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


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.


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

Shuubun no hi

…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 spring equinox (shunbun no hi) and the fall equinox (shuubun 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 the Japanese give thanks to their ancestors whenever they encounter success or prosperity. (But of course if you fail, it’s your 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. Buddhists believe that the Pāramitā form the bridge that enable humans to cross over to the other shore, to Nirvana.