Japanese festivals for second half of 2010

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The Independent Online

Through the long, hot Japanese summer and into autumn, festivals remain a way for hard-working folk to let their hair down and celebrate in the way their forefathers did.

There are dozens of events to choose from across the country, but we have listed 10 of the best festivals for visitors to Japan.

1) Gion Matsuri, Kyoto City, July 1-31
One of the three most spectacular festivals in the whole of Japan, the Gion Matsuri was begun in the 9th century by locals appealing to the gods for protection against disease that was raging through the city. To honor the gods, the townspeople built huge "yamahoko" floats, put on their best clothes and paraded through the streets to the sounds of music. Today, events connected with the festival last a full month, but the most impressive part remains the elaborately decorated floats as they are heaved through the streets, starting at Yasaka Shrine before negotiating the main streets and returning to the shrine.
Attending the festival is free and the best places to view the parade are along Teramachi Street. Kyoto is a 40-minute train journey from Osaka.
Tel. 0081 75 344 3300.

2) Nachi Himatsuri, Nachi Katsuura Town, Wakayama Prefecture, July 14
Awarded the coveted UNESCO World Heritage status, the monks of Kumano-Nachi Taisha Shrine put on an impressive fire festival each year. Twelve men wearing white robes carry huge burning torches - each one weighing as much as 50kg - from the shrine to the Nachi-taki waterfall. The site is considered to be the original location of the Emperor Jinmu's shrine when he was enthroned in 660BC.
Access to the shrine is free for spectators and the best spots for viewing the parade are on the path leading to its precincts, although it can be very crowded. The town is a 45-minute train journey from Osaka.
Tel. 0081 735 52 0555

3) Nebuta Matsuri, Nebuta City, Aomori City and Hirosaki City, Aomori Prefecture, August 1-7
Paper lanterns might well be a regular image of Japan, but rarely are they made on this scale. These vast, illuminated papier-mache lanterns only just clear the bridges on their parade through the streets of Aomori City and Hirosaki City, depicting everything from local warriors doing battle to ships at sea, animals and local tourist sights. The event has won acclaim as one of the most impressive cultural occasions in northern Japan.
Aomori is the capital of the most northerly prefecture on the main island of Honshu and is a four-hour bullet train journey north from Tokyo.
Tel. 0081 172 31 5444

4) Kanto Festival, Akita City, Akita Prefecture, August 3-6
Unlike other annual events, the Kanto festival is a demonstration of strength, skill and balance. Men taking part in the parade are required to balance long bamboo poles carrying 46 lighted lanterns - known as kanto - on their hands, shoulders and heads. The poles and lanterns - 250 of which are hoisted aloft simultaneously at the outset of the three days of the parade - are designed to resemble the ears of rice as they twist in the wind.
On the far northwest coast of Japan, Akita City is four hours by bullet train from Tokyo.
Tel. 0081 18 866 2112.

5) Sendai Tanabata Matsuri, Sendai City, Miyagi Prefecture, August 6-8
The Tanabata festival resonates with any Japanese with a romantic bone in their body as it marks the one day in the calendar when two lovers - depicted as the stars Orihime (Vega) and Hikoboshi (Altair) in the summer sky - are able to come together. Sendai marks the seventh day of the seventh lunar month with gusto, with the city's streets decorated with streamers and banners and extensive fireworks displays.
Sendai City is a two-hour bullet train journey from Tokyo.
Tel. 0081 22 265 8181.

6) Owara Kaze-no-Bon, Yatsuo, Toyama City, Toyama Prefecture, September 1-3
With autumn around the corner - and bringing with it the threat of typhoons - the people of this famous rice-growing region have been staging a festival to appease the wind gods and pray for a good crop for centuries. In their unique hats, made of rice straw, and fine kimono, young men and women dance through the streets singing a 300-year-old folk song - "Ecchu Owara Bushi" - that is famous for its haunting, melancholy melody.
Toyama is on the northern coast of Japan, around three hours from Tokyo by bullet train.
Tel. 0081 76 454 3111.

7) Kishiwada Danjiri Matsuri, Kishiwada City, Osaka Prefecture, Sept. 14-15
This annual event falls shortly before the Respect for the Elderly national holiday on the Japanese calendar and dates back more than 300 years. Reportedly initiated by the Lord of Kishiwada Castle to appeal to the gods for a good harvest, it has evolved into an exciting - and occasionally aggressive - sporting event in which teams of pullers and pushers are required to transport their decorated floats along a twisting route through the old town - bringing them perilously close to people's homes and shops. Every year, TV cameras linger over the mayhem caused when one of the sacred floats gets the better of its team.
Attending this event can prove hazardous to spectators, so caution is advised. Organisers request that onlookers remain behind the crash barriers. Kishiwada City a 30-minute train journey south of central Osaka.
Tel. 0081 72 443 3800

8) Ohara Hadaka Matsuri, Ohara Isumi City, Chiba Prefecture, September 23-24
The arrival of the harvesting season is traditionally a time for festivals across Japan, but one of the most spectacular - and eye-catching - is put on in Chiba, just to the east of Tokyo. Originally a plea to the gods for a good harvest and fishing, it has grown into an event in which 18 huge, wooden floats are carried into the sea by men wearing only loincloths.
The best place to watch the festivities is the beach, although it gets very congested. Ohara City is two hours east of Tokyo by Japan Rail regular services. Tel. 0081 3 3201 3331.

9) Takayama Festival, Takayama City, Gifu Prefecture, October 9-10
While others may be chaotic and raucous, the Takayama Festival stands above them by being elegant and refined. Regarded as one of the three most beautiful annual festivals in Japan, the almost solemn event takes place at Sakurayama Hachimangu Shrine and involves an intricately decorated "yatai" portable shrine based on the decorated gate to Nikko's Toshogu Shrine being paraded through the streets of the town. Other floats have marionettes performing and the entire procession is accompanied by musicians in traditional Shinto clothing playing age-old shrine music.
Takayama City is in central Japan, halfway between Tokyo and Osaka and about two hours by train from each city.
Tel. 0081 3 3201 3331.

10) Karatsu Kunchi Festival, Karatsu City, Saga Prefecture, November 2-4
And while other festivals are elegant or artistic, the Kuratsu Kunchi Matsuri is based on brute strength. Another offering to the gods, this one takes the form of 14 monstrous floats - weighing up to 1.5 tons - that have to be manhandled through the streets of the town by teams of local men and women. The original floats were elaborately decorated, but the aesthetic of the event is today overshadowed by the energy and enthusiasm spent on dragging them through Kuratsu City. Accompanied by traditional flutes and drums, the event has been designated as a National Important Intangible Folk Cultural Asset by the government.
Saga Prefecture is on the southernmost main island of Kyushu, a two-hour flight from Tokyo.
Tel. 0081 955 72 9127.