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 spirits, 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. Through this show of worship, the locals sought protection from evil spirits & calamity, or to receive 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, as well as rocks & 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 during times of ritualistic festivities. Thus the dashi was invented. 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Certain historical documents like the Kojiki (古事記), Zoku Nihon Kōki (続日本後紀), Kiki (記紀), and Ruigu Kokushi (類聚国史) give the notion that ritualistic festivities that incorporate the dashi was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 festivals were carried out in rich & prosperous areas like Kyōto up until feudal warring for the sake of control over Japan became excessive, such as during Sengoku period. Once Japan was unified under the rule of the Tokugawa clan, festivals featuring the dashi resumed. As different prefectures became developed during Edo period, many towns also adopted this traditional practice as they started their own festivals, which includes building their own unique dashi. Today, the artistic construction of the 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 has become 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 beliefs 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.