I fell in love with the Japanese folk festivals/fairs (matsuri) as soon as I saw my first one. First of all it’s the colors of the clothes: bright and lots of them in stark contrast to the normal everyday Japanese clothes (I mean the mandatory dark suits for both men and women working in the various companies, the uniform of the “sarariman” and the “office lady”). Then it’s the styling of the clothes: invariably they are linked to the Edo period, a time in the Japanese history that I’m particularly fond of and interested in. Hachimaki headbands, wide obi sashes, tabi socks, waraji sandals, hanten coats, adorned with coats of arms and symbols of various guilds and neighborhoods, fundoshi loincloths and various accessories like fans and tobacco pouches all point out to an era long gone but still very well present.
Also it’s the music: mostly drums and flutes with the occasional shamisen here and there, pounding very old rhythms and helping the palanquin (omikoshi) carriers, the heart and soul of most matsuri, to handle the extremely heavy portable shrines in and out of the narrow streets of the city or town. And it’s the omikoshi themselves, somber and loud at the same time, with gold phoenix and dragon ornaments, mirrors and ceremonial rope (shimenawa) and lightning-shaped stripes of paper (shide) –that many matsuri are related to Buddhism doesn’t mean that Shinto doesn’t have its place in them. At least not in the unique blend of beliefs and faiths that is Japanese religion.
Above all, though, is the sense of togetherness that binds both the members of the matsuri crews and the communities as a whole. And this togetherness is expressed loudly, drunkenly and laughingly, completely defying the image of the Japanese as a sober, gloomy even people. In the matsuri these same people sing, dance and run half-naked in the streets, push and pull one another, joke, drink, eat and carry their guardian spirits on their shoulders from the shrine or temple and back, in the hope that the spirit with help them face the challenges of everyday life; what really gives them the strength to face these challenges though, is not the spirit that inhabits the omikoshi but the communal spirit that gets stronger with each matsuri.
PS: The picture is from the Sanja Matsuri in Asakusa; probably Tokyo’s biggest matsuri.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.