7 Most Unusual Festivals Found Only in Japan

Category: Japan, Festivals

Japan is a land of festivity, with an estimated number of 200,000 festivals held in a year. So whenever you visit this amazing country, you'll find something being celebrated somewhere. Here I pick 7 of the most peculiar festivals (matsuri) of this nation, and hopefully can offer you some inspiration for planning your Japan trip and make it a fun and exciting experience.

 

1. Baby Crying Festival (Naki Sumo Matsuri)

Date: April

Location: Sensoji Temple, Tokyo

For most of us, crying babies can be annoying, not to mention enjoyable. But each year at Sensoji Temple in Tokyo, local parents bring their babies to take part in a crying contest, wishing to drive off demons so that kids can grow up happy and healthy.

Origin

This is a centuries-old tradition said to have originated from a bizarre proverb "Naku ko wa sodatsu", meaning "Crying babies grow fat". Another reason for this festival is the belief that crying out loud helps drive away demons that would cause harm. Though neither of these works, people still make their babies cry on this special day.

What you can expect

During the festival, parents give their babies to sumo wrestlers who will then try everything to make the babies cry. The baby who cries fastest, longest and loudest is declared the winner. Various methods are used to get the babies, including by pulling face, making noises, and jiggling the babies. If they still don't cry, there's the referee to speed up the process.

 The Fushimi Inar Shrine in KyotoMany traditional Japanese festivals are celebrated at or around Shinto shrines

 

2. Belly Button Festival (Hokkai Heso Matsuri)

Date: July 28 – 29 every year

Location: Furano, Hokkaido

Forano, located in the heart of Hokkaido, is not only a lovely town known for its lavender fields and ski resort, but also home to an intriguing summer event – the Belly Button Festival.

Origin

Unlike many other Japanese festivals, Belly Button Festival is a modern invention first celebrated in 1969. The festival was created for fun and bring together the local residents in Furano as the town is sparsely populated because of its mountains. It's called Belly Button Festival because Furano is located in the center of Hokkaido and the festival features belly button-themed dance.

What you can expect

A lot of things will go on during this two-day celebration. But the highlight is the belly button dance competition, in which thousands of dancers with their bellies painted with funny faces such as mustachioed clowns, animals and Japanese characters to compete for prizes.

Visitors from abroad can also apply to participate in the belly button dance free of charge. To take part, you need to do as the participants do, meaning to draw a funny face on your stomach and cover your real face with a straw hat or something similar. You don't have to bring anything as the festival committee will provide a belly button dance outfit which you can rent with a charge.

Contacts of the Belly Dance Festival Committee

Address: 076-8555 Commerce, Industry and Tourism Department, Furano City Hall, 1-1 Yayoi-cho, Furano, Hokkaido

Tel: 0167-39-2312 FAX: 0167-23-2123

E-mail: [email protected]

 

3. Cursing Festival (Akutai Matsuri)

Date: Third Sunday of December

Location: Mt Atago, Ibaraki

Swearing in public is generally considered impolite and not allowed in most cultures around the world. But on the third Sunday of December on Mt Atago in Ibaraki prefecture, people are encouraged to cuss.

Origin

The festival is said to have begun two hundred years ago during the Edo period. The workers in the garment industry, most of whom women, were stressed out, and longed for a break from the fatiguing task of making kimonos by hand. Thus they found a way to release their stress — cursing.

What you can expect

When the day of celebration comes, hundreds of people will take a 40-minute hike to Atago Shrine. As they make their way to the shrine, they swear at 13 priests who are walking in front of them and disguise as tengu, a disruptive demon with a big nose. The most popular phrases used to curse are "bakayaro" (idiot) and "konoyaro" (bastard). Before reaching the Atago Shrine, the tengus will stop by 18 smaller shrines to present their offerings while the crowd keep cursing and try to take the offerings. Those who get the offerings are blessed with good luck.

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4. Laughing Festival (Warai Matsuri/Nyu Matsuri)

Date: the second Sunday of October

Location: Nyu Shrine, Hidakagawa, Wakayama

Laughter is the best medicine. The locals in Hidakagawa have known this since 200 years ago. They have an annual laughing festival to cheer up a sad deity to bring them good luck.

Origin

According to a legend, a goddess named Niutsuhime no mikoto was laughed at by other gods because she overslept and thus was late for a meeting. She was so sad that she locked herself in the Nyu Shrine. The people in the village gathered around the shrine and wanted to cheer her up by laughing. Their laughter turned her grief into joy and she finally agreed to go out.

What you can expect

A parade led by the festival leader called the Suzu Furi (Bell Jingler) marks the beginning of the day-long celebration. Wearing a clown-like costume, holding a bell in his right hand and a treasure box in the left, the Suzu Furi leads the mikoshi (a portable shrine), the dancers and other participants to the Nyu Shrine, all of whom are shouting "warae, warae" (laugh, laugh). When they arrive at the shrine, they all laugh in unison.

 

5. Try-Before-You-Die Festival (Shukatsu Festa)

Date: September or December

Location: Ota City Industrial Plaza PIO, Tokyo (similar festivals are also held else in Japan)

We all seem to fear death to some extent, and some even avoid talking about it. But in Japan, an aged society, more and more people accept that death is a part of life. They even have a festival called Shukatsu, meaning "preparing for one's death". Obviously, they are no longer shy of talking about death.

What you can expect

During the festival, participants can sample their own funeral, preparing to say their last goodbye. For example, they can

    • try out funeral garments
    • lay down in the coffin
    • learn what to do with their belongings (e.g jewels, bags, clothing)
    • learn how to write ending notes.

 

6. The Penis Festival (Kanamara Matsuri)

Date: First Sunday in April

Location: Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture

Also known as "Festival of the Steel Phallus", the Penis Festival takes place every spring in Kawasaki, a city located between Tokyo and Yokohama.

Origin

Though the official festival was only hosted in 1969, it actually has a long history, dating back to the seventeenth century. Legend has it that a demon with sharp teeth was in love with a young woman who did not like him at all. The demon was jealous of the men who won her love. So he hid inside her vagina and bit off the penis of every man she slept with. Distraught, the woman asked a blacksmith for help. Finally, the blacksmith made a steel penis that broke the demon's teeth, which enabled the woman to live a normal life.

To honor this miraculous steel penis, people built a shrine named Kanamara Shrine. Since then, the shrine has been frequently worshipped by people who wish to have good health, fertility, and happiness. Today, the festival welcomes visitors of all kind, including LGBT people, offering a chance to celebrate diversity, inclusion and sex positivity.

What you can expect

1). The parade

You'll see people lining up to pray at the entrance of Kanamara Shrine, all sucking penis-shaped candies. In the streets of Kawasaki, men and women, drag queens and children dressed up in traditional costume carry floats and "mikoshis" (portable shrines). The three “mikoshis” you can't miss are “Kanamara Fune Mikoshi", the "Big Kanamara Mikoshi" and "Elizabeth" float, all of which begin and finish their tour at the shrine entrance.

Kanamara Fune Mikoshi: a traditional style float housing a large steel penis sculpture. Big Kanamara Mikoshi: a traditional style float housing a large penis sculpture made of wood Elizabeth float: a two-meter high pink phallus donated by the local drag queen club, and carried through the streets by drag queens.

This may seem a bit of sensory overload, but that's what makes the festival so much fun.

2). Penis-themed activities

You'll find a variety of fun things to do during the festival, such as trying to carve a penis-shaped radish, taking photos when riding a huge wooden penis.

 

7.The Naked Man Festival (Hadaka Matsuri)

Date: third Sunday in February

Location: Saidai-ji Shrine, Okayama (also elsewhere in Japan)

This is one of the craziest festivals you can ever find in the whole Japan. On one of the coldest nights of winter, some 10,000 men wearing nothing but a thin loincloth gather around Saidai-ji Shrine in Okayama, waiting for the priest to toss off sacred sticks called shingi. Those who get the sacred sticks are called lucky men and blessed with a year of happiness. Though the festival is celebrated nationwide with slight differences, the one in Saidai-ji is the largest and most famous.

Origin

Some people believe that the festival was born in Saidai-ji Shrine around five hundred years ago. Worshippers of the shrine competed to get paper charms from the priest at the end of the year because they believed good things would happen to them if they were lucky to receive one. Later, the priest found that paper charms were easily destroyed as the crowd all tried to catch them. As a result, they were replaced by sticks made of wood and bundles of willow that were more durable.

Another legend states that being naked could ward off evil forces and misfortune. Hence villagers would choose one "lucky" man to absorb all the misfortune. The man that was chosen would walk through the crowd naked. Then he would leave the village, together with all the bad luck, troubles, and illness of the villagers.

What you can expect

In the afternoon, groups of men in loin-cloth will jump into an icy pool for purification. Then at midnight, lights of the Saidai-ji shrine will be turned off, and the loincloth-clad men shove each other in the freezing temperature for more than an hour to compete for the lucky sticks that will be thrown by the priest. The winners are those who capture the sticks and push it into a box filled with rice called masu.

Tips:

    • Participants are restricted to men only. But it would also be fun to be a spectator and enjoy the atmosphere.
    • To ensure a good watching spot, you can book a seat in advance.

Don’t miss these interesting festivals if you happen to be in Japan, because it is a great time to travel like a local and understand its rich culture and tradition! Can't wait to see one of these events for yourself? Why not let one of our Japan travel specialist tailor-make an itinerary to make your dream trip a reality?

 

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