Written by Patricia MacLeod-Kishi
Shinjo Matsuri - Join One of Tōhoku's Vibrant Summer Festivals!
Shinjō Matsuri is a festival held in Shinjō city, Yamagata prefecture, each year at the end of August. The impressive parade of floats and the traditional dances create a lively, exciting atmosphere that is unique to this area.
Come and join the parade! Visitors to Shinjo are welcome to participate and help pull the floats, shouting "Wasshoi! Wasshoi!".
Shinjo city, the capital of Mogami, one of the four districts of Yamagata prefecture, has a long history as an administrative center. Located at the crossroads of important north-south and east-west routes, it is a former castle town.
Especially in August, there is a festival around every corner in Japan. Among all of these, one of the most colorful and lively is the Shinjo Festival, designated as an important intangible folk cultural property in 2009.
Read Also: Four Tohoku Festivals You Should Not Miss
The Shinjo Festival takes place every year towards the end of August and is the main annual event that brings the city together. The festival is exciting for children and it also marks the end of summer before farmers begin the rice harvest and autumn sets in. Music can be heard all over town, even in supermarkets, and tension mounts as float makers stay up all night to finish details in time.
Neighborhoods vie with each other to construct the most dramatic floats and funding for the materials comes from public donations. Other neighborhoods without floats practice hard to provide the best musical accompaniment.
Out of about twenty floats, two floats are displayed at the local Historical Center until the following year and one more is on view by the ticket office inside Shinjo Station. They are large, about 7 meters long and almost as high.
The Festival was initiated in 1756 by the feudal Lord Tozawa Masanobu of Shinjo Dewa domain during a sustained period of poor weather. Tradition has it that the festival was started to deflect blame for the harsh conditions from the Tozawa clan and raise everyone's spirit by working together on a common project that would take people's thoughts away from the prevailing famine, disease and misery.
The formal castle site is now Mogami Park, a cherry tree bordered park, with three shrines and the remnants of a moat. At 8:30 AM on the morning of August 25th, the parade of the portable shrines (mikoshi), accompanied by Shintō priests, starts here and moves around the city, returning at 3:30 PM.
Vassals carrying hasamibako (ceremonial lacquer coffers) make a dramatic impression with their faces hidden by wide straw hats. Floats join the parade and the whole procession follows the main roads of the city.
The floats represent historical, kabuki or traditional mythical stories and characters. Each float is hand constructed by volunteer groups in the neighborhoods. The floats have to stay within a height that permits them to pass under overhead electrical wiring and there are people equipped with special long pushing-wires-out-of-the-way sticks who are supposed to ensure that snags do not occur.
Highlights of the Festival
The night procession on August 24th is when the floats are at their most theatrical. Lights emphasize the vividly painted colors and the giant creatures and characters supported by wires appear to bounce around more than in the daytime. The horrible serpents, wild animals and oni (evil monsters) look like they're coming to get you, and because of their great size you can feel that you are part of the scene.
Each float is accompanied by paired neighborhood musical groups vying for volume and impact. They play flutes, hand cymbals, drums and occasionally shamisen.
Prior to the initial night parade, which starts at 7:00 PM on the 24th, you can enjoy the ladies' bon odori dance performances near the station. The smell of grilled foods from stalls selling all kinds of hot food permeates the air, and there are plenty of toys, goldfish, crafts and plants to buy.
Horsemeat sashimi (basashi) is one of the local delicacies, eaten with grated garlic and soy sauce. It can be ordered at izakayas. Otherwise, motsu ramen (chitterlings ramen) from I-Chawan Shiten, tori motsu ramen (chicken chitterlings ramen) from Umeya, and katsudon (rice with pork cutlet) from Ichiyo are very popular choices.
On the morning of the 26th dance performances called Shishi odori, dedicated to the Tenman, Tozawa and Gokoku Shrines take place from 10:00 AM to 12:30 PM. These dances, inspired by the movements of the Japanese serow (kamoshika) are prayers for the coming harvest, as well as a tribute to the fallen in the feudal wars at the end of the Edo era.
Before dying of old age, there used to be a live deer by the Tozawa shrine, which was said to have the role to help relieve or absorb some of our pain. Even when we are not stressed, it's nice to have an empathic moment with a gentle creature. Now, a ceramic cow by the Tenmangū Shrine will help cure physical ailments if you touch the corresponding part that is bothering you ... And back to the festival!
Shinjō city is not large, so walking around the center of town is easy. It is also possible to rent bicycles for 300 yen a day from the information office at the train station.
Mogami Park in Shinjo city, Yamagata Prefecture
Access: From Tokyo - Yamagata Shinkansen (Shinjō Station), by air (Sakata Airport or Yamagata Airport), by bus.