Just getting to the summer festivals of rural Japan can be a challenge, but the experience when you get there is often more than worth the effort.
The Yamaga Toro Festival, held Aug. 15-16 in Yamaga, Kumamoto Prefecture, is a visual feast. One display that turns heads features 1,000 yukata-clad female dancers weaving in concentric circles while balancing lit paper lanterns on the heads. The performance casts an eerie glow as dusk falls.
About 200,000 visitors descend on the town every year. Bring a camera. The slow, graceful movements of the women give the appearance of chrysanthemums swaying in a gentle breeze.
Yamaga is renowned for the craft of paper lantern making—a tradition that has been handed down over the centuries.
The festival is said to have originated with an incident involving the 12th emperor, Emperor Keiko. According to legend, when the emperor's path across a river in Kyushu was blocked by thick fog, local residents saved the day by guiding the entourage with flaming torches. Since then, it is said, the residents of Yamaga have been making flaming offerings at the Omiyajinja shrine, where the emperor is supposed to have stayed. The lantern tradition perhaps grew out of the story, or maybe it was the other way around?
Another summer festival, held in Toshima, on Akusekijima island in Kagoshima Prefecture, features a strange and mischievous deity called Boze.
The festival climaxes with participants donning masks with huge red eyes and open mouths while attired in robes made of leaves. Could this be a remnant of ancient rites? Participants also carry sticks with which they poke women and children. It is said to bring good luck.
The Akina Arasetsu festival on a beach at Amami-Oshima island in Kagoshima Prefecture has two parts: one for men and the other mainly for women.
At dawn, local men try to shake a mountainside hut to the ground. The direction in which it falls is said to determine whether there will be a good harvest.
At dusk, two groups of villagers clamber onto rocks overlooking the ocean. Both groups sing and dance, imitating the swaying of rice ears. This is supposed to summon the spirits of the sea. They continue dancing in a circle on the beach, praying for a good harvest.
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The Yamaga Toro Festival, held Aug. 15-16 in Yamaga, Kumamoto Prefecture, can be reached by bus from JR Kumamoto Station. It is an 80-minute ride to the Onsen Plaza-mae stop.
The Boze festival is held Sept. 2 in Toshima on Akusekijima island, Kagoshima Prefecture, and can be reached by a ferry that leaves Kagoshima port on Mondays and Fridays. The ferry departs the island on Wednesdays and Sundays, so be prepared to stay at least two nights.
The Arasetsu ceremony is held Sept. 22 at the Akina Community Center in Tatsugo on Amami-Oshima island. Flights to Amami-Oshima airport from major cities, including Tokyo, Osaka, Kagoshima and Naha, are available.
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