Festivals in Japan: loud, vivid, vibrant

Japan at its liveliest: get caught up in festival fever


International travel
FOR ALL AGES: And when it is all over, like kids everywhere, these young dancers take a roadside seat.

FOR ALL AGES: And when it is all over, like kids everywhere, these young dancers take a roadside seat.

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Japan has more festivals than almost any other country. These high-energy 'matsuri' are often spectacular.

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WE were caught up in the colour, noise and energy of a centuries-old annual festival (matsuri) in the northern Japanese city of Aomori on the main island of Honshu.

We joined in, lustily chanting "rassera, rassera" to the rhythm of the massive drums. Who cared what it meant - maybe something like "let's go". It was just great to be part of the exuberant spectacle.

Japan has more festivals than almost any other country. Its high-energy matsuri - in all their colour, tradition, and exuberance - are often spectacular. It is Japan at its liveliest.

Festivals vary widely depending on the occasion but almost always involve spirited processions of participants vigorously chanting and dancing, and bearing huge, intricately-decorated omikoshi (portable shrines), lanterns or floats.

Aomori's Nebuta Matsuri festival is one of Japan's most visually striking and thought to have originated as a fire festival. It lasts several days in early August when the streets of Aomori, at other times a sleepy seaside city, come alive with breathtakingly vibrant floats.

POETRY IN MOTION: The dancers move in perfect unison.

POETRY IN MOTION: The dancers move in perfect unison.

Up to 80 floats, depicting imposing gods, warriors, kabuki actors, animals and even television celebrities, parade in the streets. Made with washi (Japanese paper), hideous characters in bold colours stare back at us. Stuff of nightmares. Each is carried by a team of at least 20 men.

Festival-goers are invited to join in the lively street procession of dancers, provided they wear the traditional haneto dancers' costume (readily available to buy or rent throughout the city).

The floats take up to a year to build. In fact, one nearby village is a full-time centre for making them. There's fierce competition among neighbourhood groups to win the prize for the best float. Points are given for the quality of the float, how well it is paraded and the quality of its band.

Later, the best floats take to the harbour for a final night show when tens of thousands of locals and visitors sit around the harbour watching them parade on the water. Mounted on barges, backlit by generators, the winning floats glide past us as the sun sets.

Accompanying are groups of dozens of dancers, taiko drummers who set the pounding rhythm, and flautists, while hand cymbals give a clanging sound so strongly associated with the festival. The noise is deafening and powers the dancers long into the night.

We'd prepared ourselves by earlier visiting Aomori's Nebuta Wa-Rasse Matsuri museum (entry $10 adult) to get a close look at some of the enormous floats and to discover how craftsmen turn paper, wood and wire into these monsters. They begin work on the next year's floats immediately after each festival.

The final night also features a fireworks display over the harbour.

Princess Cruises has designed a cruise itinerary to take in five of the best of Japan's festivals.

As we circled Honshu, our home for 18 days was the comfortable and friendly Diamond Princess. The genial Italian captain Gennaro Arma sets his crew a high standard for friendliness and efficiency.

The cruise is becoming a popular August regular. It was good each night to get back to the relative peace of the ship after a day ashore of festival chaos and noise. (My special treat was sitting, naked, in the on-board Japanese bathhouse watching as we sailed out of Yokohama harbour!)

OGRE TO YOU: A figure featured on one of the floats in the Aomori festival in northern Japan.

OGRE TO YOU: A figure featured on one of the floats in the Aomori festival in northern Japan.

A matsuri is also one of the best places to sample an incredible array of unique, casual, and seasonal Japanese foods. Surprisingly, street food stalls are not common in Japan. However, they come out in big numbers for festivals.

We strolled a street of food stalls, or yatai, offering everything from sushi, to fried octopus to chicken kebabs.

Akita, facing west on the Sea of Japan, is also in the mountainous north of Honshu and is home to hot springs and the famous Kanto Matsuri, a festival no less noisy or dynamic than Aomori's.

Here participants manipulate 12-metre-high bamboo poles carrying up to 46 paper lanterns and weighing up to 50kg. The swaying lanterns look like ears of rice.

It has been held annually for 260 years to ward off bad luck, perform ablutions and pray for bountiful harvests. It is thought to have originated in a Buddhist event for warding off midsummer diseases and evil spirits.

Their chanting, "dokkoisyo, dokkoisyo", together with drums and flutes played by women and girls, resonates down the streets lined with thousands of onlookers. At night the 10,000 or so lanterns are lit from inside with candles.

Performers - men and boys only - deftly balance the poles on the palm of one hand, forehead, shoulders and even hips in a display which, they say, involves 40 per cent strength and 60 per cent technique. Each is performed for 30 seconds, using only one hand. Bearers are said to train daily.

Youngsters join in with cut-down versions of the poles and lanterns. Kanto-bayashi, or festival music, is played at top volume accompanying each group.

Kochi's Yosakoi Festival is a much more recent addition to the festival circuit. It was started in 1954 to help boost an ailing local economy. About 190 teams from across Japan, totalling almost 20,000 dancers, take part in the four-day event. We've bought our front row seats at the venue for about $20, for the final night.

Again, we've prepared by visiting the Kanto museum to get a close look at the poles and lanterns - and even tried lifting and balancing one.

Creative and energetic dances, unique costumes, music and choreography envelop the numerous venues where dancers of all ages, many using wooden clappers to add to the deafening noise produced by ghetto-blasters, work up a sweat.

Another old festival is the Awa Odori (Awa Dance), which originated in rural Tokushima on the southern island of Shikoku, about five hours by train from Tokyo.

It is believed to date back to the late 16th century when the feudal lord of Awa held a giant celebration at the opening of Tokushima Castle. After imbibing throughout the night, the attendees are said to have begun drunkenly singing and dancing, while musicians played a simple, syncopated beat. This became a lively annual event, and one of Japan's most fun-loving matsuri.

The festival features fantastic traditional costumes, a dynamic (if stylised) dance, and highly energetic singing, chanting, and instrumentation. More than anything, it's at its core a very friendly and colourful dance competition.

The procession is comprised of teams of dancers. Each has its own unique costumes and spin on the traditional dance. The atmosphere is party-like, and the dance is known as the "fool's dance". The lyrics say it all: "The dancers are fools, and the people watching are fools. Since everyone is a fool, why not dance!"

Again, you can buy tickets at the main venue - about $25 for an adult - in a reserved seat.

The writer travelled at his own expense.

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