Shinjo Matsuri 1

Having missed the chance last year, this summer I was finally able to see one of Yamagata Prefecture’s largest and most famous festivals: ShinjoMatsuri. The festival is in the running to become a UNESCO-designated intangible cultural heritage property this year, and while I think that most Japanese festivals easily deserve that title, attending ShinjoMatsuri left me with the impression that it is uniquely suited for the designation. 

The festival is often summarized as a parade of portable shrines and locally made floats. I’m generally not a fan of parades, but ShinjoMatsuri, much like Yamagata’s other famous summer festival “Hanagasa,” is quite different from a run-of-the-mill parade. Not just because the floats are stunningly elaboratethough they are, to the degree that it’s hard to believe they’re handmade!but because each represents a tale that is a cornerstone of Japanese culture, making the festival something of a living primer in Japanese cultural heritage.

As a long-time enthusiast of Japanese history and folklore, I found myself on the edge of my seat waiting for the reveal of each new float. The Seven Gods of Fortune, led by Ebisu and flanked by his parents, the creation gods Izanagi and Izanami. Dan-no-Ura, the most famous scene from Tales of the Heike. There was a float dedicated to my favourite tale, Kaguya-hime (which some will probably recognize from the Studio Ghibli film). Even the demon-woman Yuki Onna made an appearance. The most exciting surprise, though, was the Dojoji float featuring Kiyohime and the legendary bell that she wrapped herself around after having turned into a vengeful serpent—a 1000-year-old tale scholars of classical Japanese literature and Noh theatre are sure to remember. Seeing these stories depicted so vividly was like reliving when I discovered them for the first time.

Not only are the stories represented fundamental to Japan’s cultural heritage, they are also presented in a distinctly Japanese way. Everything from the shape of the clouds in the backdrops to the labels identifying the characters is recognizable as a Japanese symbol. Kabuki imagery is prevalent in the detailed mannequins, especially the ones depicting demonic women. Each float is also followed by a group of marchers playing theme-appropriate music on traditional instruments!

All of this makes the festival a lot of fun: if you know Japanese culture, it will remind you of all of the reasons you fell in love with Japan in the first place. If you’re new to Japan and its cultural history, it will teach you everything you need to know to start appreciating everything that makes Japan special.

If we’re lucky, ShinjoMatsuri, which represents not only a 250-year local tradition and the consistent dedication of the local people, but also the cultural spirit of Japan as a whole, should be recognized as the treasure it is by UNESCO soon. Regardless, though, I hope everyone will come see it and learn the centuries-old tales behind each of its floats. The parade only takes two hours, but the stories will stay with you for a lifetime. 

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