Matsuri Madness: David Weber

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Discover a different side of Japan that you have never known.  David Weber shares his personal Matsuri experience and takes you to the world of Matsuri all around Japan.David delves deep into the historical, cultural, and spiritual roots of Japanese festivals offering a unique insight and understanding. Some festivals he has visited are very unique but unknown even to many Japanese.

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About This DigiLetter

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Start: June 2015
Distribution: 2nd and 4th Friday of the month

Interview with David Weber

Read David’s interview below and learn what you can expect from “Matsuri Madness: David Weber

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- What inspired you to pursue writing about Japanese festivals? Have you been involved in any activities concerning festivals? Was there perhaps a definite turning point in your life that led you here? Please provide specific examples.

I stumbled upon Japanese festivals quite by chance. I originally came to Japan simply because I liked traveling and living abroad. At first I had little knowledge or even interest in Japan. It was just a place in a part of the world I had not yet visited. While in Japan I began to become interested in the history and subsequently traditional culture. However, I still knew very little about festivals except for some famous ones in my guidebook and ones going on around me. I went to a few of the traditional type festivals with the mikoshi (portable shrines) but they hadn’t really filled me with the matsuri madness I have now.

That all changed when I came across a book in a souvenir shop put out by JTB a travel agency. It was an illustrated book with brief summaries of festivals going on all around Japan throughout the year. What seized my attention were the festivals of people in samurai armor which related to historic events and people. I bought the book immediately and from then on became obsessed with festivals. One of the first festivals in the book that I went to was Soma Nomaoi in Fukushima Prefecture. There they have a 3-day festival where participants wear samurai armor and parade around. The second day is the best when they have a 2 hour parade of armored riders followed by a series of races where the riders wear their armor sans the helmet and have standards on their back. At the end they do a free-for-all on horseback as they try to catch streamers as they come down after being fired up into the air. I like the festival so much I went back two other times.

Knowing about the background of festivals – the history, culture, religion, people, etc.. – helped me appreciate the festivals more so while my language skills in Japanese are subpar at best, I have become more and more familiar with the history and culture of Japanese festivals and this information I like to pass on to others who might interested in seeing such events and understanding more about them.

- How do you define and achieve success? What, if anything, has proven instrumental to your success thus far (e.g., luck, effort, innate ability, networking)? Please provide specific examples.

I define success as being happy and content though with a desire to learn and experience more. With festivals this desire has certainly helped me get out to see them and to delve further into their backgrounds.

 - How do you envision the readers you expect to follow your DigiLetter, and what will inspire them to subscribe?

I envision people who are interested in travel, other cultures, history, and folklore and wanting to see and learn something new and different.

 - What is your motto? If you have a personal motto or an explicitly defined set of values, please write about what it is and how it came to be.

My motto is learn and experience and be tolerant toward other cultures and just don’t take anything too seriously in this life.

Read the full interview here.

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Matsuri Madness

“Dragons, griffins, reptiles, fishes, birds there are, all dancing, waving fans, shouting, howling, singing, noising, in one form or another, in chorus perfectly bewildering.”

- Amy Michael-Carmichael, American Missionary to Japan, 1895.

It could be said that on almost any given day of the year there is likely to be a festival of some sort going on somewhere in Japan. Just about every city, town, village, and hamlet seems to have their own festival. Festivals known in Japanese as matsuri vary in size, purpose, activity, and origin. Some can take up no more than one street of a few dozen people while others can cover whole cities attracting hundreds of thousands. Some festivals go back centuries and others only a few years ago. Some festivals have giant illuminated floats, some have portable shrines known as mikoshi, some have geisha dances, and some have re-enactments of famous samurai battles of the past. Whatever their roots, activities, and style a Japanese matsuri should be a must-see for any visitor short or long term.

Matsuri is a chance to see a different side of Japan. Living in and visiting major Japanese cities can give one a false sense of complacency, tedium, and a lack of traditional culture. All that changes when a matsuri hits. Dull overworked salarymen and office ladies are suddenly transformed into energetic dancing madmen. The energy that comes off of these events is contagious and more importantly revitalizing and in a country where people work long hours this is a necessity.

Matsuri Roots

“There is nothing to equal the festival of the fifth month, when the scents of the iris and the sage-brush mingle so charmingly.”

- Sei Shonagon, 10th Century Lady of the Imperial Court

The origin of Japanese Matsuri go back to the misty past and have their roots in the native Shinto religion. The earliest festivals revolved around agriculture and the blessings of the gods. Shinto gods and goddesses are for the most part a vague shadowy group but they’re a persnickety bunch who need to be honored and entertained regularly in order to obtain their blessings. “Matsuri” essentially means the visitation of the gods to the earthly realm. Portable shrines known as mikoshi are the vehicles for this visiting deities and these mikoshi are the most standard element of many matsuri and go back to the origins of the matsuri.

Agriculture can be said to be at the roots of much of the matsuri phenomenon. While the prehistoric hunting-gathering culture (Jomon - 12000BC-300BC) no doubt had rituals and festivals which have carried over, it was really agriculture particularly rice that created the quintessential matsuri we see today. One of the earliest festivals related to agriculture mentioned in ancient texts is Shinjosai which is a solemn ceremony of tasting the first rice.

The Yayoi Culture (300BC-300AD) introduced mass rice cultivation to Japan. Rice has long been an important crop in Japan for food, wealth, and power. Communities’ existence relied heavily on agriculture and given how farming is so much at the whim of nature gaining the blessings of deities to nudge the odds in a community’s favor was important.

Gods are invited down and “placed” in the mikoshi and paraded around the community carried by a selected group (in the past it was only men but now women also share in carrying mikoshi). In some festivals the mikoshi is carried solemnly but in many it is carried with a lot of jostling and shouting in order to entertain the deity. Apparently Shinto gods don’t suffer from motion sickness and have no problem drinking under such conditions (sake and liquids are common offerings at shrines) though the mikoshi bearers will often set their burden down to rest (and drink) and perhaps giving their divine passenger a chance to drink with them “in spirit.”

In the Edo Period (1603-1867) a time when the wars had ended and Japan was a secluded nation, matsuri really developed. Local merchant families vied with each other to make their district’s contribution to the local matsuri better than the other merchant families. This localized competition still exists today.

Different kinds of Matsuri

As mentioned, matsuri are of many various kinds with a wide range of activities. The standard matsuri as mentioned before involves carrying one or more mikoshi through a community.

Matsuri with daishi or floats is another common matsuri that can be seen in many places.  Most notable ones are Gion Matsuri in Kyoto where they have 2-story tall wooden carts draped with European tapestries and Nebuta of Aomori where they parade over a dozen giant illuminated floats of washi (hardened Japanese paper) and bamboo depicting characters from Japanese legends and history.

Procession festivals of Shinto clergy and historical figures are both old and new. One of the oldest procession festivals is Aoi Matsuri in Kyoto that goes back to the 7th Century. In recent times, historical parades have become very popular with national and local historical characters.

Winter festivals as one can image generally involves snow. Sapporo’s Yuki Matsuri is the most famous of these with sculptures carved out of towering monolithic blocks of snow. In Akita, hairy monsters known as Namahage come down from the snowy mountains on New Years to terrorize children into being productive members of society.

Fire festivals are a particular favorite of mine because who doesn’t like fire? These perhaps have their roots in an early past of the hunting-gathering culture of the Jomon people for whom fire was no doubt especially important. Fire festivals can be large torches of pine carried around a mountaintop by teams of nigh-naked men such as the Kurama Hi-no-Matsuri or Buddhist fire-walking festivals where anyone can participate and test their devotion.

Hadaka Matsuri are naked festivals though that is a misleading term. No one is naked as participants wear a loincloth known as a fundoshi and they are all male. These naked festivals typically occur in winter and often involve freezing water in order to make it all more machoistic and masochistic. Saidaiji Eyo is known as the naked fighting festival where half-naked men wrestle with each other to obtain lucky objects and some men have died in the process.

Fertility festivals get more than their fair share of interest due to their prominent guests of honor which is generally a large phallus. Kawasaki’s phallus festival has received international notoriety for its large upright pink phallus.

Lately battle re-enactment festivals have become popular. There’s at least three battle festivals for the Battle of Kawanakajima (1561) an indecisive but dramatic battle between two great warlords. One of the festivals features rock star Gackt.

Regardless of the kind of matsuri of it is, a visitor will find similar elements in all of them. Chief of those are the food stalls. A festival without at least one food stall is hardly a festival. Japanese love food as any visitor can quickly find out by switching on the TV. Food on a stick is all the rave at matsuri from grilled chicken, vegetables, chewy rice cakes, candied fruit, to choco-bananas.

Along with the food stalls are the merchant stalls selling a variety of goods but the most common are plastic masks for kids of popular TV and manga characters.

Like any carnival, there’s also game stalls to win prizes worth less than the money you paid to win them. One unique game found at almost every matsuri is Kingyo Sukui - goldfish catching game. Participants use a paper scooper and bowl to try and scoop up a fish without breaking the thin paper of the scooper. The winner wins – a fish.

Matsuri means fighting?

Fights are a by-product of the Neputa Festival.

- Ishizaka Yojiro (Japanese Novelist ) “My Days, My Dreams”

Japanese are a calm quiet people is something you’ll hear from visitors to Japan and from the Japanese themselves. At some festivals you see how thin that veneer of quietude really is. People dance, sing, drink, and fight.

Japan is a society of a lot of pressure and festivals apart from entertaining gods and praying for good harvests is the valve for releasing that stress. Releasing stress is very important in Japan which is why drunken behavior is as a whole generally overlooked.

At some festivals this stress-releasing can take the form of fights from individual brawls to practically gang warfare.

At Aomori’s Nebuta local groups dressed in black known as kurasu-no-hito used to fight amongst themselves and cause quite a bit of problem. When Nebuta started getting more tourists, the police cracked down on them and the blackclad persons have become more of a fashion statement than a fighting force.

In the past, fighting was more common place at festivals. The novelist Ishizaka Yojiro (1900-1986) recounted his boyhood days in Tohoku in the early 20th Century that fighting was normal during Hirosaki’s Neputa Festival.

“It’s usually around one or two in the morning that the fighting starts. Large units form and usually commence battle by throwing stones, but end up in fierce hand to hand combat, using swords and bamboo spears…We have not yet rid ourselves of the thirst for blood our ancestors of old satisfied by hunting and carnage.”

Katsu Kaishu was a revered statesmen of the Meiji Period (1868-1912) when Japan was shaking off the cobwebs of the past and embracing modernization. His father Kokichi however was not so respectable. Despite his samurai upbringing, he was a bit of a scalawag who got up to a number of shenanigans particularly at festivals.

“Hachiman Shrine is having a festival and so there’s sure to be a big fight”

so Kokichi wrote in his autobiography “Musui’s Story.” He and three of his friends engaged in a random fight at the festival and were later set upon by 50 pikemen from whom they barely escaped from (if the account is to be believed).

However, for the worried visitor fighting is not a thing to be troubled over especially with the vast number of police that even small communities unleash in order to over-manage the festivities. The likelihood to be involved in a fight is very very low. If anything, a fight is a rare thing to watch safely (gun ownership is very small) until the police inevitably break it up and remarkably without tazing, shooting, or beating the culprits.

Matsuri Madness – My Matsuri Experience

I first encountered Japanese festivals by accident. I knew they existed but I had little knowledge of them and at the time little interest. I had come to Japan with little prior knowledge of the history and culture. I mainly came for the sake of traveling alone. My first taste came from just stumbling upon a local matsuri after being in Japan several months.

One day trekking through the concrete jungle of Tokyo passing along one nondescript street after another, I turned a corner and ran smacked dab into another world. Bright paper lanterns illuminated the area, market stalls lined the street, and a crowd of people shouted and sang as they paraded up the street carrying a type of wood and metal box which I later learned was a mikoshi.

The whole experience was very different from my Japanese experience up to that point. Until then Japan seemed modern (depressingly so for someone who spent time in Egypt) but this unexpected meeting gave me a whole new perception. Here in the middle of otherwise normal modern street I was transported back to an earlier time. I could sense a depth to this event which I would later learn did stretch back thousands of year.

Despite this experience I was still a novice to all things Japan. I began studying the history of Japan but festivals were still on the periphery of my interests. Then one day I picked up a little pink book simply called “Festivals of Japan” published by JTB Travel agency. Inside were descriptions and dates of festivals and more importantly illustrations. From this book I learned there were all kinds of different festivals and more than a few were directly related to the history I had grown interested in.

So with that book’s information I began my first timid step into matsuri madness which has led me to over 100 festivals (about 150 last count) all over Japan. What began as a once-in-a-while jaunt has become almost a full time passion. Nearly every month I go to some kind of festival event somewhere in the country and I’m always on the lookout for new festivals.

The reason why I like festivals is rather simple – it’s a break from the everyday. I also like the historical element of many the festivals. Most of all though it’s the spirit of community that pervades the largest and smallest festival which I find most appealing. The original matsuri of the long ago past stripped of their ritual aspects were essentially community-building and re-building events to bind people together in happiness and harmony and even down the long ages into this cold modern world that spirit still lives on. It’s a nice connection with the past so whenever and wherever there is a matsuri whether new or old whether I have never seen or have seen a dozen times I will always make time for a matsuri.

Price: $5.00
Format: Text/HTML
Start: June 2015
Distribution: 2nd and 4th Friday of the month

Right now you can get this month’s DigiLetter issues for free. Subscribe anytime during the month and still receive all of the month’s issues. Cancel before the end of the month at no cost if you’re not satisfied.