Japanese holidays and festivals in June

Japanese festivities during June

During the month of June, no Japanese national holidays take place. But, no stress, there are three nice Japanese festivals instead. Join us and celebrate the different festivals that take place in Japan during the month of June.

Atsuta Festival or Atsuta Matsuri (熱田祭)

This Japanese festival takes place on the 5th of June in Nagoya and is held at the Atsuta Jingu Shrine. This shrine is seen as one of the most sacred shrines in Japan and has more than 9 million visitors annually. It is believed that Kusanagi, the holy sword of the  Emperor and one of the three Imperial regalia, is kept here. During this festival, you can see a wide range of traditional Japanese arts such as taiko (Japanese drums), kendo (a Japanese sport with bamboo swords) and traditional dance. The festival starts at 10 a.m. at the shrine itself with a beautiful ceremony dedicated to the deities of the shrine and during the day you can see the Japanese arts. At night, the precinct around the shrine turns into a fair that has small stalls with food, beautiful lanterns and even a firework show at the end. However, the most popular attraction during this Japanese festival are the five Kento Makawari, huge floats that are decorated with lanterns and that are placed near the torii of the shrine.

Japanese parade

The parade!

Sannō Festival or Sannō Matsuri (山王祭)

This festival takes place in every year with an even number in the middle of June at Tokyo. This year it started on the 10th of June. It is one of the three greatest Shinto festivals in Tokyo and takes place for an entire week. It is mostly famous for its parade that starts and ends at the Hie Shrine, a shrine that houses the guardian deity of Tokyo. This shrine was associated with the Tokugawa family and in Japanese history this festival was held as a celebration of the nation’s political centre and those in charge. These days however, the parade is much smaller so it won’t interfere with the traffic that much. The parade of about 500 people dressed in colourful costumes, starts at the Hie Shrine at 7.30 a.m. and arrives at the Imperial Palace around noon. After a short break, the parade continues towards other shrines until it returns to the shrine. At the shrine, visitors can find a large straw ring standing in the middle of the shrine grounds. By walking through the ring, you can purify yourself.

One of the mikoshi during the festival.

One of the mikoshi during the festival.

Yotaka Festival or Yotaka Matsuri (夜高祭)

The last Japanese festival in this article has different dates depending on where it’s held but in the city of Tonami, it takes place on the 10th and 11th of June. This festival is held to make sure that the next harvest will be bountiful. During this festival, each neighbourhood makes its own giant lantern float and parade it through the city. The carriers drink sake and are being guided by people playing different music instruments. Once the mood is settled, each neighbourhood starts participating in the takiawase, a competition where the carriers climb on top of the floats and the floats collide with each other to try to destroy other floats. This tradition differs in each region, but in Tonami they charge each other head on and try to destroy the other float. In other regions, they will race side by side while trying to kick and punch the other float. You can watch a video of a collision here. As violent as this might seem, it is still a community activity and is meant to bring joy and fun!

Collision!

Collision!

These are the most important Japanese  festivals that take place in June. If you want to know more about this subject, feel free to contact us or write a comment.

We’ll be back next month to tell you more about the Japanese holidays and festivals that take place during July.

Japanese Prefectures – Yamagata (山形)

Yamagata – Skiing, pilgrimages and time to relax

Welcome in the prefecture of Yamagata, a mountainous region with a spiritual and natural history. Join us in our trip and discover the different reasons to visit this lovely prefecture.

Yamagata

A typical sight in the Yamagata prefecture.

Geography and history

Yamagata is located in the north-western part of the Tōhoku region and is bordered by the Sea of Japan in the West, the prefectures of Niigata and Fukushima in the South, the prefecture of Miyagi in the East and the prefecture of Akita in the North. All of these borders are natural borders made by various mountain ranges. Due to Yamagata’s mountainous geography, the biggest share of its population lives on the central flat plain around the capital of Yamagata City. Besides having a lot of mountains, about 17% of Yamagata’s land is registered as Natural Parks. The prefecture is mostly known for its fruit, especially the Yamagata cherry and pear are famous.

A map of Yamagata.

A map of Yamagata.

As expected, the history of this prefecture is again comparable with the history of the other prefectures in this region. Yamagata was originally inhabited by the indigenous Ezo people who basically were all native people living in the northern part of Japan. This day, these people are called the Ainu. Up until the start of the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Yamagata was part of the Dewa Province and was ruled by the famous Fujiwara clan. They transformed what is know Yamagata City into a flourishing castle town that thrived thanks to its production of the red safflower and its post station. After the Meiji Restoration, the prefecture got its name and grew out to be the prefecture it is today. It is interesting to note that Yamagata is known for its dialect, Yamagata-ben, sadly, in most of Japan it is seen as a lesser form of Japanese and it is often used in popular media to create the setting of a backwards and rural town.

Yamagata City.

Yamagata City.

Must-see locations

The first location that is simply a must-visit is the Yama-dera, which is literally a temple on top of a mountain that looks out over Yamagata city. This temple was founded in 860 as a temple for the Tendai school of Buddhism and a way to bring Buddhism to northern Japan. To get to the temple on top of the mountain, you have to hike up a mountain trail for 30 minutes and you’ll see an amazing temple complex and view over the city. Along the path are various small temples and once you arrive at the top, you can find the famous Kaisando Hall that was built in memory of the founder of the temple. There is also the Godaido Hall that has an observation deck where you’ll get an amazing panoramic view of the valley.  If this climb of about 1,000 steps is too difficult, you can always enjoy the different shops, buildings and Konponchudo Hall, which is the main hall of Yama-dera. This wooden building is the oldest of the complex and it is said that the flame that is burning inside, has been burning since the founding of the temple. For the people with an interest in Japanese poetry, the famous Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō once visited this place and wrote a haiku about it.

The breathtakingly beautiful Yama-dera.

The breathtakingly beautiful Yama-dera.

There are quite some mountains in Yamagata, so of course there are also quite some mountain shrines. The most famous ones in Yamagata are without a doubt Dewa Sanzan. These three mountains are a centre of the Shugendo school like Kumano Kodō and each have a shrine on its top. The followers of this school do pilgrimages from mountain to mountain in a specific order.The first mountain is called Haguro-San and it represents birth, the second one is called Gas-San and it represents death and the third one is Yudono-San and represents rebirth. This Shugendo centre is also known for its extreme test of belief and endurance. At the Churenji and Dainichibo temples, two monks have preserved themselves as mummies with the help of an extreme diet and meditation. Even though this practice is forbidden today, these two monks are seen as living Buddhas.

A five-story pagoda on the route to one of the three mountains.

A five-story pagoda on the route to one of the three mountains.

This one is for the winter sport lovers out there. Mount Zao is a mountain on the border between Yamagata and Miyagi. During the winter it transforms in one of the most famous ski resorts in Japan and one of the only places to see ‘snow monsters’. These snow monsters are actually trees that are fully coated in snow and ice, transforming them in silhouettes of monsters on the ski slopes. The longest ski course starts at the place where most snow monsters are and is 10 kilometres long. After skiing your heart out, you can always relax in the local onsen and enjoy the snow monsters that are lit up from a distance. During the rest of the year, you can visit the local onsen town and Okama Crater that we talked about in our article about the Miyagi Prefecture.

A collection of snow monsters!

A collection of snow monsters!

The last location that simply is a must-see is the hot spring town called Ginzan Onsen. This secluded town is found in the mountains of the Yamagata prefecture. It used to be a town that was built close to a silver mine. These days however, it is a famous relaxing town filled with different onsen houses and historical ryokan, or Japanese inns. The buildings are made in a historical architectural style with a lot of wood and  plaster, reminding the visitors of a Japan that used to be. One ryokan however, is redesigned by the Japanese architect Kuma Kengo and was rebuilt in a modern style, turning it into an exception of the normal street view in Ginzan Onsen. Tourist can also hike on a natural path and find the old silver mines that have a part that is accessible for visitors. The path winds past a beautiful waterfall and gives a stunning view for nature lovers.

The town with the modern ryokan designed by

The town with the modern ryokan designed by Kuma Kengo.

How to get there?

Yamagata has two airports that have connections with Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and Sapporo. Furthermore, due to the extensive railroad network in the Tōhoku Region, you can easily get to most places in the Yamagata. You can even get there by Shinkansen from Tokyo. If you’d rather go by car, it’s possible to hit the road and reach most places. Be careful however, because there are a lot of mountains in Yamagata, it can be hard to reach some places and it is definitely advisable to research the accessibility of the places you want to visit!

A roadmap of Yamagata.

A roadmap of Yamagata.

This was our short intro to Yamagata. We hope that we have showed you the different reasons to visit this lovely place. If you want to know more about travelling to Yamagata, leave a comment, send us a mail or please visit this page.

We will be back with another Japanese prefecture in July when we will tell you more about Fukushima.

Six traditional ways of expression: Poetry

The language of the soul: poetry

Hello and welcome in the next installment of ‘six traditional ways of expresssion’. Today we are going to look at the land where words are mightier than the sword, and feelings are often abundantly expressed. Yes: today is all about traditional Japanese poetry, or waka in Japanese.

Waka (和歌)

Waka poetry written in Japanese (in contrast to the older tradition of Chinese poetry), and is characterised by lines of five or seven morae. Morae are “the minimal unit used in phonology that determines stress and timing”. In most Western languages this equals a syllable, but in Japanese the ‘n’, or ん, is in itself a mora. Thus this is critical for the formation of, for example, haiku.
Waka mainly encompasses tanka and chōka. Due to the dominant use of tanka however, the term waka has become the same as tanka.

'kyokusui no utage' a Haian practice of drinking sake and composing poetry while sitting next to a stream. The poet must have improvise a poem by the time the sake cup reaches him/her

kyokusui no utage‘: a Heian practice of drinking sake and composing poetry while sitting next to a stream. The poet must have improvise a poem by the time the sake cup reaches him/her

Tanka (短歌) and Chōka (長歌)

These two types of waka are respectively the ‘short poem’ and the ‘long poem’. The tanka consists of five lines wit ha 5-7-5-7-7 metre. Chōka can be as long as the poet wanted and switches between lines of five and seven morae, ending with two lines of seven mora. The shortest ‘long poem’ consisted of nine lines and is written in the Man’yōshū (万葉集) , the oldest book of Japanese poetry. By the end of the tenth century the two above forms had become so popular that other forms of waka were practically abolished. These ‘minor forms’ were the kata-uta, the shortest form of Japanese poetry with a 5-7-7 metre, the Sedōka,composed of two sets of 5-7-7, and the Bussokusekika, which is a tanka with an extra line of 7 morae at the end.

manyoshu

Pages of the Man’yōshū

Renga (連歌)

The ‘collaborative poetry’ or renga was one of the most important literary art in pre-modern Japan. Renga were made by multiple poets who each write a stanza following the previous one. Hence the name. A renga consists of at least two stanza and uses a 7-5- ot 7-7 mora count. The first stanza is called the hokku (発句) and is created by a special guest when present. It is seen as the greeting of the stanza. The hokku always consist of a 5-7-5 morae count, and is the predecessor of the more modern haiku. The second stanza,or waki (), is created by the person organising the gathering and uses a 7-7 morae count. The third stanza is again in the 5-7-5 form and must end in the te-form. After that the poets are free to choose which form they use.

As renga grew in popularity and became institutionalized, it also lost a lot of its original vulgarity and coarseness. Where the most important criteria used to be how great the link between the two verses was, now it had set forms and became ‘stale’ according to the critics. In response to this staleness ‘haikai no renga‘ or ‘renku’ (連句) came into existence. it embraces the vulgar attitude and contempt for traditional poetic and cultural ideas, as you can read in the following poem:

kasumi no koromo suso wa nurekeri
The robe of haze is wet at its hem

to which the next poet responded:

saohime no haru tachi nagara shito o shite
Princess Sao of spring pissed as she started

statue of Matsuo Bashō, one of the most famous poets of the Edo period.

statue of Matsuo Bashō, one of the most famous poets of the Edo period and participant in many haikai no renga.

Lastly we need to address the following: though most of the above may seem quite easy,  every poet needed a great knowledge of the classic texts and literature. Spotting the references and using them to form the next stanza resulted in praise,while overlooking one could mean loosing your hard-earned prestige. We also have but slightly touched the many special techniques and terms, for example ‘pillow words’. This is a theme were many books have already been written about, and is a bit too complex to explain in this short article. Feel free to explore the world of Japanese poetry by yourself though, and if you feel like it, why don’t you write us your own tanka or haiku? Inari out!