.
The Gion Matsuri:
Celebrated in Kyoto in July, is the city’s largest festival and dates back to the 9th century. This image shows one of the floats in procession during the festival parade.
This festival has been celebrated at Todai-ji temple, Nara, since the 8th century to signal the advent of spring. Water is drawn from a sacred well and purified with fire from huge torches.
Takayama Matsuri takes place in spring and fall. Spectacular floats are escorted from the Hie Shrine through the town by people dressed in Edo- period costumes.The aim is to placate the kami of plague.
Rice festivals all over Japan were central to the matsuri cycle, but have declined as agricultural techniques have changed. Women plant the rice in spring, symbolically passing their fertility to the crop. Fall festivals give thanks for the harvest.
Aoi Matsuri, or the Hollyhock Festival, in Kyoto, originated in the 6th century. Participants in Heian-period costume parade from the Imperial Palace to Shimogamoand Kamigamo shrines, re-creating thejourney of imperial messengers who were sent to placate the gods.
Nebuta Matsuri, held in Aomori in August, is one of Japan’s most spectacular festivals, featuring huge paper lanterns. At the end they are carried off to sea as a symbol of casting away anything that might interfere with the harvest.
Obon, the Buddhist Festival of the Dead:
Obon, the Buddhist Festival of the Dead, takes place in mid- July or mid-August. Ancestors are welcomed back to the world of the living and then bid farewell again. Bon Odori, hypnotic outdoor dancing, takes place.
Tanabata Matsuri in July is known as the Weaver, or Star, Festival. Based on a Chinese legend, it is said to be the only day when the two stars Vega (the weaver) and Altair (the herdsman) can meet as lovers across the Milky Way. People write down wishes and poems and hang them on bamboo poles.
Kanda Matsuri, Tokyo:
Held in May in alternate years, this festival is one of Tokyo’s largest. Numerous floats and portable shrines are paraded through the streets of Tokyo to placate the gods of Kanda Myojin Shrine. In addition to communicating with the gods, the festival encourages a sense of community.
Jidai Matsuri, or the Festival of the Ages:
Jidai Matsuri, or the Festival of the Ages, is a relatively new matsuri. It was initiated in 1895 to commemorate Kyoto’s long history. Dressed in historical costumes dating from the 8th century onward, people parade from the Imperial Palace to the Heian Shrine.