Festivals, or “matsuri” are popular events, most often in summer and fall, in cities, towns and villages throughout Japan. The word “matsuri”means both Festival and Worship. Japanese deities (“kami”) are believed to preside over all things and festivals are held during the year to keep the good will of the kami, for a good harvest, protection against drought, or even to commemorate historical events.
The first step in the matsuri is the arrival of the kami food and sake are offered at the local Shinto shrine. Next is the parade of the kami through the village streets to the centre of the festivities. The kami is moved by means of a “mikoshi” or portable sacred palanquin. The mikoshi consists of a roof, a body, and a stand and may be lacquered in black with metal decorations. There is a golden phoenix on the top of the roof or alter which indicates that the kami is inside. It is said that the origins of the mikoshi go back to the Nara period when the kami of the Hachiman Shrine in Kyushu were invited to Nara to oversee the construction of the famous giant statue of Buddha at Todaiji in 749. It became popular in the Heian period to carry the mikoshi to purify the land around the temple during the annual festival. The mikoshi, on its way through the village, is carried by a group of young men, and more recently also by young women. The bearers are supposed to amuse the kami by carrying the mikoshi in a zigzag pattern, swaying and pushing it up and down. They are often accompanied by a procession of priests and people dressed in traditional costume, who support the bearers with fans, cries of “wasshoi wasshoi”, and sprays of water or sake to cool them. Often smaller mikoshi may be carried by children in separate processions. In some festivals, mikoshi of several shrines are brought together. In others, the mikoshi is carried into the river for a ceremonial washing.
Some of the most well-known summer matsuri are the Gion Festival in Kyoto and the Sanja Matsuri of Tokyo.