Matsuri (祭り) is the term used for Shinto festivals, events and rites. These can be widespread or local to just a single shrine or two. This article will cover the main matsuri found in shrine Shinto.
Matsuri’s essential meaning is ‘welcoming the descending gods‘ or ‘inviting down the gods‘. This stems from the belief that the kami are present at the matsuri to made their wills known amongst the people. Therefore the matsuri held are as much for the kami as they are for the people.
Matsuri generally combine solemn and religious ritual with loud and drunken partying. To many Westerners, this can seem strange or even disrespectful – but this mix of moods shows the closeness that Japan as a people have with the kami (Plus the kami like a drink too!).
Matsuri Main Features
Most shrines use the lunar calendar for timing their important matsuri – this is an ancient tradition. In the lunar calendar, the new moon (1st of the month), the half-moon of the first quarter (7th or 8th), the full moon (15th) and the half-moon of the last quarter (22nd or 23rd) are considered sacred days and known as Hare-no-hi (晴れの日 or ハレのひ). All other days of the month are known as Ke-no-hi (褻の日 or けのひ). Until the modern era, matsuri were nearly always held on hare-no-hi days.
In ancient times, people used to believe that the day began and ended with the sunset and so festivals were held from the eve of the festival (yoi matsuri (宵祭り) into the daylight hours of the main day (hon matsuri 本祭り) with the festival ending on the sunset of this day. Because of this, most matsuri last only 24 hours – though some go on for several days.
In addition to this, matsuri are divided into three general groups:
- Spring and Autumn matsuri: Related to planting and harvesting the rice crop.
- Summer matsuri: Related to avoiding drought, natural disasters, disease and other elements which may damage the rice crop
- Winter matsuri: Related to the health and safety of the nation, its people and the Imperial household.
In Japan, the lunar calendar was abandoned in 1872 in favour of the solar (Gregorian) calendar. Even so, the lunar calendar continues to be used in many shrines, the solar in others.
Matsuri are typically divided into three main parts.
1, ‘Welcoming the kami’ (Kami Mukae – 神迎え or Kami Mukae-sai – 神迎祭). This is a special ritual designed to welcome the kami to Earth. Kami are treated as the guests of honour at matsuri.
2. ‘Procession of the kami’: Shinkō (神幸) or Shinkōsai (神幸祭) or Shinkō-shiki (神幸式).This involves the local community parading the kami around in a type of portable shrine called a mikoshi (palanquin) in which the kami are briefly transferred to for the matsuri. This allows the kami to tour their territory and confer blessings onto the community.
Some processions are huge and have many floats, music and people making a lot of noise and generally alerting the community of the kami’s procession. Others may be very quiet and solemn.
3. Sending the kami back: (Kami Okuri – 神送り) At the end of the matsuri, the kami are respectfully sent back to their abodes. It is believed that to neglect to send the kami back would cause disaster.
Harai (祓い) – Purification
This refers to purification rites such as cleansing and purification of people, objects and places. You can find more on harai here.
Hatsumode (初詣) – First Shrine Visit of the Year
The first shrine visit of the year. One attends this matsuri to express gratitude for the protection of the previous year and to gain blessings for the coming year. This matsuri is usually held around January 1st-4th, right after New Year. Typically, the Shinto priest will give a short talk and then welcomes all to share a small cup of sake or tea. Bonfires are usually lit as well. Many people will purchase ofuda and omamori for the following year at this time also.
Jinchinsai (地鎮祭) – Groundbreaking Rituals
These are groundbreaking rituals to sanctify the ground before a building is constructed.. Jinchinsai is performed to pacify the Earth kami and to purify the spot where the construction will take place.
Kekkonshiki 結婚式 – Weddings
Most Japanese weddings involve a vow before the kami. The wedding itself usually takes place at hotels or large ceremony halls designed for weddings – with makeshift shrine altars. A Shinto priest will precide over the wedding ceremonies and recites prayers and norito.
Seijin-no-hi (成人の日) – Coming of Age Day
Held on the second Monday in January each year, this is a National Holiday. Young people who have turned 20 go to a shrine for their ‘coming of age’ ceremony. At 20 a person is considered to be an adult as they are able to now vote, drink alcohol and drive a car.
Setsubun (節分) – Bean Throwing Festival
Setsubun (literally – ‘season division‘) is held on Febuary 3rd or 4th all over Japan. According to the old Japanese calendar, it is the first day of spring. Special misfortune-dispelling white arrows called hama-ye are shot in order to purify the past, present and future for all. There is also custom of throwing roasted soybeans with chanting ‘Good luck in, bad luck out!’ (Fuku wa uchi, Oni wa soto!) in order to prevent evil demons/ogres (oni) from entering one’s house. Often this festival is huge, with people dressed up as oni complete with clubs. According to Japanese traditional, if you eat the same number of beans as your age, you will enjoy a year of good health.
There are many, many more matsuri than these! You can read about some of the matsuri which Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America hold here.
If you have a local shrine, it is worth seeing which matsuri they hold, and on what days. Otherwise it is possible for the solitary Shintoist to create their own personal celebrations on these days. I will write a future article on solitary Shinto.
Matsuri are a very ancient and deep tradition of the Shinto faith and the Japanese people. If you are visiting Japan, please take the time to find out if there are any matsuri happening at the time of your visit and please do step forth and experience it!