Otsu Matsuri, Shiga’s Own Miniature Gion Matsuri
Located on the shores of Japan’s largest freshwater lake, Lake Biwa, Otsu is just a mere thirty minutes away from central Kyoto. The moment the city truly shines is during the local Shinto festival, Otsu Matsuri held each year for several days in autumn.
You might have heard about Kyoto’s famous Gion Matsuri in spring, well this is its miniature version without the massive crowds. On the first day of Otsu Matsuri all of the 13 richly decorated floats are parked throughout the town and the volunteers get up early to start preparing their floats for the evening performances. The floats were built around the 17th and 18th century and each of them represent a specific neighborhood of the city. Having the floats parked in the streets gives you the opportunity to come close to stand right next to them and realize how massive they truly are. Towering above you at around 7 meters tall they are already quite impressive but when you stand next to the largest wheels even I myself, being about 1,90 meters, felt dwarfed by its sheer height. During the day and evening you will also have plenty of opportunities to talk to some of the locals who love to tell you everything about what is going on during the festival. One elderly man for example pointed out to me that unlike the 4-wheeled floats in Gion Matsuri Otsu’s floats only have three wheels.
During the second day the floats are pulled through the streets by a dozen men as each float shows off its own mechanized doll-plays called karakuri ningyo. These short simple plays accompanied by young boys and men dressed up in colorful kimono’s playing traditional music, are said to purify and bless the community for the new season. The moment everyone, including myself, greatly enjoys is the moment these massive floats through sheer brute manpower and some clever maneuvers start turning the corner of a street as they creak loudly. Meanwhile everyone tries to get their hands on a small bundle of straw called chimaki thrown from to the crowd from the floats. These bundles are blessed by Otsu’s Tenson Shrine and should be hung above the entrance to your home to ward off evil and bad luck. Unfortunately, this blessing is not timeless and the bundles are supposed to returned to the shrine the next year to be ritually burned.
Apart from Otsu Matsuri, Lake Biwa is an ideal place to enjoy all kinds of watersports throughout the year making it a well-worth daytrip destination from Kyoto. For those who know how to sail there are several wharfs which rent out sailboats to take out on the lake. There are also several lake cruises and one of them heads out to the island Okishima in the middle of Lake Biwa.
Okishima houses a small fishing village and where there are fishermen there are … cats. Okishima is Kansai’s own cat island and although not having a large cat population as more famous islands such as Tashirojima and Aoshima Okishima surely is one of the most accessible. That being said fishing is another popular pastime in Otsu and some people come as far as western Kyoto and southern Osaka to come fish in Lake Biwa’s fresh waters.