A cooling breeze drifts through my open window, bringing with it the scent of the fragrant Kinmokusei trees and the distant strains of repetitive drum beats. This can only mean one thing, autumn has come to the land of the rising sun. Unlike the pictured Japan, autumn does not start with brilliant coloured leaves, but instead starts with something just as interesting, and just as worth seeing, Autumn Festivals (in Japanese – Aki Matsuri). For the first few weeks of October, instead of cars driving down the street, you can see massive Yatai carried by groups of scantily clad men. On certain days, you can watch elaborate religious parades, and if you’re lucky, you can watch a Yatai fight. Thankfully, I live in an area famed for its Autumn Festivals, and I consider them to be one of the best cultural experiences Japan has to offer. Therefore, I’m obviously going to provide you with a Melissa’s Guide to Japanese Autumn Festivals*.
What is an Autumn Festival?
Autumn Festivals are community events, normally associated with a local Shinto shrine and generally have religious overtones. However, some newer towns have established their own festivals, independent of shrines, such is the appeal of the Autumn Festival.
The reason these festivals are held varies from shrine to shrine, with some existing to ensure a good rice harvest, and others being established after the eradication of local epidemics. In almost all cases however, the festival is a way to celebrate the gods of the shrine.
The other aspect of the Autumn Festival is the community involvement. Every man, woman, child and their dogs, will come out to experience at least part of the festival in their area. Also, many people who have moved away from home will take a day off work just to return for the event.
What to expect at an Autumn Festival?
I said Autumn Festivals celebrate the shrine gods and these god’s love loud noises; so, expect a lot of a lot of drumming and chanting. Because the festivals are so popular with the local people, also expect crowds, food stalls and a lot of people yelling Gaijin?! If you’re the only foreigner around. Also expect to see a lot of drunk men in happi coat flashing you in their fundoshi (aka. Samurai nappies).
You can expect to see portable shrines, known in Japanese as Mikoshi. The easiest way to explain a portable shrine is that it’s a car for the gods of the shrine. During a top-secret ceremony, the shrine gods are transferred to the portable shrine, and then they cruise around town carried by approximately 50 men. The portable shrine is normally proceeded by a parade of dancing children, and followed by various people such as the shrine guardians, singers, dancers etc. In my favourite Autumn Festival, held by Takasago Shrine, the gods are said to not only to love loud noises, but also to love having a bumpy ride. So, at set intervals, the men carrying the Mikoshi will stop and violently shake it, while the dancing children cheer them on with shouts of Yoiyasa. Once every three years, this Mikoshi is also transferred to a precariously made fishing boat for a tour of the ports of Takasago. An interesting spectacle to watch to say the least.
The parade of the Mikoshi is the main religious aspect for the Autumn Festivals. There are other religious things that occur, such as breaking bamboo, throwing things onto the roof of the shrine for luck, children dressed in beautiful clothes, riding horses, representing the gods, lion dances, etc. But the traditions vary by autumn festival and to list them all would take a few too many words.
The other thing you’ll see are the beautifully decorated Yatai (known in my local as Yassa). The Yatai, unlike the Mikoshi, do not host gods. Instead these beautiful floats hold four drummer boys, intricate tapestries and a whole lot of gold gilt decorations. Although they don’t hold gods, the crashing of the Yatai during the famed Yatai fights, is said to please the gods, so they play an important role in the festivities. Each festival will have a different amount of Yatai, depending on the surrounding area. This is because the Yatai do not belong to the shrine, but to local community districts. The community districts are based on the traditional occupations for that area, so one shrine might have a Yatai for the farmers, one for the fisher men, one for the masons etc.
Each Yatai is an expensive investment. They are worth millions of yen, and they weigh approximately 2 tonne fully decorated. Traditionally, the portable shrines can only be carried by men, although some shrines are slowly allowing women into the fold. The amount of men needed to carry the Yatai is about 50 (I made this number up but I feel it’s about correct). The main use of the Yatai are to be paraded around the streets of the local area, along with the Mikoshi, and secondly to participate in the Yatai fights.
I’ve mentioned these Yatai fights a few times, so what are they? The local community districts have long established rivalries, so to establish dominance they bash their Yatai against each other, trying to make the other team drop their float. These fights can be short or last almost an hour, depending on the strength of the teams. During these fights, controlling the direction of the Yatai can be quite difficult, so police are constantly trying to push the crowds back, but that doesn’t stop them pushing forward, trying to get in on the action. But trust me, you don’t want one of these floats falling on you. Being crushed to death is a real possibility but just adds to the excitement. It’s something you have to see to believe.
What’s a normal Autumn Festival program?
This really varies from shrine to shrine, but in general the festival will last about 2 days. Plus, one night of localised festivities which generally involves bringing the Yatai out of storage.
Day 1 is the main religious day and involves the mikoshi parade and various other ceremonies that vary shrine by shrine.
Day 2 is mainly reserved for more Yatai parades and the fights. Normally these fights don’t happen until later in the afternoon where the sunsets, the Yatai are lit up and the fights continue. The culmination of the fights is normally all the Yatai being held aloft at once, an impressive sight to see for the larger shrines. For example, Takasago shrine has 9 yatai, and seeing all nine lined up in awesome.
Each shrine however, varies in its program and normal you can find a timetable of scheduled events online (all in Japanese, so use google translate if you’re interested).
How to experience a Japanese Autumn Festival?
Honestly, Autumn Festivals are local events and can be overwhelming, confusing or even boring, if you don’t know what’s going on. If possible, it’s definitely better to go with a local (shout out to Sawako and Ayumi). However, if you don’t have a local to go with, don’t let that put you off. The Japanese people can be really welcoming, so even if you don’t speak the language, you’ll likely make new friends.
Autumn festivals occur over the first three weeks of October and calendars of festivals can be found online.
My top 3 recommendations for Autumn Festivals
When – October 9th and 10th every year
Where – Takasago Shrine, Takasago-cho, Takasago-shi, a 15minute walk from Takasago Station (Sanyo Line).
(Takasago is the town where I live, it’s a 20-minute train ride from Himeji and approximately 2 hours from Kyoto and an hour and a half from Osaka – on special rapid trains).
Why – Apart from the fact I get two half days off for this festival each year, in my opinion it’s one of the more spectacular festivals to watch. The Mikoshi parade is interesting, especially every third year where the Mikoshi has tours the ports (next sated to happen in 2019). But the best day is the second day. On this day, the Yatai fights occur and unlike the famous Nada no Kenka, you can get quite up-close and personal to the fights, and in my opinion, they can be equally as violent as Nada no Kenka (just minus the destructible mikoshi). Plus, there aren’t any tourists here, so it feels like your own slice of private Japanese culture.
When – October 13th and 14th every year
Where – Sone Shrine, Sone-cho, Takasago-shi, a 2-minute walk from Sone Station.
(Again a 15-minute train ride from Himeji, about one and a half from Osaka and two hours from Kyoto– on special rapid trains).
Why – The Yatai at this festival are said to be some of the most beautiful and unique. They also have some really cool traditions like bamboo splitting. Plus, the people of Sone are very passionate about their festival and it shows in the crowds it draws every year. It’s also really convenient to access, being right next to a train station. Plus, the food stands here are slightly more abundant than Takasago Shrine, and I’m all about the festival food.
Nada no Kenka Matsuri
When – October 14th and 15th every year
Where – Matsubara Hachiman Shrine, Shirahama, Himeji. A two-minute walk from Shirahamanomiya Station (Sanyo Line).
(16 minutes from Himeji, about one and a half from Osaka and two from Kyoto – on special rapid trains)
Why – Mainly because it’s the most famous of the fighting festivals. Google “fighting festival” and this will be the first thing to pop up. However, I went this year and I have to say I wasn’t that impressed. It was pouring rain and nothing seemed to be happening, I didn’t know where I could or couldn’t go and I was actually quite bored. I therefore ended up leaving before it got interesting. However, the most information exists for this festival, and they’re used to foreigners, so might be a good way to get your taste of Autumn Festivals.
And so concludes Melissa’s guide to Japanese Autumn Festivals. What do you think? Will you be coming next year? If you do want to come, I am happy to play tour guide to Takasago Shrine’s Aki Matsuri.
Until next time.
*Quick note, the information here is only about those festivals held in the Hyogo prefecture, in particular those held in Takasago. Obviously, these are the best festivals, but it is just one (amazing, fantastic, wonderful) person’s opinion. To make your own decision, you’ll have to come see them for yourself.