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Oct 17, 2017
Many have heard of Japan's crazy festivals, extreme events and funny holidays. There are hundreds of them every year. I spent a few weeks in March exploring three of these.
1. Otaimatsu - part of the larger Omizutori held in Nara every March. It is one of the oldest continuously Buddhist rituals, taking place for over 1250 years. The ritual involves large torches from about 6-8 meters in length carried to the balcony of the Nigatsudo temple and set ablaze. The embers that fall on the crowd below are believed to bestow a safe year.
For four nights the ceremony takes place, each time with different amount of torches, and different amount of duration of burn. I went on the night with longest burn time. I was standing in the cold air waiting for action to begin. The energy of the anticipating crowd was palatable. We all stood there waiting, and when the first torch came out the excitement was amazing. Everyone was trying to get closer to get as many embers fall on them as possible.
2. Inuyama - Honensai Festival - or more known as the Penis festival to foreigners. A festival for fertility and regeneration, and prayers for a successful harvest that year, but for visitors it is a funny, strange and interesting event, where wooden phallics are paraded around town and are rubbed for good luck.
For westerners, with their more prudish background, this display towards the penis and vagina statues and carvings comes as a bit of a shock. But in Japan it is a completely normal part of the religious festival. Stranger yet are all the products sold during the festival. Like penis shaped lollipops, bananas with little nuts on them, and so on. What is worst are little kids sucking on these candies. Definitely a strange sight.
It is though a religious festival, and there are lines of pilgrims waiting to rub the penis statue in the temple. Also young girls parade with penis shaped carved wood along the parade route and offer blessings, while the main large pennis carving, is carried and paraded from the temple through the streets and back again, while people try and touch it for good luck and fertility. Then there are ceremonies in the temple and a big party afterword. Great times for a photographer.
3. Sagicho Matsuri - celebrated in Mid-March in Omihachiman. This festival originated in the 16th century as a new year fire festival. It was then adapted by newcomers to be even bigger. On day one, the thirteen neighborhoods that once surrounded the castle of the famed 16th century warlord Oda Nobunaga, construct elaborate floats from straw, bamboo and paper – compete for the best float prize. On the second day the real action happens. The floats are paraded and violently fight one another in a battle. Then at night they are all burned, while men run in the fire, dance and celebrate. It is considered on of the most dangerous festivals in Japan. I was told that the year prior was the first year that no one died. Only a few broken bones, burns and such.
The year I visited was the year of the horse. So all the floats had horse themed decorations. and all were made from organic material. The battles are so fierce that spectators need to be moved out of the way and many people do get hurt. It was amazing and so fun.
The real craziness happens when it all burns. People are jumping through the fires, dancing around drunk, playing with fire and all hell breaks loose. I got a bit too close for some of these photos and paid the price with a few holes in my clothes from the embers falling on me, and one burn on the neck. Totally worth it though.
So next time you are in Japan, make sure to research the festival that are going on. You might be surprised, shocked and thrilled by what you find. Japan has thousands of festivals and I look forward to exploring more of them in the future.
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