Just about every Japanese festival involves genitalia or nudity. Well, actually that’s not true, although it certainly is true that these sorts of festivals seem to be the most well-known outside of Japan.
It’s only natural that these festivals are as popular as they are: there’s the shock value, of course, along with a good dose of point-and-laugh. But, to paraphrase Hashi, they have been done to death – and all this limelight-hogging means other Japanese festivals never get the attention and exposure they deserve.
So today I’m going to try and change the status quo. I’ve put together a list of a few lesser-known Japanese festivals; I hope you’ll find them interesting and spread the word.
Let’s get to it!
#1 Hetomato Festival (ヘトマト)
Where: Goto City, Fukue Island
When: The third Sunday of January
Why: Bumper crops, big catches of fish, prosperous offspring
Claim to fame: Certified important intangible folk culture asset
The Hetomato Festival is a curiously mishmashed little beastie. It’s basically a procession from one shrine to another, with a little bit of everything in between.
All the events during the festival appear completely unrelated, and any significance they have, whether singly or together, seem lost even to the locals. Ritual sumo matches? Check. A match of hanetsuki while standing atop sake casks? Check. Random guys running around and smearing charcoal on people? Check!
The highlight of the Hetomato Festival has to be the finale. A giant zouri slipper is shouldered by several men and the procession heads for Shiroyama Shrine. The fun bit? Girls and young women encountered along the way are heaved into the slipper and given a few good tosses before they are let go.
Recommended for: People who like variety.
#2 Kasedori Festival (カセ鳥)
Where: Kaminoyama City, Yamagata
When: February 11th
Why: Thriving business and safety from fire
This festival gets its name from the bird-shaped straw coats that the participants wear. Or at least they’re supposed to resemble birds, but I honestly just don’t see it.
Anyway, the Kasedori Festival dates all the way back to the Edo period, and used to be a type of New Year festival. For some reason, people stopped celebrating it in the late 1800s, but in 1959 it was revived and reinvented as a festival for thriving business and fire safety.
The heart of this festival is a procession that starts at Kaminoyama Castle and moves around the city. During the procession, the participants chant “Thriving business!” and “Beware of fire!” or break out into a distinctive kakkaka song. All the while, onlookers splash them with cold water – never mind that it’s the middle of winter!
Once the procession is over, there is celebratory sake all around, and the participants head off to an onsen for a well-deserved soak.
Recommended for: People with a sadistic streak.
#3 Marimo Festival (まりも祭り)
Where: Akan Lake, Hokkaido
When: October 8th-10th
Why: To conserve marimo
Claim to fame: Marimo are certified special natural monuments
Marimo are just round balls of algae – what makes them special is their rarity. It seems that the only significant natural colony left in the world is in Akan Lake, so not surprisingly, the official purpose attached to this festival is to conserve marimo.
Left: marimo at Akan Lake; Right: Marimokkori, Hokkaido’s marimo mascot.
The Marimo Festival is relatively new, and was held for the first time in 1950. It’s a three-day event, but the good stuff is on days two and three: several marimo are taken from Akan Lake, guarded overnight at the nearby Ainu village or kotan, and then returned to the lake. As you’ll see in the following video, there is an air of celebration throughout, with a lot of songs and traditional dances being performed:
Critics of this festival claim it was created just for tourism and money-making purposes, and I have to admit the nearby Ainu village does look kind of artificial: lots of souvenir shops, coffee shops and restaurants. But to be fair, all festivals and rituals were “just made up” at some stage, and I’m sure tourists drop coin at other festivals too.
Recommended for: Algae lovers and those interested in the Ainu.
#4 Hitori Zumo (一人相撲)
Where: Omi Island, Ehime
When: May 5th and September 9th
Why: Abundant harvest and giving thanks
All right, this one’s for all you mime fans out there. The name, literally “one person sumo,” says it all, really. Don’t confuse it with the yojijukugo though!
A sumo ring is set up on the grounds of Oyamazumi Shrine, and a lone sumo wrestler has a match with… air. Or ostensibly with with the spirit of the rice plant. It’s a three-bout match, and if the spirit wins two bouts, it promises that there will bumper crops for the year.
It looks like the sumo wrestler is giving it all he’s got, but say what you like, I still think it smells of match-fixing.
Recommended for: Mime enthusiasts.
#5 Paantu Festival (パーントゥ祭り)
Where: Miyako Island, Okinawa
When: Various times; depends on the location
Why: Ritual exorcism
Claim to fame: Certified important intangible folk culture asset
Once widespread throughout Okinawa, this festival now only survives on the remote Miyako Island for that selfsame reason. Not for too much longer, though – most women now prefer having jobs instead of becoming priestesses. So if you want to go, the time is now.
Some people believe this festival has its roots in Papua New Guinea because of the distinctive wooden mask with the slit eyes and long nose.
There are at least two locations on the island where the Paantu Festival is still held. In Hirara City, paantus are celebrated as the bringers of joy. In this version, the paantus are three young men covered in leafy vines and mud from a certain spring. They run amok getting mud on other people, and in doing so chase away any evil spirits that might be near.
In contrast, in the Ueno version of the Paantu Festival, the paantu is considered evil. Priestesses bedecked in palm leaves and armed with camphor sprigs shout, “Hoi, Hoi!” and ritualistically henpeck the paantu out of town.
Recommended for: People who don’t mind getting dirty.
I hope the five festivals I’ve covered in today’s post has piqued your interest for Japan’s lesser-known festivals. Which ones did you like? Which would you be interested in going to?
If you’ve attended one of these festivals, tell us what you thought about it in the comments! Or if there’s a festival you think I should have covered, let me know and maybe I’ll write about it in a future post.
※ Dates for some of these festivals are based on the lunar calendar.
※ Although natural colonies of marimo are rare, they are also sold in souvenir shops nowadays.