Nagatoro’s Historic Floating Light Festival, Saitama Prefecture
If you want to enjoy a really special local matsuri (festival) with very few foreign tourists, you only need to travel about an hour and a half from Tokyo to the quaint, riverside town of Nagatoro for their annual Funadama Festival.
Every August 15th Nagatoro holds its dual Shinto/Buddhist festival on the banks of the Arakawa River. The popular festival merges two important local customs.
The Shinto custom dates back to a time when the Arakawa River, which can be traveled by boat from Nagatoro to Tokyo Bay, was a shipping route. Nagatoro functioned as a port. Nagatoro boatmen received goods from Chichibu area merchants and delivered them to Edo (later Tokyo) markets by wooden boat.
Every August Shinto priests would perform rituals on the bank of the swollen river praying to the river god for the boatmen’s safe passage. As an offering, two giant paper lantern-laden boats called Mantosen (ten thousand lantern boats) were floated down the river. The custom is performed in exactly the same way today.
Because the festival falls on the Buddhist holiday, O-bon, when the souls of the departed are believed to return home, another ritual was added. Just at dusk, before the Mantosen, hundreds of individual lanterns, called Toro Nagashi, each representing a local community member who died the previous year, are floated down the river. It’s a solemn and breathtaking scene.
Then come the Mantosen, musicians, and fireworks display! Families gather on the giant 800 meter Iwadatami (stone tatami) eating roasted corn, cold cucumbers, and sweet salted river fish on sticks.
It seems as if all the girls and young women are in brightly colored yukata (lightweight cotton kimonos especially for summer festivals). Some of the boys and men are in yukata too, and many of the babies and small children in jinbei (traditional Japanese summer clothes) with tiny straw Japanese sandals. You can easily imagine that the festival has been this way for at least a hundred years.
There are an unusual number of high quality fireworks for a town this small. This is because Nagatoro is a popular destination for Japanese tourists. In addition to rafting, camping, hiking, fishing, and popular local food like soba and shaved ice made from frozen mountain water, Nagatoro has several very high-end Ryokan (onsen hotels). One of which famously hosted Emperor Akihito.
The fireworks go on until about 9 PM and end with Nagatoro’s signature “Niagra Falls” display where thousands of white fireworks cascade over a giant rock wall on the opposite side of the river in a stunning finale.
If you want to get out of the city, into a picturesque riverside town in the cool mountains of Saitama and enjoy a small town festival steeped in tradition, I can’t urge you strongly enough to go to the Nagatoro Fundama Festival on August 15th, and wear a yukata or jinbei if you have one! See you there! (Technically I count as a foreigner, but I am also a local, having lived and taught in the area for almost ten years).
Follow this link to Nagatoro’s English-language tourism website and click on the "ACCESS" icon in the upper right hand corner for good maps and clear instructions for getting to Nagatoro by train or car.