Taking part in a Japanese festival

Japanese festivals – matsuri - are an important part of life in Japan. You will find them in every region of the country during every season of the year. But the best time for catching matsuri is undoubtedly in summer, when festivals are so plentiful that it’s not uncommon to come across them by chance as you travel through the country. Even in Tokyo, a haven for fashion trendsetting, young people are seen on the underground heading off to fireworks festivals and other matsuri in yukata, a sort of light cotton kimono. Yet amongst the thousands of matsuri, there a handful that stand out among the rest. One such matsuri is the 350 year old Fukagawa Matsuri.

Fukagawa Matsuri from above

The great Fukagawa Matsuri!

Once every three years this huge water throwing festival is held in downtown Tokyo. Over 100,000 people gather to watch as 53 mikoshi (portable shrines) weighing from around 2 tons to 4.5 tons are boisterously carried 8 kilometers through local neighborhoods on the shoulders of men and women in traditional costume. This alone would be a site worth coming to Japan for but what makes this festival particularly special is the fact that water is being thrown on to the shrines as they slowly move through Tokyo’s streets. While some of this comes in the form of children with buckets and water pistols, the fire department also joins in at tens of locations to dowse the participants with fire hoses!

Our mikoshi being "cleansed" by some of Tokyo's finest!

Our mikoshi being “cleansed” by some of Tokyo’s finest!

Here is a brief description of what it is like to participate in one of Tokyo’s three “great” festivals. I awoke at 4:30am and took the train to Monzennakacho, a station that is truly at the heart of the Fukagawa Matsuri. Although there was no traffic at this early hour, there was plenty of activity. Hundreds of locals could be seen scurrying around the streets in their happi Japanese tops, white shorts and split-toed shoes. As not just anyone can participate in the festival, I was met by the family who gave me the “introduction” to partake. Each of the giant mikoshi (portable shrines) is associated with a particular district of the local area. There are 53 in total.

Dressed for the festival

After quickly changing in to my costume I gathered with the other participants and we ate onigiri – rice balls with different fillings – and got ready for the days event. At 7:30am we moved down the street to where the mikoshi for our district was set up and waiting for us (see below).

Mikoshi

We carried this float 8 kilometers through Tokyo and back to the local neighborhood.

As our turn came, around 40 of us heaved the 2 ton float up on to our shoulders and began the 8 kilometer walk through Tokyo. Slowly marching through the streets as we chanted “washoi!!” and bounced the float up and down. But what really made this festival a day to remember was the water that was poured on our mikohsi – and us! – as we walked about. Kids and adults alike splashed us from all angles. Any spectator is able to join in on this aspect of the matsuri and so the day ends up feeling like a giant water fight!

IMG_1480Water!

At splash stations like the one above we lift the mikoshi above our heads so that other participants can drench the mikoshi and us below with cold but refreshing water. But the 53 shrines being paraded around are not the only thing that this festival has going. There are multiple places where traditional Japanese music is being played and even several large taiko drumming areas where the loud drums set the pace of the chanting of the shrine bearers like myself. In order to show respect to the musicians we lift the mikoshi above our heads as we pass. There are also floats along the route selling beer and shaved ice for the onlookers, those of us carrying the shrine have to wait till the afternoon.

Taiko drummers at one of many stations along the festival route.

Taiko drummers at one of many stations along the festival route.

We all take turns carrying the float and there is a morning rest stop and a midday break for lunch but even so by the afternoon my shoulders are bruised and battered. And my feet are sore from the massive weight crushing down on them.

Yours truly at the head of the pack. My shoulder and arms sore from a long but fun day.

Yours truly at the head of the pack. My shoulder and arms sore from a long but fun day.

Of course, my personal favorite part of the matsuri is after we finish and I can sit down with my friends for a few well deserved beers.

A long time friend. The man who allowed me to partake in the festival treated me to lots of shochu and beer after we finished. He also brought me some Otoro tuna sashimi from Tsukiji Fish Market to help replenish all the energy spent walking through Tokyo's cordoned off streets.

A long time friend. The man who allowed me to partake in the festival treated me to lots of shochu and beer after we finished. He also brought me some Otoro tuna sashimi from Tsukiji Fish Market to help replenish all the energy spent walking through Tokyo’s cordoned off streets.

Seeing matsuri in Japan is truly a “once in a lifetime” type experience. The friendly and fun-loving nature of such festivals ensures that all are welcome. Aside from some fantastic pictures, you are likely to go home with some new friends as well!

There are thousands of festivals all over japan throughout the year. You may just stumble across a small festival on your travels in Japan, but if they are on and we know about them, we can help you catch a Japanese festival during your trip.

 

Making Sunday very special in Bristol

Here at the Bristol office of InsideJapan Tours we had our very own mini matsuri on Sunday 7th September at Bristol’s Make Sunday Special event. We donned our yukata and jinbei, and with the help of our local friends Yume Kitchen and Kagemusha Taiko set about sharing Japanese culture with the good people of Bristol.

Make Sunday Special

Yuki & James running the chopstick challenge whilst Yume Kitchen get the sushi rolling

Throughout the day, we had performances and workshops from Devon-based Kagemusha Taiko, sushi-making demos and tutorials from Bristol’s own Yume Kitchen, origami lessons, and the mighty chopstick challenge (picking up dried adzuki beans with shiny chopsticks – a challenge indeed!).

Kagemusha Taiko

Kagemusha Taiko

Kagemusha Taiko workshop

Kagemusha Taiko workshop

Making sushi with Yume Kitchen

Making sushi with Yume Kitchen

We chatted about Japan with anyone and everyone who stopped by, and it was wonderful to see how many local people have an interest in Japanese culture and travelling to Japan. Some had already been to Japan, for others it was a lifelong dream, and some just really enjoyed making origami!

Proud paper folders!

Proud paper folders!

InsideJapan Tours has customers from all over the world, and we’re happy to communicate with you all by any possible means, but there’s nothing like a face-to-face conversation. Make Sunday Special was a really good chance for us to meet some great people from the great city of Bristol and talk Japan to all who have an interest in learning a bit more about Japan and it’s unique culture   – thanks for coming along, and we hope to see you at the next event!

J-Pop and Going on a HYPERJAPAN Tour

Way of the Samurai(photos by Ken Francisco)

Our inaugural HYPERJAPAN J-Pop and Go! tour was a great reminder that even going back to places that I’ve visited a dozen or more times can bring unexpected experiences, new surprises and untold amounts of fun! Working with the folks at HYPERJAPAN, we created a tour for people with as much energy as a Japanese anime character. We trounced from Buddhist temple to maid cafe, from the insanity of the Robot Restaurant to the quietude of a traditional Japanese garden. We learned about geisha culture from one of the world’s foremost experts and we were taught Zen meditation from a Buddhist monk but we also dressed up in kimono for a samurai sword lesson and slept in a capsule hotel! Although you’ll read about the Japan as the land of contrasts in any and every guidebook, there has surely never been a tour where these contrasts are juxtaposed so vividly. If you’re interested in the full spectrum of Japanese culture, 10 days on this tour will have knowing more about Japanese pop culture than most people who stay for 6 months.

Men at work

KaraokeHiroshima Bay

Luckily I don’t need to ramble on about how good everything was because Kenneth Francisco – a skilled photographer and a passenger on the very first tour – has been kind enough to let us use his images for an exploratory journey through a few highlights of this great tour. Arigatou Ken!

MarioKiyomizu, Kyoto

Manga and Maids

At our visit to the maid cafe (pictured above) we sang songs, performed “magic” to enhance the deliciousness of our cute and cuddly meals and even had a birthday celebration for a very embarrassed young man! But in Kyoto we got to experience old Japan by visiting several UNESCO World Heritage Sites and rubbing elbows with many kimono clad locals. Walking through the romantic old buidlings in the geisha district on a quiet and warm spring night was the highlight for a couple who came on the tour for their honeymoon. For a few others, the maid cafe and capsule hotel came in with the top ranking!

Tour leader, Tyler

 

Romantic Dear

Life size anime

Miyajima Tori

In these shots Ken has caught me explaining sankinkotai with the picture of a samurai and also managed to find a couple of romantic deer whispering sweet nothings to one another on Miyajima island, the home of the massive floating Torii gate – although that only applies when the tide is in! But my personal favorite is Ken posing with Goku from Dragon Ball Z.

Osaka Castle

okonomiyakiCup noodles

We had great weather throughout this tour, as can be evidenced by the clear views from Osaka castle (above) and of Mt. Fuji (below). The shot on the left shows our okonomiyaki being grilled right in front of us in Hiroshima while the picture on the right is from the Ramen Museum in Osaka, where we got to design and make our very own Cup of Noodles to take home with us as a souvenir. I can’t speak for the rest of the group but mine were delicious! ;)

Fuji from Hakone

Sushiiii

Tsukiji fish market

Conveyor belt sushi in Kyoto is always a favorite on my tours but it couldn’t top the amazing stuff we had at the famous Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo! Our small group took up the entire restaurant.

Serious tour leader time

Karaoke tour leader time

Lets sing!

Bullet Train Bento

Showing my serious, and not-so-serious, sides above; no trip to Japan is completely without one crazy night of karaoke and a delicious bento box on the bullet train!

Deadly ladies

Samurai

I lost

Here we are learning the techniques of the samurai and looking very good in the process. These girls would give Uma Thurman a run for her money any day! Just ask Jeff, seen above before and after his bout with his spouse.

Capsule Hotel

 

Zen moments in Kyoto

Crazy Robot Restaurant, Toyko

And what better way to finish off than with pictures from three of my own personal favorite experiences from this great and varied tour. Here’s our capsule hotel, our Zen meditation session and the crazy but hilarious visit to the Robot Restaurant!

More HYPERJAPAN J-Pop & Go! to come….

 

 

Sumo Wrestling History

sumo wrestling history Sumo Wrestling History

While Sumo, Japan’s national sport dates back 2000 years, it didn’t begin to flourish as a spectator sport until the early 1600s.  Sumo is a full contact sport, where 2 wrestlers, known as Rikshiki compete to force one another out of the ring. While sumo has evolved throughout the centuries, today’s sumo still retains some of the traditions of ancient Japanese tradition.

Today’s rishiki still perform pre-bout ceremonies that are steeped in the tradition of Shinto, Japan’s native religion. Shinto traditions include ceremonies and rituals as opposed to a definite belief system or code of ethics; sumo was performed during festivals to entertain the gods.

Symbolic References to Shinto

  • The canopy that is above the ring resembles the roof seen on a Shinto shrine.
  • The sand covering the clay of the ring is a symbol of purity.
  • Each corner of the canopy has four tassels. Each tassel represents the four seasons.
  • The purple bunting around the roof represents the drifting of clouds and season rotation.
  • Cuttlefish, chestnuts and kelp are placed in the ring, as well as prayers for safety.
  • The referee uniform closely resembles a Shinto priest’s traditional robe.

The Sport of Sumo Wrestling

Only the bottom of the rikishis’ feet can touch the floor. The first rikishi to have any other part of his body touch the floor or that exits the ring, loses.

Practice sessions begin right before and during major tournaments. During these practice bouts in the makeshift ring, the winner remains in the ring until another rikishi beats him. After a bout ends, all the rikishi rush into the ring, in the hope of becoming the winner’s next opponent.

Sumo Moves

Chon-gake

Tip opponent’s right ankle with the right leg or left ankle with left leg and then push him down.

Hataki-komi

Pull opponent down to the ring using his head, shoulders or neck.

Gassho-hineri

Grip the opponent’s head using both hands and twist him down.

The Bout Begins

As the actual bout begins, the two rikishi spend a few minutes before their match scaring away demons by lifting their legs high in the air and then stomping. Each rikishi also throws salt into the ring and around his body. This practice is done to protect him from injuries.

After the Final Bout

The bow twirling (yumi-tori) ceremony is performed by a rikishi who has a makushita, the third highest, rank. True fans of sumo will remain seated until this ritual is completed.

A Cultural Experience

Sumo wrestling history offers insight into the Japanese culture. Because many of the aspects of sumo remain the same, sumo is more than just a sport; it offers a living example of the traditional Japanese culture.

When and Where

There are six major tournaments a year. These tournaments take place in cities all over Japan.

The tournament sites and months are:

  • January – Tokyo
  • March – Osaka
  • May – Tokyo
  • July – Nagoya
  • September – Tokyo
  • November – Fukuoka

The 5 Most Beautiful Places in Japan: The Perfect Japanese Honeymoon

Planning a romantic getaway after marriage does not necessarily mean going to traditional favorites. Japan has some of the most scenic and beautiful places in the world, particularly during the spring, when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom.

Matsushima Bay

For beach lovers or those who enjoy scenic views, Matsuhima Bay is an excellent place to visit on a honeymoon. The bay offers beautiful ocean views and is known for the pine islets that dot the shores and provide stunning greenery to the backdrop of the ocean.

Tokyo

Tokyo is one of the largest cities in Japan and it offers some of the best attractions for visitors. Take a day to explore the popular shopping areas of Ginza and Shinjuku. Catch a traditional show at a Kabuki Theater. Explore the cultural heritage by visiting the temples at Asakusa.

Tokyo has a wide range of activities to appeal to any honeymoon couple, regardless of personal hobbies or interests.

Kyoto

Kyoto is the former capital of Japan and one of the most beautiful places in Japan. Kyoto features stunning Zen gardens, amazing architectural features and ancient temples that give a peek into the history of the country.

kanagawa japan Kanagawa

Kanagawa is located in the middle of Yokohama and Kamakura prefectures, so it is a short distance away from Tokyo. That distance from the city provides the opportunity to see the beautiful nature and scenic views of Japan while visiting the temple with one of the largest Buddhist statues in the country.

Kanagawa not only features a large Buddhist temple, but also views of Mount Fuji and Hakone, which provides the opportunity to enjoy the hot springs, or onsen.

Shiretoko National Park

Shiretoko National Park is found near Hokkaido. It is an isolated peninsula, which provides the opportunity to see some of the unspoiled land and wild creatures that are native to Japan. Animals that are commonly seen in Shiretoko include bears, fox and deer.

Japan has a wide range of activities and stunning destinations that are perfect for honeymoon couples. The best place to enjoy a honeymoon in Japan will depend on personal interests because it is possible to find everything from shopping and cultural temples to unspoiled land that still has native wildlife.

Japanese festivals – Tug O War

Intrepid tour leader Richard Pearce likes to get involved in Japanese culture stuck out there in rural Japan. Here is one of his latest little adventures….A tug o war – Japan style….

 

Misasa

Misasa

At the invite of the town council, myself and a group of English teachers headed to Misasa, a beautiful spa town, to take part in a particularly special festival. Think tug-of-war, crazy Japanese style!

The name “Misasa” (三朝町) literally translates as “three mornings”.  This stems from the belief that if one was to spend three mornings in the town’s famous hot springs, all ailments will be cured. Nestled in a mountainous river valley, Misasa is one of my favourite places in this beautiful country. Bubbling, steaming spas, young couples wondering the streets hand in hand dressed in robes and wooden slippers, wonderful traditional architecture dating back hundreds of years, dragonflies skimming across the surface of the numerous natural springs… it all makes for a very ‘Japanese’ experience. The town’s festival is equally as special.

Ready for battle

Ready for battle

The Hanayu Festival has taken place every May for more than a hundred years and is essentially a time honoured battle of East v West. On the east of the river that bisects the town, are the farmers and other agricultural workers. On the west, are the other businesses owners, merchants and tradesmen. The festival takes place over two days, culminating in the grand finale, a tug of war, on the evening of the second day.

More than rope

More than rope

The rope however, is no ordinary rope. Constructed in two parts from branches of an unknown (to me!), freshly harvested tree, the final rope weighs a massive 4 tons and stretches about 80 metres! One of the most refreshing aspects of Japanese life, from an Englishman’s point of view, is the absense of the ridiculous health and safety culture we have in the West. Of course basic safety precautions are met, but if you take part in an event where injury is a possibility, you do so at your own risk. If someone is injured, no one thinks of suing whoever they possibly can. You just brush yourself down and deal with it.

Big rope

Big rope

On day one, not really knowing what to expect, we rocked up to the festival area to help make the rope. On arrival, we were all presented with a large cup of sake with which we were advised to drink with a pinch of salt. I was informed by the gentlemen pouring them out that they were for “health and safety purposes”. Now that’s more like it!! After a few hours of bashing and twisting, made less strenuous by the application of health and safety fluids, the ropes were ready. By sliding sturdy branches under it, the beastly rope was hoisted on to our shoulders and carried to their temporary resting places. Being tall is definitely not an advantage with this task, as the marks on my shoulders suggested. The scariest part of the whole process was when the ropes were dropped to the ground. Dropped at the head end first, it’s a matter of getting it off of your shoulders and getting out the way as quickly as possible. I escaped with a minor scratch down my back, much better than some unfortunate souls. However, no one will be seeking legal action.

Making the rope

Making the rope

On the second evening, after enjoying some grilled meat from the festival stalls and an impressive firework display, it was time for the main event. The two ropes were dragged into position and with great effort, joined together. Due to the huge bulk of the rope, the tug-of-war is more of a drag-of-war. On the starters mark, the battle commenced. About 20 minutes later and after much to-ing and fro-ing, my team, the east, emerged victorious. Traditional belief is that the east will have a good and productive year. I presume, for the farmers, the opposite is true. Exhausted, exhilarated and not a little bit sweaty, it was time to head to the hot springs to soak in the soothing waters and reflect on the evening’s exertions.

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A great experience and a great festival for the spectator.

Dr. Kanji – Japanese language master of mystery

Dr KAfter a long absence, the mysterious Dr. Kanji returns with musings about the Japanese language and comments on its use and evolution in the modern Japanese language that we can read, write and hear today ….but who is this doctor of the Chinese character?

The mystery of Dr Kanji is on a par with the whereabouts of Lord Lucan, who shot JFK and the man behind the mask of wrestling legend, Kendo Nagasaki. Perhaps we will never know….We hope to pick up the kanji comments from Dr Kanji every-now-and-then, but today the doctor talks about one popular character from early spring.

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One of the most popular events of the Japanese calendar is the coming of the cherry blossom or ‘sakura’. The tradition of ‘Hanami’ or flower viewing parties has been around for hundreds of years dating back to the Heian period (794-1185) when haiku would be written about the beautiful sakura petals. Although the blossom itself has not changed, the kanji character has evolved over the years.

Current kanji for sakura – 桜

Old kanji for sakura – 櫻

This old character consists of three parts – The characters for wood, shell and woman are all represented here.

In ancient China, people compared the beauty of cherry blossom fruits to that of a shell necklace around a women’s neck which is how the old kanji was created.

The most common sakura in Japan is that of the Somei Yoshino variety. Although it rarely produces fruit the pale blossom is considered the most beautiful and was developed as a hybrid plant by gardeners in the old Somei village (now part of Tokyo) during the Edo Period (1603-1868). The blossom front sweeps from the south through to the north from February in the subtropics to May in Hokkaido but the peak on main land Japan is in late March and earl April.

Another great insight to the crazy world of the Japanese language from the mysterious Dr. Kanji…until next time….we hope….

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