Experiencing Japanese Festivals ~ PART 2

In part 1, I shared my experience in attending a matsuri, or festival in Japan. For this article, I will elaborate more on one of the main components found in large festivals, which is the dashi. This will include the history, design, differences from the mikoshi, and the many names it is known under based on area.

DEFINITION AND BEGINNINGS

Dashi is written as “山車” in Japanese. At 1st glance one would think phonetically it should be pronounced  “sansha” or “yamaguruma”. Why “dashi” is used is not really known.  From a literal translation you get “rolling mountain” or “mountain on wheels”. This has a deep meaning due to how it originated.

The dashi is associated with festive celebrations that have roots in ritualistic practices. Its purpose is to call down kami (神, usually identified as divine beings, deities, and gods) that have some connection to ancient Shintō beliefs¹ from the heavens into man-made mountains that were made out of trees, leaves, pieces of lumber, and other natural materials, so that they could occupy it during the celebration. Through this show of worship, the locals sought protection from evil spirits, calamity, and continual good fortune for their area, which is believed to have been granted by these gods.

An account of the origins and meaning behind the term dashi. From “Me de miru Hachioji no Dashi Matsuri”.

The origins of this ritual is said to come from an ancient belief that certain inanimate objects housed gods, especially for those that are higher up in the sky. This was especially true for mountain tops, and rocks and trees that are found high up on mountains. It is thought that people at the time wanted to invite these divine spirits that they worship into a special medium at times of celebration. In order to do this, the dashi was created. Another thought is the dashi was originally brought up a mountain to where it would be tall enough to be the major point of attraction for these divine spirits. In order to do so, wheels were attached to it so it could be pulled up a mountain.

Certain historical documents like the Kojiki (古事記), Zoku Nihon Kōki (続日本後紀), Kiki (記紀), and Ruigu Kokushi (類聚国史) give the notion that ritual festivities that incorporate the dashi was normal practice as far back as the Heian period (794 ~ 1185). This ranges from the age-long festivities that took place in Gion, Kyōto (this was originally the capital city where the Imperial family and noble families resided in), to during a ceremonial event called Daijōe (大嘗会)² . In the past, the dashi went under such titles like Shime yama (標山)³ and Yamaboko (山鉾) . These different events, in some shape or form, was to ward off misfortune and calamity away from the area and its inhabitants through the protection of the deity being called for.

These rituals were carried out in rich & prosperous areas like Kyōto up until feudal warring became prominent, such as during Sengoku period. Once Japan was unified under the rule of the Tokugawa clan, these ritual festivals featuring the dashi resumed. As different prefectures became developed during Edo period, many towns also started their own festivals and incorporated this traditional practice,  including building their own unique dashi. Today, the artistic construction of the many types of dashi used throughout Japan is a visual spectacle that attracts much attention, both from the locals to visitors from other countries. It can be argued that much of the ritual/worship aspect is a minor for these festivals, or gone all together from people’s minds. Still, this has not deterred such festivals to continue, and this may be due in part of the dashi.

DIFFERENCES FROM THE MIKOSHI

A common object used during festivals is the mikoshi (神輿). Like the dashi, this plays an important role in accordance to Shinto traditions. However, it shouldn’t be confused with the dashi for they are not the same at all. Below is a list of the differences for both the mikoshi and the dashi.

3 mikoshi of different sizes. From Photo-ac.com

Mikoshi

  • Mini shrine to transport local god to temporary shrine
  • Houses divine spirit that remains closed to the public
  • No humans are allowed in
  • Carried as they are light

A mikoshi is made in the semblance of a mini shrine. It’s purpose is to transport the deity that resides in the main shrine to a temporary shrine during the procession. General public are not allowed to see the inside of the containment on the mikoshi, which supposedly houses the god of the local shrine. This is the same as when visiting the main shrine.  The mikoshi is much smaller than a dashi, and, depending on design and weight,  is generally carried by 2-4 people. 

A dashi in motion. From Photo-ac.com

Dashi

  • Design is a large float-like vehicle
  • Means to attract divine spirit
  • Live entertainment by human inside
  • Pulled as they can be very heavy

As mentioned before, the dashi is a large float-like vehicle that is designed to rival a mountain. They are usually adorned with eye-catchy accessories, which is much different from the mikoshi. The purpose of the dashi is to not only be attractive to the local god to come down and embark inside, but to be as source of entertainment to appease the god. People are allowed to sit inside the dashi, and act as the source of entertainment. To further assist with this, workers may also sit on the sides and/or on top of the dashi. As one can imagine, the design can make for a rather large and heavy vehicle. With wheels attached to the bottom, a dashi is pulled by a good number of people in order for it to move⁴.

MORE THAN ONE NAME

The common name used today to describe this mountain-on-wheels throughout Japan is “dashi”. However there are specialty & colloquial labels used as well. Here’s a list of these unique titles along with the areas in Japan you will most likely be able to hear them.

1) Yamaboko (山鉾) = Previously mentioned, this could have the meaning of “mountain lance” or “mountain that pierces the sky”. Thought as one of the earlier terms for dashi. This title is used in Kyōto.

2) Yamagasa (山笠) = Literally translates as “mountain-umbrella”. Used in Hakata City, Fukuoka. Records on the reasoning behind the term is non-existent. Furthermore, the dashi used do not give a clue, for the dashi used in Hakata City always have a new design every year.

3) Yatai (屋台) = Used in Tochigi Prefecture. A title that actually has the same meaning as dashi, but nowadays acts as a word for booths, stalls, and the like that are set up at festivals and amusement parks where locals can play games and buy food. For the matsuri held in Tochigi, yatai is still reserved for use as the name for the dashi.

4) Hikiyama (曳山) = Can be translated as “a mountain that is pulled along”. Considered an older word, it is still used in certain areas, such as Shiga Prefecture and Saga Prefecture.

5) Saisha (祭車) = An interesting dashi used in Mie Prefecture. One of its unique traits is that it features a 3-wheeled wagon design with percussion instruments such as symbols and drum hanging from the back, and may have many lanterns positioned on top. Unlike other bigger counterparts, the saisha design tends to have it on the small side, with decorations on top of its roof that makes it look taller. This makes it not have a lot of room for anyone to sit on, if at all. Also, performers can play music at the back as they walk along with the saisha.

6) Danjiri (地車, 壇尻) = This label is used primarily in the western part of Japan. Danjiri stands out from the rest of the dashi with its longer shape and somewhat lower roofing. This lends to an older looking architecture that can seat many workers during the festival. Another point worth mentioning is that danjiri are known for their speed, as they are pulled around at a faster pacing.

DECORATING A DASHI

Over time the architecture of the dashi has evolved and are a work of art. Each prefecture have their own team or hire specialists that craft their dashi according to the vision they have in order to tell their story. As can be seen in the pictures provided, some creativity goes into designing a dashi to be tall & adorned with different accessories, yet still leave ample room for the workers to sit or hang on. Some, on the other hand, are designed where instead of a person, a doll depicting a warrior or a mythical creature sits on the dashi. Architectural design gives credence to this, as some may be shaped like a small building with multiple tiers and roofing which allows many people to board on it. Others may be built like a room or chamber, where individuals dressed like nobles sit during the procession. Then there are those that may bear a design like a stage and have a kabuki actor perform.

The terms dashi gazari (山車飾り) and dashi kanagu (山車金具) are used when referring to decorations & metallic parts for the dashi. These decorations consists of pillars, golden emblems & plates, embroidery fabrics, curtains, ropes, and drums. Some boost decorations similar to that on shrines, while others may have an appears that is wild like something out of folklore. Most of these have a strong Asian motif, with concepts coming from Shinto or Buddhism. Then there are those that make use of dashi ningyō (人形, doll), which can range to it being small to larger than human size.

The decorations have special meaning. For example, they may tell the story behind the start of that particular area’s dashi matsuri, portray famous individuals or mystical beings, or they may inspire a quality that is synonymous with the town or area. One example is the large festival that takes place in Morioka City, Iwate Prefecture, where some organizations participate with their own specialty dashi. These tend to be based on old Japanese folklore and kabuki plays, such as Urashima Tarō, Bō-shibari, and Yoshitsune Senbon-zakura. As one would expect, creating elaborately fancy dashi meant that they got a special name as well, so their style can be remembered when recorded in each area’s catalogue.

CONCLUSION

This wraps up this article about dashi. One article is not enough to describe the plethora of unique dashi that are rolled out each year in Japan. While seeing them in pictures is great, physically being in the crowds of a festival to see them during the procession is an experience you’ll never forget. Hope this article is convincing enough to make the trip out to Japan if you haven’t (that is, once the world has settled down and traveling becomes safe).


1) Ancient Shintō (古神道, Ko-Shintō) is considered vastly different from modern Shinto today, as it incorporated a more archaic ideology regarding nature, spirits, and how humans interact with them. Form of worship was much more open-ended, as its basis included primitive, esoteric beliefs such as animism. Over time, however, this changed once Taoism and Buddhism were introduced to Japan, and over time Ancient Shintō and other older belief started to be pushed away.

2) Also written as Daijōsai (大嘗祭), and can also be pronounced Oonie -matsuri and Ooname-matsuri.

3) Also written as Shime no yama (標の山).

4) At one point in time, cows were used to pull a dashi.

Experiencing Japanese Festivals ~ PART 1

This year I was really looking forward to my summer vacation in Japan. However, due to the current pandemic, this was not possible. Some of the activities my family and I had planned included seeing the street festival that takes place in my wife’s hometown. Street festivals are a great sight to experience, as it really shows the unity and pride in these by the local townfolks. I don’t often take pictures when I travel about or take part in special occasions like this, for I prefer to take in the experience and enjoy every moment without disengaging by taking out my camera. Recently I stumbled upon some actual pics of me and my family taking part in a street festival, and figured I’d share it here.

These pictures are from late summer of 2009. Japan is especially humid around this time, so we could dress in light, comfortable clothing. Many of the town folks, along with my family, gathered late in the day along a busy street in Motoyokoyama Town (元横山町) in Hachiōji City (八王子市), which is located in the western part of Tokyo. We all arrived early while preparations were at hand. This street festival, called “Hachiōji Matsuri” (八王子祭), is done annually in August. The main attraction is the numerous dashi (山車), which are like large floats that are competitively designed and adorned to be the best spectacle to the crowds of people.

The dashi, along with other elements featured during the street festival, are supported by the Hachiman Yakumo Jinja (八幡八雲神社), which is the main shrine of this part of the city. While considered a young tradition since the formal development of Hachiōji during the Edo period, it is recorded that festivals of this nature have been in practice in rich & flourishing areas since the Heian period (794~1185), such as Kyoto.

Wearing a happi (法被, traditional light coat especially used for working) shows one’s support for the festivities at hand. Most participants wore different types of happi depending on their role during the festival. Myself and my daughter (pic above) also wore a happi we received from my parents-in-law.

In these street festivals, a procession takes place. Depending on the celebration, certain objects or equipment will be used. Here we can see a mikoshi (神輿), which is a shintō vehicle designed to house the god that is worshiped and considered the guardian of this section of Hachiōji. There are actually two gods of the Hachiman Yakumo Jinja, which are Hondawake-no-Mikoto (誉田別命) and Susanoo-no-Mikoto (素戔嗚尊).

Take note that although this follows along a tradition, esoteric & religious beliefs may not be so prominent for the festival or even amongst those participating. Instead, the enjoyment and unity such events bring are the winning point for many. As for the mikoshi, it is an adorned vehicle which the inside cannot be seen. It is also a portable size, allowing several individuals to easily carry during the procession. Generally speaking, a mikoshi is a work of art and unique between the many towns and prefectures found in Japan.

Next is the dashi, which is the vehicle that is used to attract the gods from the heavens, and have them be entertained in order to keep their interest to stay for the festival. There were a few present at this street festival. Unlike the mikoshi, a dashi is a very tall vehicle similar to a float. There is usually one entertainer minimum sitting inside the float, but there can be more. Also there can be entertainers riding outside on the sides or even on top of the dashi. Due to their size and weight, the dashi has wheels in order for it to move and has to be pulled by several workers. Dashi also showcase some impressive designs and decorations. They are intricately planned, and have skilled designers craft these decorations. Up close they are a sight to see. Depending on the town, the design and decorations are unique and have special meanings.

We stayed for several hours, as the festival continued in the night. In preparation for this, the street lamps came on. Along with this, the glowing lanterns and lights on the dashi added an eerie yet mystical aura as darkness slowly draped around us.

On the side of the streets were vendors selling food and drinks. These were handy if you needed some form of nourishment to keep going, or if you just wanted to have a good time and enjoy the street food.

We’ve come to the end of this little walk down memory lane regarding Japanese street festival. Hope you all enjoyed a glimpse into it through the pictures provided. In my next post, I will continue to discuss about festivals that place dashi as the main attraction, which will include the lore and the distinguishing points that put it in a class of its own.