Anban Matsuri Boat Festival (Oaraii, Japan)

Anban Matsuri: It’s a hot, muggy night. Japanese lanterns are shimmering from across the lake. You hear mysterious thumping and the distant sounds of laughing, singing and enjoyment. You start to hear a commotion of people walking and you can hear the rustling of plastic bags in some kind of a hurry. The village is hustling and bustling to get to the evenings festivities. What is it you might wonder?

I am talking about the Anban Matsuri, a long history of a very traditional festival in Ibaraki, Japan. This particular and rare boat festival in Oaraii, Japan is one of the oldest festivals that displayOdoritraditional dances where exotic “kagura”, “hyottokko’s” and “kitsunes” dance on top of boats that move while Taiko drums beat ecstatically in sync with the mystical shakuhachi flute.

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SIGNIFICANCE: So, what is the significance of this festival and why is it held? Usually matsuris(festivals) are held around full moons that coincide with agricultural cycles of harvest. This tradition also coincides with Shintoism, which is Japan’s native tradition. Shintoism celebrates and incorporates a lot of nature deities. If you closely observe the older generation of Japan in the countryside, you will find that they are much more in tune with nature and their environment. A lot of the older generation are involved in a community organization also known as “kumiai”. The “kumiai” of a particular area will pool together their efforts, money and labor to make the “matsuri” happen.

In the old times and still today, you will hear the beating of the drums in the earlier part of the day. It is a signal to the village that a big festival is going to occur that night. Around noon, my mom was surprised not to hear the drumming. About 30 minutes later, we started hearing the heavy pounding of drums. My mom admitted that when she heard the drums, it took her back to her childhood. The village kids would round up full of excitement and run to see the boat. In their eyes and minds, this meant a night of fun filled activities! My uncle called me since he was working in the rice fields next to Hinuma gawa (lake). He told me to get there as quickly as possible. I got my camera ready and ran like hell.

DAY TIME BEFORE THE FESTIVAL: This is a picture from my grandmother’s side of the river. There are Taiko drummers on the boat practicing. If you look closely, you can see “kitsunes” dancing. “Kitsunes” are foxes. The beating sound of the drums reminds the villages by the lake that a festival is to take place. “Kitsunes” are an interesting animal in Japanese folklore. They are known to be sly, cunning and clever. There have always been childhood stories about how the “kitsune” outsmarted a person. The “kitsune” dance is probably one of the most intriguing to watch. The “kitsune” have on a fox mask with long wild hair. They tug and pull at their hair in a manic and wild display. They will strike poses very similar to Kabuki actors. There are lots of sharp movements and lots of loud stomps that also take place.

One of the oldest festivals that displays “Odori” traditional dances where exotic “kagura”, “hyottokko’s” and “kitsunes”  dance on top of boats that move while Taiko drums beat ecstatically in sync with the shakuhachi flute. 

According to other villagers around Hinuma Gawa (River) the boat used to come to shore and take money donations to help towards the fishing industry. In this particular lake there are a lot of clams. As the villagers would hear the beating of the drums coming closer, it was kind of expected for them to donate what they could in order to bring in more good fortune for the lake. My mother, uncle and I wanted to give a little money, but it was difficult for the boat to come closer. We instead talked with local villagers and watched the boat practice and float by.

Other things that you will see at this particular omatsuri (festival) are food and game stalls.  Pictured below you will see some yaki ika (grilled squid) that is sold for 500 yen. They will also sell red and white bean paste desserts that are wrapped in a type of waffle mixture. Many little children and teenagers will be wearing matsuri wear such as yukatas (summer kimonos). Little bots will tend to wear matsuri shorts and a wrap around top. You’ll see little girls wearing yukatas. High school teenager girls will dress up and put flower jewelry into their hair and wear colorful and bright summer yukata. You’ll also see them walking around sometimes with zoori sandals and a keitai (cell phone).

Little kids play games similar to this one. This is like “go fish” but you scoop up miniature rubber balls. From what I remember, there are special rubber balls floating within the mix that blink.

Of course you cannot go to a matsuri, without seeing masks for sale. Of course there is “anpan man” and “pokemon” as well as the fashionable “hello kitty”

As the day came to a close and it began to get dark and the festival came to life. There were 4 boats in the middle of the lake slowly making their way to shore. The first boat made a grand entrance by showcasing a string of fireworks. My mom couldn’t stop commenting on how cool it was. She was yelling out “kakko iii”! Simply put it means “awesome”. It can translate into other expressions as well. As soon as all the boats docked, then the dancing began. The sounds of the “shakuhachi” flute and the taiko reminded me of Balinese Gamelan music. Everyone was super excited to see, hear and experience. There is something about “matsuri” music that is super nostalgic for me. I remember going there as a young child with my father. My father had never seen anything like this. He still talks about it with his friends.

If you do travel to Japan, plan on going at the time of a festival. There are many famous festivals in Japan ranging from the very famous Yuki Matsuri (Snow Festival) in Sapporo, Hokkaido where beautiful ice sculptures are carved to the super famous Gion Matsuri in Kyoto which happens to be the most famous festival in Japan. I am forewarning you ahead of time that the Japanese book their hotel reservations and train tickets a year or two in advance to go see these festivals, so you do have to PLAN AHEAD! Here is a link to Japan’s Official Tourism Guide for Travelers. Official Tourism Guide for Japan Travel


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