After the sweltering hot days of a Japanese summer, people look forward to the autumn season. Autumn in Japan brings with it spectacular scenery of vivid orange, red, and gold splashed across the landscape. Nights turn cool and are filled with the serenades of crickets.
As the lazy days of summer fade away and energy returns, the autumn brings with it wonderful seasonal festivals all across this beautiful country. Here is a sampling to wet your appetite and get you excited about this fantastic season!
Zuiki Matsuri: Kitano Tenmangu Shrine, Kyoto, October 1-15
The Zuiki Festival in Kyoto was established in 947 and is an autumn harvest festival to show thanks for a good harvest. Zuiki are “taro stems” that decorate the Mikoshi or “portable shrine”. The Mikoshi is carried around the shrine grounds accompanied by about 350 priests and shrine parishioners. Unlike the larger festivals in Japan the Zuiki Matsuri allows you to experience a more local and intimate type of festival.
The shrine and altar are decorated with the dried stems of taro plants and autumn vegetables. On the first and last days of the festival a dance called Yaotomemai or “sacred dance” is performed by exquisitely dressed elementary school girls from the local area.
Being that the festival is held in Kyoto, you’ll be able to catch glimpses of geiko and maiko as they walk the streets on their way to various tea houses!
Nihonmatsu Lantern Festival: Nihonmatsu Shrine, Fukushima October 4-6
Attracting about 64,000 people from the surrounding area, the Nihonmatsu Lantern festival is truly a spectacular sight to behold! The festival is about 370 years old and one of the three largest lantern festivals in Japan featuring 300 lanterns!
The festival begins on October 4th at the Nihonmatsu Shrine. Before sunset, the shrine priests perform the ceremonial prayers. As ancient chants fill the air and the smoke from incense curls heavenward, the lanterns are lit on seven “floats” with a ceremonial flame. As the last of the setting sun slips away, the sounds of taiko drums and mystical bamboo flute music floats over the shrine and the huge lantern-laden floats begin their slow “sail” through the area.
Long bamboo poles shoot straight up from each float and have several lanterns tied at the top to represent rice plants. The festival is held in honor of the gods Hachiman and Kumano who are enshrined at Nihonmatsu Jinja and are said to give power to the rice planting and harvesting seasons.
Eleven floats are elaborately decorated with Karakuri ningyo–life like marionettes that exhibit an incredible dexterity of movement. Colorful and fascinating wood carvings and as many as 100 lanterns on each float tell a story about the history and culture of Takayama.
The colors, materials and expert craftsmanship of each yatai or “float” are a testimony to the reverence that goes into painstakingly crafting each one.
The yatai are more than just floats. Each is crafted with the precision and craftsmanship of the Hida masters–a skill dating back about 400 years.
The Ohara Festival is most definitely Kyushu’s largest festival! The festival began in 1949 in commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the Kagoshima municipal administration. Around 22,000 people, including foreigners, join to dance along the busiest shopping and entertainment district of southern Kyushu, Tenmonkan, as it attracts crowds of over 600,000! The atmosphere is electric, festive and fun!
This festival is one big dance party with pre-festival dance lessons for tourists! Dancers come in traditional yukata, happi (a festive jacket), or home-made costumes! Hana Densha, “flower trains” that are gaily decorated with lights and colorful decorations, are parked along the road side. At night they are lit up and add a festive flair to the beating of taiko drums and thousands of dancers!
Tsukimi or O-tsukimi are the moon viewing festivals that are found everywhere during autumn. On the 15th day of September the festival celebrates the full moon. This year on the 4th day of October, there is a festival that celebrates the waxing moon. This custom dates back to the Heian era and is so popular that many celebrate it for several days past the full moon in September.
Traditions celebrating this custom include decorating with pampas grass and eating tsukimi mochi. Offerings to the full moon are made by displaying sweet potatoes and sake while beans or chestnuts are offered to the waxing moon.
During this time motifs of the full moon with rabbits are popular because in Japan it is said that there are rabbits living on the moon!
Moon viewing parties of old were mostly held by aristocrats who would read poetry under the full moon, drink sake, eat mochi and enjoy the cool autumn evening.
Shrines and temples all across Japan celebrate Otsukimi, so it is possible to attend one just about anywhere. Check with your local shrine or temple for locations and times. If you missed the full moon festival in September you may still be able to attend a waxing moon festival in October.
Many tea houses also perform special tea ceremonies during this time of year. Check with your local tea houses or the local tourism office for information.
There are also many private moon viewing parties during this festival time! If you can’t find one to attend, have one of your own!
I hope after reading this, you found a good reason to love Japan's spectacularly entertaining autumn festivals. See any that look like they would be a lot of fun to you? Which festival are you planning to attend this year? Feel free to let me know in the comments below, and remember, it's autumn in Japan so go celebrate!