Photography by Thaddeus Pope
In villages, towns and cities throughout the Japanese archipelago, tens of thousands of traditional festivals have been passed down from one generation to the next 1. These festivals are acts of cultural preservation, important to communities’ collective cultural identity. And because they are typically collaborative efforts involving hundreds of participants, they help build a community’s sense of unity 2. Some festivals, however, incorporate unique traditions and customs that both foreigners and residents from other regions of Japan might find peculiar if not simply bizarre. Events like these are known as kisai or “strange festivals”, and they are vastly different from Japan’s popular traditional festivals. Appointed as the Intangible Cultural Folk Heritage of Gamagori City, the Miya Festival is one such kisai.
With roots stretching back 300 years 3, the Miya Festival is the pride of Gamagori City and is one of the best-known and most spectacular festivals in the Tokai region. A float festival, it is a common type of traditional annual event in which participants appeal to the gods for peace and protection from natural disasters. The wide variety of float festivals held across Japan demonstrate the diversity of local cultures, as well as the differences between regional traditions, including the style and construction of the floats, the accompanying music and dances, and overall event design. The highlight of the Miya Festival, and the kisai element that distinguishes it from other float festivals, is the kaichutogyo, which essentially means “transferring of sacred objects to the sea”, or more simply, “sea crossing”.
- Further reading about kisai festivals: 109 Best Japanese Festivals. Japan Talk, November 22, 2009; The festival is packed with Japanese “living power”. Nippon.com, June 28, 2012; How many festivals in Japan?. YamamotoTetsuya.com, November 22, 2009 ↩
- Men, women, children and the elderly play important roles in festivals, their responsibilities based on age and gender, with senior bearers providing guidance to those less experienced and hosting classes for young people. Men, however, almost exclusively play a central role in the main festival proceedings ↩
- The Miya Festival’s roots trace back to 1696, when the mayor of Miya (now part of modern day Gamagori City) dreamt that Yatsurugi-Daimyojin, the main deity of Yatsurugi-jinja, visited the nearby Wakamiya-jinja on a portable shrine. Believing the dream to be a divine message, he arranged a ceremony to carry the spirit of the deity from Yatsurugi-jinja to Wakamiya-jinja. According to existing documents, however, the first official festival wasn’t held until 1712, with residents of six local villages coming together to perform the rituals. Since that time, it has been passed down through the generations and has dramatically increased in size. Unfortunately, Typhoon Vera caused significant damage to the coastline of Mikawa Bay in 1959. As a result, the kaichutogyo was discontinued until 1996, when it was revived for the 300th anniversary of the founding of the festival – in part due to growing calls from local residents and the wider public. ↩
- It is said that the road was once so narrow it was not possible for big floats to pass by without entering the sea, and some people believe this is why floats are now pulled across the bay. ↩
- Another aspect that further distinguishes Miya Festival from other float festivals is the reading of the characters for the float itself. Typically, the word dashi, meaning float, is written 山車 in Japanese, but in the case of the Miya Festival, the word is read yama, meaning mountain, although the same characters are used. These floats are designed to resemble the mountains where the gods reside, and the design of these floats is believed to have been influenced by the Gion Festival in Kyoto. ↩
- The floats used in the Miya Festival are also constructed differently from typical mikoshi portable shrines. Aside from being decorative, the Miya Festival floats are large enough to hold people (mainly children) who are meant to welcome the gods while playing traditional musical instruments and song. The floats are also constructed with the kaichutogyo portion of the festival in mind: long poles make it easier to propel them through the water and to change direction, as well as to help prevent them from toppling. The floats also have large wheels, called koro, made from round segments of pine. Approximately 90cm in diameter and about 50cm wide, these are larger than those on typical festival floats and facilitate smoother travel, including when submerged in the bay. ↩