Katashina-mura hosts many festivals all year around. During the summer season the different parts of the village hold the ‘Mikoshi O-matsuri’ (o-matsuri = festival). Based on a religious Shinto tradition, the locals get together to parade around a miniature shrine called ‘mikoshi’. I am very happy to have had the opportunity of joining 4 out of the 5 lively mikoshi festivals in Katashina so far, namely in the Koshimoto-, Higashiogawa-, Hanasaku- & Kamata- area. These big neighbourly shenanigans are exceptionally fun and hence I want to share my amazing experiences with you.
Firstly, what is a mikoshi?
A mikoshi is basically a portable miniature Shinto shrine. It is a beautifully decorated palanquin that consists of traditional Japanese lacquer ware, metal- & wood-work. On the top of the roof there is a golden phoenix, called ‘ho-o’. This mythical bird is a symbol for fire, sun, justice, fidelity and peace. The mikoshi houses a kami inside; this is a Japanese Shinto deity, a divine supernatural being. The main body of the mikoshi is placed on 6 wooden poles. These poles are used to carry the mikoshi on the shoulders of the many bearers. You should know that a mikoshi is very heavy and it is hard work to carry it around the village – this act is not meant to be an easy one. Yesterday, I helped to carry the Kamata mikoshi – it was very heavy and quite painful… I even iced my shoulders as I got home last night, but it still hurts.
How does the festival proceed?
During the festival mostly men, dressed in white and yellow or blue ceremonial outfits, carry this valuable portable shrine by resting the poles on their shoulders and clinging onto them tightly. In this way the mikoshi is carried from its main shrine through the neighbourhood and back. Overall, it is very similar to a pilgrimage. Each area of Katashina has its own uniform; Koshimoto has yellow happy coats, Higashiogawa blue, Hanasaku purple and Kamata has white ones. However, the different areas get together at each festival to help with the carrying of the mikoshi, forming a colourful and energetic crowd.
What is the origin of the mikoshi o-matsuri?
To make the kami inside of the mikoshi happy, it is carried around the village once a year. The kami also enjoys being shaken and tossed around in the air – which explains all the painful but very fun shaking and throwing! As a result, the kami brings good luck to all the parts that it has been brought to. Furthermore, old tales say that it purifies the area of any sickness or misfortune.
Here is my personal experience:
On my 3rd day in Katashina I experienced my first mikoshi o-matsuri, in the Koshimoto-area. Upon my arrival in Koshimoto, a small Japanese towel was given to me that I had to tie around my head. Then another friendly face came up to me and pushed a plastic cup of beer and an o-nigiri in my hands. Together we observed the mass of people, the children passing by and carrying their mikoshi and then the adults with their mikoshi. Koshimoto, Higashiogawa and Kamata have one mikoshi especially for children and one for adults.
As I was happily absorbing the atmosphere, I was shoved into a free spot under the holy mikoshi. The men around me showed me how to correctly grab onto the wooden pole and joyfully sway along. Together we carried the heavy shrine on our shoulders, swaying it up & down and from left to right, while rhythmically chanting ‘wasshoi, wasshoi’ or ‘oisah, oisah’ – these are the sounds that refer to hard work… for example lifting something heavy.
The team was navigated and motivated by several leaders. One of them was walking in front of us, hitting two wooden blocks together to create a beat for the carrying and chanting. Similarly someone else was blowing on a whistle to maintain a rhythm in the chanting and in the steps. Others walked around the mikoshi, sometimes pushing it in the right direction or helping out if someone needs a break from the heavy load.
After having carried the shrine for a few minutes, we came to a rest. However, before resting our shoulders, all at once the men started tossing and shaking the mikoshi. I had to get up on my tippy toes and grab on tightly to the pole to join the wild movement and to not get hurt. It is very important to tightly hold onto the pole, especially when the mikoshi gets thrown in the air – you have to try and stick to it otherwise it will bump up and down on your shoulder… ouch!
We then slowly and carefully placed the mikoshi onto a stand. Again people walk around handing out food and drinks. People greeted me and gave me ‘high 5s’, being happy that I was helping them with the carrying and joining their proud tradition. This friendly and lively vibe was very welcoming!
Then the bell rang and everyone grabbed onto the mikoshi again. After carrying the heavy shrine on the shoulders for a bit – there was another rest. Normally, the matsuri starts at around 2pm and continues until 9pm, including plenty of breaks. The people drink alcoholic beverages in the breaks so the crowd gets louder and funnier as time passes by.
The Hanasaku matsuri was a bit different. First of all they were not carrying a mikoshi but they had a so called ‘mando’. This is a type of wagon that is pushed around, also with the help of wooden poles. The mando is decorated with a playful character on top which changes every year. This year it carried ‘Funasshi’ from Chiba. The reason for this festival is the same, just that they way of transporting the kami differs. The Hanasaku o-matsuri was the smallest one I went to.
Nevertheless, last night I joined the Kamata festival and it was the biggest one I had seen so far. It started later than the others, namely at 18:00, so most of the festival was in the dark. As a result the neighbourhood had lit up beautiful lanterns. As I was helping in the kitchen of the Umedaya Ryokan, which is my homestay’s traditional Japanese hotel, I heard the drums in the distance. I wiped my hands on my apron and together with my host mother, in her kimono and her clicking ghetas, holding onto the hand of her youngest grandson, we ran towards the shrine to watch the Oze-Taiko group perform.
Being surrounded by the mass of people in their happy coats & yukatas, the dimmed light of the lanterns, the 2 majestic mikoshis on their stands, the diffusing smells of food & drinks, the kakigori cups (shaved ice covered in syrup) and the loud powerful beats of the Taiko (Japanese drums) – I was completely absorbed in this beautiful traditional Japanese summer festival. As I was standing there I felt like during my first 2.5 weeks here I had learnt so much about Katashina-mura and its people that I was not a real stranger anymore.
The Kamata mikoshi o-matsuri being the biggest has 2 mikoshis one for males and for females. Chi-bo san, the boss of the women’s mikoshi is the sister of my host-mother. Thirty years ago, Chi-bo san and her friends formed the women’s mikoshi in Katashina (and Tone Numata Area), called Himematoi.
Chi-bo san came towards me and asked me to help them carry the mikoshi. I was of course keen and had been looking forward to this festival all along. So there I was again, resting the heavy load of the small beautiful shrine on my shoulders, staring up at the phoenix that was happily shaking its golden metal wings along with the movement of our steps. Together we were chanting, cheering and sweating in the humid Japanese night. I helped to carry the mikoshi all the way back to its shrine, where the kami received one last and very long shake, before it was finally put down again. What a great feeling!
Joining these mikoshi festivals have been such a great experience it is such a fun and exciting way to immerse yourself in the culture & community – especially in the friendly community of Katashina village. It is unbelievable how Japan is so rich in culture and it has so much to discover.
I have even been invited to join the next women’s mikoshi o-matsuri in the neighbouring Numata city! But first of all, I really hope to join the last matsuri in the Takura area! – See you there?!