What Is an O-Matsuri, and Why Participate?

Updated: Apr 27, 2019

Growing up in Sendai, Japan, my first festival, or O-Matsuri in Japanese, was Tanabata, one of the most famous of over 200,000 festivals held in Japan each year. This photograph, taken by my father in the mid-1950's, shows the main street of Sendai adorned with tens of thousands of colorful handmade paper flowers and streamers overhead. As a little girl, the dazzling beauty of these decorations would be something I would never forget.

One of the best aspects of Tanabata is the story that inspired this festival, sparking a romantic notion that I still carry to this day, and is quintessentially Japanese. It is the tale of lovers who are cruelly separated, and lost to one another for eternity, they are given permission to meet only as stars in the night sky just once a year during the month of August. Stories of lovers prevented from staying together are a recurring theme in classical Chinese and Japanese literature, due to the strict class and regional mores of olden times. Although Japanese can now choose partners as they please, there is still a melancholy associated with romance that permeates the hearts of many in Japan even now. So the occasion of imagining an other-worldly resolution of love with a recurring happy ending is celebrated with great enthusiasm.

Later, as a college student living in Koenji, Tokyo, my neighborhood celebrated each summer with the Awa-Odori, which is a massive dance in organized formation through the streets of the town. People came from all over the Tokyo area to participate. One saying that describes Awa-Odori translates as, "It's a fool who dances, and a fool who watches; if both are fools, you might as well dance!"

Both Tanabata and Awa-Odori were a generous gesture by the inhabitants of our "village" or mura, to share our identity with visitors, and to reaffirm the appreciation of our place in the world. And this is just two of the thousands of festivals going on throughout Japan each year.

The focus and rigor of daily Japanese life, in a country where working hard almost to the breaking point is celebrated as a superior quality, is not the only side of the Japanese people that needs to be understood. The Japanese know how to put on a festival to celebrate life in an amazing array of themes with annual regularity, spending many months of preparation for a chance to come together as a group for a few days, including everyone from babies to elders, to enjoy delicious food, dancing, shopping for novelties, and fun with family and friends. It is one of the ways Japan keeps traditions thousands of years old alive, providing a sustaining sense of belonging.

As an educational non-profit, JapanFest, Inc., wants to share this sense of belonging with you in an experience of the best of Japan right here in Georgia. Tickets to this year's theme "Get Ready to Travel Japan - Olympics 2020!" will be on sale soon. Please check back frequently to learn more about our performers and vendors as we confirm the line-up, including many of your favorites from previous years. Still an affordable $10 in advance, $12 at the door, or $18 for a two-day pass, mark your calendars for Saturday, September 21st and Sunday, September 22nd, 2019. Free entrance for children under 6, and free tickets for K-12 and more will be available for special order. We hope to see you then!

Visit: www.japanfest.org for more information.

Find out more about the Tanabata Festival in Sendai, Japan here. Learn more about the Awa Odori Festival in Koenji, Tokyo here.

To read more about the great variety of Japanese festivals, visit https://www.tsunagujapan.com/10-popular-japanese-festivals/ and https://www.japan-talk.com/jt/new/matsuri-list.

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