• Kazuko Lillie

Festivals of the Unique and Strange - Wasshoi Wednesday #7

A couple of Wednesdays ago we talked about some famous summer matsuri in Japan, famous enough that people from overseas will travel to attend those festivals. In the next installment of our matsuri series, we'd like to show you some of the more unique festivals that occur throughout the year. We're only touching on a few today, but we promise you there are many more!

Saidai-ji Eyo Naked Festival (Okayama City, Okayama Prefecture)

Disclaimer: People are mostly naked, not completely naked! There are several Hadaka Matsuri (naked festival) around the country, with their own variations, but this one in Okayama is the most famous and is believed to be where this kind of festival originates. This is a festival in February where 9,000 men gather around Saidai Temple wearing Japanese loincloth (fundoshi). At midnight the priest will throw sacred sticks into the crowd; the man who is able to hold onto the sticks, make it up the temple steps, and places them upright in a box of rice is crowned the "luckiest one" and is expected to have good fortune for the next year.

Naki Sumo Baby Crying Festival (Asakusa Ward, Tokyo Prefecture)

Sensoji is arguably one of the most iconic temples in Japan and is an extremely popular tourist destination. Every year in April, it is also the location of this very niche festival. Parents bring their babies to compete in an actual wrestling ring; sumo wrestlers will take turns in pairs, standing in the ring, holding the babies. Whichever baby cries first wins the round! This festival is based on an ancient idea that a baby's cry will drive away evil spirits. There is also an old proverb, "Crying babies grow fat", that gives a foundation for this interesting, noisy festival!

Bellybutton Festival (Shibukawa City, Gunma Prefecture)

Tucked in the mountains in the center of the country, Shibukawa proclaims itself to be "the belly button of Japan" and holds the Heso Matsuri annually in late July to celebrate the distinction. People help each other to paint faces on their stomachs, ranging from traditional to modern in design, with the belly button being the mouth, and parade through the streets! People come to watch or participate in the dancing parade and to see the "belly button rock", which is said to be the marker of the true belly button of Japan!

Swearing Festival (Kasama City, Ibaraki Prefecture)

Festivals are a time to celebrate and enjoy yourself, but the Akutai Matsuri is about getting those negative feelings off your chest! Every year at the end of December the priests of the Atago Shrine begin their ascent of Mt. Atago, dressed as tengu, the red-faced, long-nosed mythological creature of Japanese mythology. Crowds follow them, cursing and swearing until they reach to the top of the mountain where the shrine is. It's said this festival began in the middle of the Edo period (1603-1868) as a way for the blue-collar workers to release stress before heading into the New Year.

We hope this put a smile on your face (or made you raise your eyebrows in surprise!) and maybe learned about a new festival you'd like to see for yourself one year. See you next week!