Kunchi Matsuri

October 7-9.

At under half a million residents, Nagasaki isn’t one of the biggest cities in Japan, but it throws one of the biggest festivals in the Land of the Rising Sun.

The Nagasaki Kunchi Festival, or O-kunchi Matsuri is celebrated from October 7th to October 9th every year. Kunchi means ninth day—ku nichi. The autumnal festival includes magnificent parades and processions, but what it’s world-famous for is its show-stopping dance-travaganzas performed over the three days across the city with its center-point at the Suwa Shrine. Imagine “Nagasaki’s Got Talent,” except instead of performing as individuals or pairs, the city’s proud boroughs, or machi, face off in elaborate communal group dances. The routines, each lasting about a half hour, can include massive, intricate floats and moving props, beautiful costumes, and brilliantly choreographed moves, all centered around a cultural or historical theme, each neighborhood showing its pride and out-doing the others. The show is televised nationally.

Sources say the festival itself was the result of competition—religious competition. Back in the 1500’s, Nagasaki’s position in the southwest of Japan made it an ideal landing spot for Portuguese and then Dutch navigators and traders making their way from India. Along with the traders came the missionaries, and Nagasaki became an early Christian stronghold. During the reign of Tokugawa Hidetada (r. 1605-1623), Christianity was persecuted, and the Suwa Shrine was built in 1614 as the focal point of the Shinto revival in Nagasaki.

Of course, shrines alone don’t win converts, or de-converts for that matter. To compete with the Christian Easter processions, Nagasaki’s O-kunchi Matsuri was established in 1634. One of its original intents was to root out Christians, but by the 1690’s even the Dutch had box seats to the celebration.

One of the set pieces of the festival is the ancient Dragon Dance, stemming from the Chinese New Year’s tradition. Even back in the 17th century, Nagasaki boasted a large Chinese population. Dance routines and performances often give a shout out not only to Nagasaki’s Japanese heritage but to its multicultural past.

In August, Nagasaki is home to one of the country’s most moving commemorations. Just seven decades ago, Nagasaki was virtually incinerated by the world’s third atomic explosion at the end of World War II. Miraculously, the Suwa Shrine survived intact. Every year on August 9, residents gather at the Suwa Shrine on the anniversary of the bombing to remember the 70,000 townspeople killed in the attack.

Japanese Festivals, Helen Bauer and Sherwin Carlquist. 1965.
Nagasaki Kunchi Festival: http://www.ltcm.net/~telkamp/japan/kunchi/kunchi.html [retrieved 10/7/14]
Suwa Shrine (Nagasaki) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suwa_Shrine_%28Nagasaki% [retrieved 10/7/14]
Nagasaki Kunchi Matsuri http://lilymonk.blogspot.com/2007/10/nagasaki-kunchi-matsuri.html [retrieved 10/7/14]

©Marufish. Creative Commons Attribution -Share Alike 2.0 Generic license
©Marufish. Creative Commons Attribution -Share Alike 2.0 Generic license



March 18-24

…when the night and day are equally divided, Buddha appears on earth for a week to save stray souls and lead them to Nirvana.”


Thus, in Japan the Sundays prior to the spring equinox (shuubun no hi) and the fall equinox (shunbun no hi) are known as O-higan. Days on which families visit and honor the graves of the departed. Ancestors are said to watch over the family like tutelary, guardian deities. That’s why we give thanks to our ancestors whenever we encounter success or prosperity . (But of course if we fail, it’s our own damn fault.)

Favorite foods are prepared for the departed, such as Ohagi (soft rice balls covered in sweetened bean jam), sushi, and vinegar rice & veggies. On the last day of the week, rice flour dumplings, special fruits and sweets are offered.

In Buddhism, O-higan is a time to focus on the 6 Perfections, or Pāramitā:

1. Dana – generosity

2. Sila – virtue

3. Ksanti – patience

4. Virya – effort

5. Dhyana – meditation (also ‘zen’)

6. Prajna – wisdom


The O-higan days have been celebrated in Japan since the 8th century. The name Higan literally means, “the other shore” and is short for Tohigan—to arrive at the other shore. The 6 Pāramitā are the bridge that will enable us to cross over to the other shore of Nirvana.

White Day – Japan

March 14

White Day is the complementary holiday of Valentine’s Day in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. Valentine’s Day is celebrated as well, but a little differently than in the U.S.

On Valentine’s Day women generally give gifts of chocolate and the sort to the men in their lives: giri choco (obligatory chocolate) and honmei-choco (chocolate with a romantic connotation).

Giri choco is given by women to their superiors at work as well as to other male co-workers. It is not unusual for a woman to buy 20 to 30 boxes of this type of chocolate for distribution around the office as well as to men that she has regular contact with.”


[Remind me to work in Japan.]

The counter-holiday, White Day, was promoted in the 1980s by the confections industry. One month after Valentine’s Day men relieve their guilt at receiving such gifts by buying the women in their lives chocolate in return. The March 14 chocolates generally cost 2 to 3 times as much as Valentine’s Day chocolates, and are boxed in white boxes, hence the name White Day.

I tend to avoid reporting on holidays promoted by the chocolate industry. Not out of any dislike of chocolate. On the contrary it’s my favorite food group. But there’s generally no rationale or history for the holiday other than to promote a particular confection. And depending on which calendar you look at, virtually every week in the year has a chocolate or candy holiday associated with it.

This week, for example, is American Chocolate Week.

March 19 is National Chocolate Caramel Day

March 24 is National Chocolate Covered Raisins Day

April hosts National Licorice Day, Chocolate-Covered Cashews Day and Jelly Bean Day.

And so on…

And National Chocolate Day? It’s on July 7.

And October 28.

And December 28.

And December 29.

You get the picture. There’s not any scrumptious chocolate candy combination you can name that doesn’t have its own holiday.

So why December 28 and 29? My guess, two more chances to indulge before those dreaded New Year’s resolutions kick in!

If you’re in Japan, enjoy a delicious, calorie-laden White Day! And if you’re in North America, I recommend celebrating two days at once with a delicious home-made Chocolate Pie.

After all, March 14 is also Pi Day!

Hina Matsuri – Doll Day in Japan

March 3

It’s Hina Matsuri, or Doll Day in Japan.

But no, your old “Tickle Me Elmo” and Molly McIntire won’t cut it. These dolls are often handed down from generation to generation, and are displayed in a very ritualized manner once a year.

A full set of “Hina Ningyo” dolls can cost anywhere from $400 to $10,000, and consists of roughly 15 pieces—“figurines” may be a more accurate term. The main two dolls are the O-Dairi-sama and O-Hina-sama, an Emperor and an Empress/Princess, both dressed in fine silk.

Hina Matsuri
Hina Matsuri display

The other figures include

  • 3 Ladies of the Court, or kanjo, often depicted serving sake
  • 2 Ministers or Guards
  • and 5 or more Court Musicians or Servants

Tradition dictates that prior to the third day of the third month (March 3) families of young girls set up the dolls on a tiered platform covered in a bright red cloth.<

On the top step sits the Royal Couple.

On the next step are the 3 kanjo with banquet trays.

And displayed on the lower steps stand the figures of musicians, ministers, guards, and servants, as well as miniatures of household furnishings and two toy trees. (see photo)

Hina Doll Set at Kansas City Japanese Festival

The holiday is also called Momo no Sekku, meaning Festival of the Peach. In the old calendar the day coincided with the blossoming of the peace trees in Japan.

An example of Hina Matsuri is shown in Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams:

Part I: The Peach Orchard

In the beautifully surreal scene, life size figures tell a little boy:

“…Doll Day is for the Peach Blossoms. It is to celebrate their arrival. We dolls personify the peach tree. We are the spirits of the trees, the life of the blossoms…”

In American culture there is no equivalent to Hina Matsuri, but it might be compared to a chess set meets a nativity scene, although the dolls do not refer to any specific personages.

Written references to the holiday date back a thousand years. It grew out of the belief that these human representations could absolve oneself from sin. Traditionally, people would make dolls of folded paper or straw, rub them against oneself, and set them in the water, to carry away their sins with the tide. Even today many towns in Japan carry on this tradition.

Hina Matsuri became a legal holiday in 1687.

Oldest Country in the World

February 11


It’s hard to say what’s the oldest country in the world is, but the winner might be Japan twice over.

First, with an average lifespan of over 80 years Japan has one of, if not the, world’s oldest population. 25% of the population is over 60 (as opposed to 17% in the U.S.).  So, along with Andorra, Japan is one of the top two “oldest” countries in the world in that respect.

In terms of the oldest sovereign nation without major border changes, many people cite the tiny country of San Marino, which declared itself a constitutional republic in 301 AD. Founded by a Christian stonemason (Marinus of Rab) fleeing persecution, San Marino lies entirely within Italy.

Emperor Jimmu

But a thousand years before Marinus the Mason drew his first breath, Emperor Jinmu (also Jimmu) founded the nation of Japan, making it the oldest nation in the world by many accounts.

How much of Jinmu’s story is true and how much is legend will never be known. His name means “divine warrior” and for millennia the Japanese believe Jinmu descended from the Sun Goddess through her “Heavenly Grandchild”. The Sun Goddess dispatched her Grandson to Earth with the imperative:

“This Reed-plain-1500-autumns-fair-rice-ear Land is the region which my descendants shall be lords of. Do thou, my August Grandchild, proceed thither and govern it. Go! and may prosperity attend thy dynasty, and may it, like Heaven and Earth, endure forever.”

Japanese schoolchildren learned the above declaration by heart right up through World War II.

During Japan’s modernization in the 1870’s, the Meija government (Meija means “enlightened rule”) switched the country over to the solar calendar, and calculated the date of the founding as February 11, 660 BC. Kenkoku Kinen no hi (National Foundation Day) celebrated the country’s unification 2500 years earlier and the divinity of the Emperor.

During the American Occupation, celebration of Kenkoku Kinen no hi was banned because of its glorification of the Emperor. However the ceremonies were brought back by popular demand in 1966 and carry on strong today.

Though the Japanese may no longer believe the Emperor’s blood descends from the Sun, even to this day the red sun shines front and center as the proud symbol of the Japanese flag.

Japanese Naval Ensign
Japanese Naval Ensign

Foundations of Japanese Civilization

Japanese Historians and National Myths

Sapporo Snow Festival – Yuki Matsuri

Early February
(February 6-12, 2012)

Sapporo Snow Festival

When high school students in the sleepy town of Sapporo built some snow sculptures in Odori Park in the winter of 1950, little did they know the international phenomenon they would unleash.

In the coming years the festival grew in popularity among the locals. In 1955 the nearby military base got into the act, building the first super-sculture for which the festival is now famous. Japan’s Self-Defense Force found that the sculpture building was a good team exercise for the men.

But the festival got its big boost in in 1972 when Sapporo hosted the Winter Olympics, and the Snow Festival gained international recognition.

Sapporo gets an average of 5 feet of snow in January alone, making the beginning of February the perfect time to build these amazing sculptures. It begins this year on February 5 and lasts seven days.

Today the Sapporo Snow Festival is one of the biggest and most famous winter festivals. Millions of people from all over Japan and all over the world come to Sapporo to see the hundreds of snow and ice sculptures.

Sapporo Snow Festival © JTB Photo
Sapporo Snow Festival © JTB Photo


February 3

Once a year in Japan, the land of order and politeness, it is considered perfectly acceptable behavior for children to hurl beans and peanuts at their classmates without reprimand.

That day is today, Setsubun, or Lunar New Year, and understandably, kids more than anyone carry on the tradition. Though Setsubun lacks the weight it commanded back in the 8th century, many Japanese do not let this day pass without tossing at least a few legumes inside and outside for good luck.

Mame Maki, the aforementioned bean-throwing activity, is meant to ward off evil spirits for the coming year. People scatter beans on the ground or toss them at imaginary Oni (roughly, demons or ogres) while yelling:

“Oni wa Soto, Fuku wa Uchi!”

(It looks and sounds worse than it is.) It’s pronounced Foo-koo, so watch your tongue, and it translates to:

“Get out, Demon/Ogre! Come in, Good Luck/Happiness!”

Mame Maki bears resemblance to the tradition at Western weddings of throwing rice grains to represent fertility.

don't try this at home
(re-enactment: don't try this at home)

Like American children on Halloween, Japanese schoolchildren wear Oni masks to represent the demons while their peers gleefully pelt them with beans and nuts, as an American schoolteacher in Japan describes here.

Traditionally soybeans have been the projectile of choice, but recently peanuts have been picking up steam. Both are sold in stores in small packets.

Another tradition is to eat the number of beans of your age today, plus one for the coming year.

This evening families eat a special thick sushi called futomaki, or hutomaki.

What you need to make: Ingredients

What you do to make: Directions

And they eat while facing a “lucky” direction–which differs each year.

Other ways to ward off the demon include piercing the head of a sardine with a holly branch and hanging it in a doorway.


Also, celebrities born under the current year’s zodiac sign (ie. 12 year-olds, 24, 36, 48…) can be seen on TV performing Mame Maki pubicly.

Setsubun means “division of the season.” There are four setsubun, throughout the year but the one celebrating the changing of winter into spring has always been the most auspicious. Similar to the Indian Makar Sankranti festivals and Celtic Imbolc, which both mark the coming of Spring.

Prior to 1873 Japan used a luni-solar calendar of 355 days. Every few years an inter-calaria month of 30 days was added to keep the lunar calendar in line with the solar.

After Japan adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1873, the spring festival began to wane, as Japan began celebrating New Year’s with the rest of the Gregorian world on January 1.

Setsubun used to be celebrated on the second full moon after the solstice. It now occurs every February 3.

Setsubun Protest 2010: Luck in! Peace in! Military bases out!

Seijin no Hi

2nd Monday in January


Almost every society has a coming-of-age rite, be it confirmation, bar mitzvah, high school graduation, or my favorite: passing your driver’s test.

In Japan that rite is one’s 20th birthday. However, it’s not an individual celebration. The entire nation of 20 year olds celebrate their birthdays on the same day. That’s today, the second Monday of the New Year, Seijin no Hi…aka, Coming of Age Day.

20 is the legal age of voting, drinking and smoking, and the age of civic responsibility.

Young men wear their finest suits. Women wear furisodes, special formal kimonos for unmarried women, which can cost a million yen, or $10,000, although that is coming down.

(Photos © Samurai Dave)

The event is so popular that appointments at beauty salons must be made months in advance, and can set parents back a grand. Within the beauty world Coming of Age Day is an industry in itself. Women will begin arriving at the salons at 5am, and salons are prepared to handle over a hundred women in just a few hours.

In some ways it is celebrated more for the parents than for the son or daughter. Says one kimono shop owner:

“For the parents it is their desire. From the day a girl is born they have the desire to dress her in furisode when she becomes 20 in the seijin shiki, take her picture, and send it to relatives as custom requires. In some cases, the mother herself also wore a furisode she received from her mother in her seijin shiki…

“If they have the possibility of dressing their daughter in a Y1,000,000 kimono it is proof that they have worked hard all their lives and can afford it. It is the result of their life work…But the girls do not always understand their parents’ feelings and they say they would prefer a car.”

A Companion to the Anthropology of Japan – Fashioning Cultural Identity: Body and Dress by Ofra Goldstein-Gidoni)

But Coming of Age day has been adapting to new times, partly from the recessions and partly from new youth culture. According to SillyBoy_in_Japan:

“…the price of kimonos has dramatically increased as most of the kimonos are now made cheaper in China. A decent hand made using Japanese materials can still be bought in Kyoto, and can be quite expensive, but there are few people learning this craft. Once the last of these shops close down, all that will be left are the pre-made, mostly imported kimonos. What also has changed is that 70% of the girls now wear beautiful evening gowns. Think shopping for a prom dress in America.”

Though it only became an official holiday in 1948, Coming of Age Day has its roots in older Shinto and Meiji era traditions, such as genpuku, where boys between 12 and 16 were given a new name and…

“were taken to the shrines of their patron kami. There they were presented with their first adult clothes, and their boys’ hairstyles were changed to the adult style.”

Girls reaching adolescence were given a similar ceremony and dressed in special kimono attire to symbolize to the community their readiness for marriage.

John K. Nelson describes a Coming of Age ceremony at a community shrine in Enduring Identities:

“At the Tsuchinoya purification pavilion, everyone lines up and is purified with a standard, paper-streamer haraigushi…After a short ritual in front of the Honden, the group assembles in the western field to plant a cherry tree, each participant contributing one shovelful of soil to the process. The group then retires to the Chokushiden within the administration building for three formal speeches stressing gratitude to parents, the brevity of youth, and the contributions they will make to society…”


Today a lot of Japanese youth see the pomp and circumstance as more materialistic than traditional. Writes Naoko:

“In the past it probably meant more than today. These days this is just sort of fashion show for tons of 20yr-old, and the day finally they can officially get drunk. However, it’s still nice to see them in colorful kimono with shining hopes.”



Youtube: Beautiful Japanese actress celebrates Seijin Shiki

Youtube: No clue what they’re saying here but…funny