Best Things To Do In Autumn
by Jordan Mounteer
photo by https://www.kyokanko.or.jp/jidai/
Autumn in Japan has to be my favorite time of year – the extremely humid days of summer are coming to a close, things aren’t too frigid or overcast yet, and the leaves are changing color and turning the cities and countryside into a veritable fireworks display. The Japanese seem to have the same opinion of autumn, and the months of September onward are marked by a number of fun activities and events, both socially and culturally, which seem to identify with the serene melancholy the season tends to evoke. Whether you’re enjoying a festival or just taking a walk in one of the many parks, there is something wistful about the fall and the way it can make you appreciate the beauty inherent in nature – and this, I think, is also proverbially Japanese as a sentiment. There is an awareness of the impermanence of things, the cyclical nature of existence, and this reflects in the way Japan celebrates these months.
Takayama Festival, Takayama
In Takayama, the Float Festival is an event that is looked forward to not just by local but by visitors from across Japan who flock to the city in order to spectate the 350 year old tradition. It begins with giant parade like floats which boast huge mechanical dolls – otherwise known as kakura ningyo, and are relics from the 19th century when such puppet performances would be put on for people in the street. On the first night, these elaborate floats are lit with chochin lanterns and walked through the street, and usually end up in front of the Sakurayama Hachiman shrine. The festival, which is held in October from the 9-10th, is significant because it’s actually one-half of a year long celebration – the other festival day is held in spring in April. The shrines are very important in the Shinto religion, and are only ever removed from their shrines on these occasions, but aside from receiving a great deal of reverence are not permitted to get wet. As a result, most of the time they are kept safely stored away, and in the event the weather turns sour (which it often does in October!), the festivities are usually restricted to the shrine.
Niihama Taiko Festival, Niihama
October is also the harvest season, and is traditionally a time when farmers would reap the benefits of all their hard work during the spring and summer. As a result, a lot of the festivals – or matsuris – across Japan tend to hearken back to the historical roots of the country, and are a great opportunity to see the unique convergence of ancient and modern which is a resounding feature of Japanese life. The taiko drum festival features a number of teams (as much as 47) hoisting gigantic 2-ton drums and competing with other teams. The floats and drums are carried by boys and men only, and there is definitely a feeling of machismo in the air, especially toward the end of the festival when the drums are thrown into the air as a test of strength. While it’s a very interesting and exciting element of Japanese culture, it is a reminder of the misogynistic past of traditional Japan and how these values tend to persist through the centuries. Even to this day, the event draws huge crowds, most of whom are drunk on sake, and the police often show up in riot gear because of how quickly things can get out of hand.
Nagasaki Kunchi, Nagasaki
In keeping with the harvest theme, Nagasaki began its particular festival around the 16th century, but it was quickly turned into a shrine festival following the building of the Suwa Shrine. Those familiar with the shrine’s history will recall that it was originally built as a way to stop the conversion of Japanese citizens to Christianity during this time, the hope being they would be able to identify those who had embraced the Western religion (you will also recall at this time Nagasaki was a huge port, and one of the only portals to the rest of the world). Today though the tone is a bit different, and one of the most interesting elements is the practice of niwamise, or garden showing, where residents of the city open up their homes and allow people to come in and see their gardens. In Japan, the home is a very sacred area, and it’s rare even to have people come over for parties, so this is a rather unique opportunity to get a glimpse into what an average Japanese house looks like. The biggest event is probably the Dragon Dance though, a tradition that was actually carried over by the Chinese and practiced on the New Year, but which has become a staple component of the kunchi celebrations.
Meiji Shrine Autumn Festival, Tokyo
The biggest and most popular shrine in Japan is, without a doubt, the Meiji Shrine adjoining the Shibuya area of Tokyo. Since the birthday of the Meiji emperor is November 3rd, the shrine undergoes a transformation in the fall, and is literally packed with locals and tourists alike, and is a great chance to see history in action. More precisely, the shrine hosts a variety of events which showcase traditional arts and practices such as aikido and kyudo (hand-to-hand martial arts and bows), as well as yabusame – the style of horseback riding armed archers used to engage in during battles. Being able to see the performers rush by on their mounts and accurately hit targets is a thrill, if only because it inspires one to think about what warfare would have looked like centuries ago. But if bows and arrows aren’t your thing, there are also highly acclaimed Noh plays put on by actors and calligraphy lessons, as well as Bungaku dancing.
Jidai Matsuri, Kyoto
The last one on our list is the Jidai Matsuri which takes place in Kyoto every year. Because it was once the capital, the festival came about as a way to try and keep up its prominence, and during the span of the event actors dress up in traditional attire – for the women, no expense is spared when it comes to elegant and delicately woven kimonos, and it’s worth checking out just to get a glimpse at the craftsmanship that goes into the heavy embroidered robes. The procession, which can stretch for upwards of 2 kilometers, is composed of over 2000 people, and finally ends at the Heian Shrine. While it may not be as exciting as the taiko festival, if you have any interest in what life was like in ancient Japan this is not to be missed.
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