To get a taste of the best of festivals in Japan, the Matsuri Tsukuba event, held every August in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, is the place to get a "mixed plate."
At this year's event, a large float from the Nebuta Festival in Aomori Prefecture navigated down one side of the street and a few minutes later, participants carried a "mikoshi" (portable shrine) down the opposite side of the road.
"This is the only place in Japan where you can see a joint performance by a mikoshi and a Nebuta," a festival announcer said.
On a stage at the festival, a team danced the Yosakoi, which has been made popular in Kochi Prefecture, while other performers did the Eisa folk dance from Okinawa.
One of the highlights at this year's festival, in its 33rd year, was the Nebuta floats, and this year there were nine. One was brought to Tsukuba after taking part in the genuine Nebuta Festival in Aomori city.
However, the children in the crowd seemed to prefer the "Balloon Nebuta," which is only found in Tsukuba. Made of cloth, the Balloon Nebuta was decorated with a frog to symbolize the "gama no abura" (an ointment used during the Edo Period (1603-1867) for injuries) for which Mount Tsukubasan is famous. A thief from the Edo Period as well as a smoke-breathing dragon were also drawn on the float.
Tsukuba is a fairly new municipality created through the merger of three towns and a village. The Matsuri Tsukuba was started in 1981, six years before the birth of the city. It was started as an event where old-timers and newcomers could gather to get to know each other better. The need for such a forum arose as researchers from other parts of Japan as well as around the world came to Tsukuba as it was being developed into a research and academic center from the 1960s.
At first, the festival was an event on a small scale with the performance of local songs and foreign students at the University of Tsukuba demonstrating how to cook native foods.
One resident who felt something more was needed was Yoshihiro Someya, 50, who at that time belonged to the Tsukuba Junior Chamber.
Being such a new city, Tsukuba had no event that could bring people together. That led to whispers that "Tsukuba may have infrastructure in the form of buildings and other structures, but it did not have a heart or soul."
Someya felt that he wanted to create a stage where those whose fate brought them to Tsukuba could observe a real festival without having to go to the actual community where the festival was held.
At the same time, the city could not just bring festivals associated with a specific shrine or temple from another municipality. That is when Someya and his colleagues set their sights on the Nebuta Festival in Aomori.
"The Nebuta is not a ritual, and no fee is needed to take part," Someya said. "Another advantage is that anyone can take part."
Through an acquaintance in Aomori, Someya and his group managed to bring a Nebuta float to Tsukuba in 1997. The flashy float immediately attracted the attention of local residents.
The following year, a parade was added, and the participants included those on motorcycles and police cars as well as women doing belly dances.
In 2001, a "Manto mikoshi" was brought into the festival. The mikoshi is one of the largest in Japan and has a large number of paper lanterns on its roof.
Such additions attracted tourists from the Tokyo metropolitan area, and this year about 450,000 people attended the two-day festival.
While local residents had supported the festival in the past, many are now proud to say the festival is a symbol of Tsukuba that can create something new by bringing in good elements from the outside.
The Tsukuba festival is but one example of a famous festival being brought to other localities with the expectation that it will bring together local residents and attract more visitors.
According to a 2010 study by Toru Anami, a professor of cultural anthropology at Edogawa University, the Nebuta festival is held in at least 40 locations around Japan.
Anami gave as reasons why this festival has taken root in other locations the fact that neither God or Buddha is closely related with the festival, and because it can be enjoyed by women and young people since anyone can take part.
The Nebuta Festival does not have deep religious roots since it is said to have started in Aomori Prefecture as a way for farmers to ward off sleepiness and bad vibes while during farm work.
In 1962, the Aomori Tourism Association began publicizing the festival as a major tourist attraction. That led to performances of the Nebuta at the 1970 Osaka World Expo as well as at various events in the Tokyo metropolitan area.
The colorful and beautiful floats grabbed people's attention, and they became famous around Japan as a must-see spectacle. That in turn led to the spread of Nebuta festivals to other parts of Japan from the late 1980s through the 1990s.
Other examples of festivals spreading around Japan are the Awa Odori dance in Tokushima Prefecture and the Yosakoi Festival in Kochi Prefecture.
According to one view, a version of the Awa Odori dance is now held at about 70 locations around Japan. The one held in Tokyo's Koenji area attracts a million visitors every year, while the one in Minami-Koshigaya, Saitama Prefecture, attracts 600,000.
"Festivals that have emerged in recent years are a form of leisure rather than celebrating God or Buddha," Anami said. "I believe one reason they have become popular is because they allow young people to show off their abilities."
VETERAN ARTISANS SUPPORT NEBUTA FESTIVAL FOR DECADES
One reason the Nebuta Festival has become so famous around Japan is because it is supported by various individuals, some of whom have spent their entire lives involved in some part of the festival.
The floats appear to be sculptures made of paper. One figure of a thief with a raised hand was being painted by artists on ladders in mid-July, about a month before the actual festival. The artists were in the final stages of completing a float at a studio close to 7 meters high near JR Aomori Station.
Giving out instructions to the 30 or so workers was Hiroo Takenami, 53, who is one of 15 "Nebutashi" (Nebuta artist) living in Aomori who are in charge of producing the colorful floats for the festival.
Every year, 22 floats are paraded through the streets of Aomori. This year, Takenami produced three of those floats.
"Even though I am called a Nebutashi, it has not yet been established as an occupation," Takenami said with a laugh.
On three days during the week, he works as a pharmacist for a few hours a day at a facility providing care for the elderly. He would not be able to eke out a living just on work for a festival that comes around once a year.
Corporate sponsors are said to pay between 4 million and 5 million yen ($41,200 to $51,500) to a group of Nebutashi to produce one float.
The work is painstaking and time-consuming. "Washi" paper is pasted on a skeleton made of wiring and designs created using "sumi" India ink, wax and pigment. After paying for materials and personnel expenses, Takenami is left with very little for himself.
In the past, neighborhood associations volunteered to support the Nebuta Festival, but now such major companies as East Japan Railway Co. and Mitsubishi Electric Corp. serve as sponsors. If a float should win a prize for artistic expression, photos of the float containing the company name are used in posters, maximizing the publicity benefits.
Before World War II, small Nebuta floats were created over the course of a few days, but now they may take an entire year.
In order to develop Nebutashi who could make a living from the work, Takenami established a research institute in Aomori city in 2010. It provides work space around the year to create the floats.
Takenami has been involved with the Nebuta Festival for close to half a century.
"I became attracted to the colors of the Nebuta from even before I learned the names of the colors used," he said.
He created his first float for the festival when he was 29.
This year, 2.85 million people came to see the Nebuta Festival. Many tourists are knowledgeable and particular.
For that reason, Takenami continues to improve his skills.
"I want people to think that there are creators in Aomori, the genuine home of the Nebuta, who can produce truly remarkable works," he said.
JAPAN'S FESTIVALS BECOMING LARGER AND SERVING AS TOURIST DRAWS
The Japanese like to select the "three best" of anything.
The three best festivals of Japan are said to be the Gion Festival of Kyoto, the Tenjin Festival of Osaka and the Kanda Festival of Tokyo.
Regarding the Tanabata Festival in July, an annual celebration of the stars, not only are there the three best of these festivals in all of Japan, but there is a separate three best for the Kanto region.
Because there is no certification agency and attendance numbers vary year by year, there are also different combinations of what constitutes the three best over time.
The Aomori Nebuta Festival, Sendai Tanabata Festival and Akita Kanto Festival have been put into a package, known as the three best festivals of the Tohoku region, and have attracted a large number of tourists who take in those festivals in succession during the summer. In 2013, a total of 6.32 million people visited the three festivals.
According to experts, the use of the term "three best festivals in the Tohoku region" began in the 1950s by a local newspaper that every year runs a special feature about the festivals in the region held in early August.
In 1962, the then Japanese National Railways (JNR) ran special trains, and that served as an impetus for tourist agencies to begin organizing tours of the festivals.
Due to such changes, the Akita Kanto Festival has seen a huge increase in visitors from the 300,000 in 1966 to 1.41 million this year.
The recent trend is the six festivals of the Tohoku region. It was started in 2011 after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, and organized by Dentsu Inc., the advertising giant.
In addition to the traditional three best festivals of the Tohoku region, the Morioka Sansa Odori Festival, Yamagata Hanagasa Festival and Fukushima Waraji Festival were added. While the Fukushima Waraji Festival tended to be small in scale until then and directed more toward a local audience, it became better known, and participants were asked to appear at events in Tokyo.
There are some festivals that draw huge crowds. For example, the Hakata Dontaku Port Festival in Fukuoka Prefecture attracts in excess of 2 million people. With an eye toward tourists, such festivals have become much more refined, with participants dressed in similar "happi" coats. However, such huge crowds also raise the need for traffic restrictions and, in some cases, festival organizers have had to change the contents in order to continue with the event.
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