If you’re in Japan for any length of time, you’ll see it. Period costumes. Beautiful ladies in equally-beautiful kimonos. Perhaps someone dressed as an oni, scaring children into behaving. Packs of drunk Japanese people in festival clothes yelling, bouncing, and carrying some huge object down the street. And streets lined with food booths. You’ve wandered into the middle of the big street fair/party known as a matsuri!
Everyone seems to be having a good time. But what about you? Finding yourself in the middle of all of this might be a bit awkward. Is there something you should be doing? Or maybe something you are supposed to be wearing? Are you supposed to help with carrying that huge object?
Don’t worry! I’ve been to more than a few matsuri, so I can help! So let us eat, drink, and be fat and drunk, because it’s time to get in on the block party to end all block parties! And if you’re lucky, you might even get press-ganged into carrying a mikoshi!
In this article, I’m going to use my local dual-matsuri as a guide. The Kita-No-Tenno-Sai Matsuri (Shinagawa Shrine) and the Minami-No-Tenno-Sai Matsuri (Ebara Shrine) combine yearly to form one giant sprawling matsuri (hereafter called the Shinagawa Matsuri) for everyone to enjoy!
What is a Matsuri?
“Matsuri” is just the Japanese word for “festival.” As opposed to holidays, matsuri are not held on specific dates throughout Japan–each neighborhood schedules and holds their own matsuri. Matsuri are usually held anywhere from late spring to fall, and it is possible to attend several matsuri throughout the year.
There are many large and famous matsuri. The larger festivals are usually visitor-friendly, but you should go with a Japanese friend in order to get the full experience. But the smaller ones–that’s what we’re getting at. No big touristy stuff for you!
Not all matsuri are the same. Yes, there are common elements, but thinking that each one is a carbon-copy of the other is sort of like thinking that Halloween, Christmas, and St. Patrick’s Day are all celebrated the same way. Each neighborhood does their matsuri their own way–what may be a central element in one festival may be completely missing from another. Even for the smaller ones, having a Japanese friend (preferably a local) will help you navigate the peculiarities of a matsuri.
But even if you don’t have a Japanese friend, don’t worry! Matsuri is a fun time, and everyone is in a good partying mood. If nothing else, you can always come sample the food booths and people-watch. Just be friendly and not only will you have a good time, you’ll probably make new friends!
Many matsuri are centered around neighborhood Shinto jinja, or shrines. During the Shinagawa Matsuri, mikoshi (portable Shinto shrines that look like miniature temples) are carried throughout the neighborhood. Shrines house the kami (gods or spirits) for the duration of the festival, and the locals celebrate matsuri by carrying the shrines through the streets, drumming and chanting and bouncing the whole way. In between bouts of eating and drinking, that is.
And for the Shinagawa Matsuri, “portable” is used in the very loosest sense of the word. These shrines are huge and very heavy, and they require a dozen or more people to carry. And you could be one of those people!
Getting Dressed for the Occasion
If you’re just going to matsuri to people-watch or for the food booths, you don’t need to wear anything special. You can come just as you are! You’ll see plenty of adults and children (and more than a few pampered dogs) in festival clothes or kimonos, but it’s not required.
But if you want to help carry a mikoshi, you’ll have to get dressed for the part. Please note that you cannot just jump into the mikoshi-carrying mix–if you want to participate, let someone in festival clothes know (either through your own language skills, that of your Japanese friend, or the tried and true “point at my own chest and make the up-and-down shoulder-lifting motion”). If it’s okay, they will likely lend you a hanten (a light jacket) to wear.
If you are really lucky, you may be able to borrow a full set of festival clothes, called matsuri-issho. These clothes consist of a light jacket (known as a hanten), a pair of trousers, an undershirt, and a pair of tabi boots. The hanten is held in place with a sash, and there is a small man-purse (or just a purse, for the ladies) for your money. I live in Shinagawa, so I bought my own set of matsuri-issho (pictured). But if you’re just visiting, a borrowed hanten or matsuri-issho will be just fine.
Carrying the Mikoshi
Now that you are properly attired, get ready to get in there and lend your back to the cause! A few cultural notes–
- Be sure to ask before joining a mikoshi carry in progress. Most matsuri are rather casual affairs, but some mikoshi have significant religious significance and are not to be touched by outsiders. In truth, there are very few mikoshi under that sort of restriction, but it pays to be sure.
- In the past, women were strictly forbidden from touching certain mikoshi. This is not completely true today; some places are fine with it, some places are not, and other places allow women to touch some shrines but not others. As always, check with the locals before touching a mikoshi.
- Other traditions may apply in different areas. My wife remembers a time when people were not allowed to look down at a mikoshi (“looking down on a god from above”) during the Shinagawa Matsuri. Windows over street level had to be closed and bridges over rivers were cleared when a mikoshi passed underneath on a boat. Other locales may have similar traditions, so please be observant and do as the locals do.
Once you get in, brace yourself! Mikoshi can be very heavy. Most people simply shoulder the load, but I always wuss out and use a towel to cushion the wooden beam. Also, you want to stand as straight as you possibly can and keep the wooden beam on your shoulder. Not only is this the easiest way to carry your part of the load, it also prevents back injuries. This may be easier said than done–I am 5’8″, which is about average Japanese size. If you’re one of those really tall people, make sure you get in next to people who are about your size.
A few other things might happen during your stint as a porter of the gods. At the Shinagawa Matsuri, people yell, “Washoi!” when carrying the shrine. The closest translation to English would be something like, “Heave ho!” and is used as encouragement to your fellow mikoshi carriers. Feel free to join the chant!
Another thing you may encounter is a difference in mikoshi-carrying styles. The Shinagawa Matsuri uses the Jōnan-style carry, in which mikoshi carriers lift from both the parallel and perpendicular beams that support the mikoshi palanquin. The mikoshi generally travels forward, but often stops and bounces, moves from side to side, and sometimes may go backwards. In other places, you might encounter the Edomae-style carry, in which the mikoshi carriers stay on the parallel beams and move forward at a measured, marching pace.
There are other styles, but these are the two most commonly seen in Tokyo. I am looking forward to one day seeing a Kenka Matsuri, such as the one in Nada. Kenka means “fight” or “conflict”, and in a Kenka Matsuri, mikoshi shrines “fight” by crashing into each other. Exactly how this honors the gods is somewhat mysterious, but it appears that even spiritual beings enjoy a good demolition derby. You may want to stay away from these; people get injured and even killed while participating in a Kenka Matsuri.
Another thing that might occur is something I call the “bouncing challenge.” In the bouncing challenge, the person on the other end of your beam will bounce his end up and down, which will cause your beam to smash up and down into your shoulder. This is painful! The only thing you can really do is hold on tight and keep your shoulder to the beam to lessen the impact. Once they stop, you can respond in kind, but you may want to consider that you might not know that other person, nor how they will take a dose of their own medicine. Best to just leave well enough alone.
Finally, you do not need to carry the mikoshi for the full duration of its travel. You can take breaks, rotating responsibility for the load with other participants. Just be sure to give nearby revelers an indication that you intend to bail–it’s considered bad form to just leave your part of the carry without warning, suddenly shifting the weight to someone else’s shoulders. Once you’re out, you can rub your sore shoulders, walk along for awhile and then rejoin, or move on and do something else. If you borrowed a hanten, be sure to return it before you leave
…and the Rest of It
Even if you don’t get the chance to carry a mikoshi, there is still plenty to do at a matsuri. There are lots of people to see, kimonos to admire, and many kinds of carnival-style games for children and adults. Street entertainers perform at some matsuri–I have seen trained monkeys, taiko drum players, Vegas-style street magicians, and even a karaoke contest. Stick around and watch, and have some coins ready for when the hat gets passed around.
And then there is the food. There are so many good things to eat during matsuri, and you’ll want to try them all. You can choose cultural favorites like chilled cucumbers or grilled squid on a stick, old standbys like karage (fried chicken) and shaved ice, or even chow down on imported ideas such as pizza pockets and cotton candy. My personal favorite is the yakkitori-style meats, such as steak and salted pork. And you can wash it all down with one of the many nearby beer stands.
So there you have it–a basic how-to guide for enjoying a mikoshi matsuri in Japan! There may be regional or neighborhood differences for each matsuri, or maybe even a restriction or two. But matsuri time is supposed to be a good time, for both the locals and for visitors. So get your pocket money and your camera ready, get out there, and have a great time!