Otsu Matsuri: the post-Covid return of a traditional matsuri

I don’t usually write about an event just after it has occurred. It seems unfair to tell readers about something they’ve just missed. But I will break my own rule this once. Nearly all matsuri, traditional Japanese festivals usually associated with shrines, have been cancelled since the Corona virus pandemic began in 2020 so it is noteworthy that matsuri are beginning to be held again and I want to share this news with readers. Use this account to whet your appetite for other autumn matsuri that will undoubtedly take place and mark your calendars for this delightful matsuri in 2023.

The annual matsuri in Otsu, a Lake Biwa “port town” in Shiga Prefecture, and the last post town before Kyoto on the Edo Period (1603-1867) Tokaido Road that spanned between Edo (modern-day Tokyo) and Kyoto, originally took place on October 10, but these days takes place on the weekend before the second Monday of October. Due to the pandemic, it was cancelled in 2020 and 2021, but the organizers decided, albeit cautiously, to proceed this year.

The origins of the matsuri are obscure, but it began sometime in or before 1638. The festival includes a parade of tall floats redolent of Kyoto’s famed Gion Matsuri.

On the Saturday night of the festival each neighborhood that sponsors a float displays their float, lit by racks of paper chochin lanterns. The streets are filled with festival-goers wanting to get an up close view of the floats. While things may have become freer as the Covid virus has progressively weakened, this being Japan, everyone wears masks–even outside–except when eating or drinking.

Mannequins that, during the Sunday parade that is the main event of the matsuri, will ride in the small roofed chamber at the top of the float, are usually displayed at street level on Saturday night. The mannequins are mechanical dolls that will perform at various points along the Sunday parade route. Each float’s mannequins are different and perform different vignettes from famous legends or Not plays.

No matsuri would be complete without a bit of music. At the Otsu Matsuri, men and boys crowd into the top chamber of the float to play drums, fifes and gongs. They play from their aerie throughout the Saturday night festivities and all day Sunday during the parade.

Apparently, because of the two year hiatus, there are extra boys in the band this year, to ensure that no one has missed the opportunity to participate. They literally hang over the sides of the float. Some children got a quick tutorial on their instruments on Saturday night, too.

There are a total of thirteen floats, known in Japanese as hiki-yama (lit. pullable mountains). Built between 1635 and 1797, there were once fourteen, but one has been “lost”. The floats are slightly smaller than Gion’s floats and sit on three massive wooden wheels, two on the back axle and one inside the tongue of the float.

The tricycle-like third wheel makes the float more maneuverable, especially when turning corners along the parade route. They are, after all, moved by people power–two massive ropes pulled by 30 to 40 volunteers along with burly men who adjust the direction as needed by moving the third wheel and chock the back wheels as a brake from time to time.

The Sunday parade, which winds through a number of the streets of the oldest part of Otsu, begins from Tenson Shrine, conveniently just a few minutes’ walk from JR Otsu Station. The shrine ground is covered with the usual food stalls. Before the parade begins all the floats are lined up on the street alongside the shrine.

The oldest float, known as the Saigyozakuratanuki-yama, dates to 1635. It is topped with a stuffed tanuki (Japanese raccoon dog, sometimes known as a badger). According to legend, at the first Otsu Matsuri, a local merchant named Jihei kicked off the festivities by donning a tanuki mask and dancing down the street. (History does not record what Jihei had been smoking immediately prior to this episode.) The parade followed and the tanuki-yama has had the responsibility of leading the parade ever since.

The only things to precede the tanuki-yama are 1) a small cart carrying a pole the height of the tallest float (testing to be sure that all floats can safely pass under overhead electrical wires–pesky traffic lights are on hinges and pulled aside for the duration of the parade) and 2) a flag bearer announcing the name of the float. Each float is preceded by such a flag bearer.

Supposedly the tanuki atop this first float ensures good weather for the parade, but Sunday was overcast with rain predicted for the afternoon, so the tanuki was clad in a little yellow raincoat, just in case. The roofs and elaborate tapestries of the floats were similar shielded from the elements with plastic sheeting. (Indeed it did begin to rain just after the lunch break, although that hardly dampened the festivities.)

The remaining floats followed in an order fixed by drawing lots about a month before the matsuri.

At fixed intervals on the parade route, each float stopped for a brief performance by its mechanical dolls. Each float had different dolls and told a different story, some drawn from ancient Chinese legends or Noh plays, others depicting incidents closer to home.

The Genji float had a mannequin of Murasaki Shikibu, author of the eleventh century novel, The Tale of Genji. Apparently Lady Murasaki stayed at an Otsu temple while writing one chapter of the novel and the characters that appear with her on the Genji float are those featured in that novel.

Another fun aspect of the parade was that the band members occasionally tossed chimaki or tenugui out of their float to people watching the parade from second story windows along the parade route. Chimaki are little charms made of straw that look like whisk brooms. They are wrapped in paper marked with the name of the float they come from. As charms, they are popularly hung at the entrance of homes to ward off evil and bring luck and it is considered especially auspicious to catch one thrown from a float. Tenugui are small cotton hand towels, similarly labeled for their float and thought to bring luck.

It was an absolute delight to attend a traditional festival after so many had been cancelled due to the pandemic. I’m sure the communities that participate in the festival, the local merchants, and everyone else who attended felt the same way. Maybe life will soon return to “normal” after all.

© 2022 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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