Monday, 15 October 2007

Nagasaki Kunchi Matsuri

From the 7th -9th October each year Nagasaki celebrates the Kunchi Matsuri (festival), and has done so for more than 370 years. It celebrates the ninth day of the ninth month of the lunar calendar, which is meant to a lucky day. The name “Kunchi' comes from the Japanese for “ninth day”, “ku nichi”. There are festivities on all three days and in various places around the city, notably at the Suwa-jinja Shinto shrine and at Otabisho, which is outside the You-Me-Seito department store that I have already come to know and love.

I found a website that gave a very informative description of the festival, but I have lost the address so I will repeat some of it here:
The first Kunchi festival took place in 1634 as part of the central government's campaign against Christianity. It is to give thanks for the harvest, but it also coincides with a period when the gods are said to leave their own shrines for a kind of annual conference. Kunchi festivals are held in many parts of Japan, but Nagasaki's Kunchi is recognised as one of the three great festivals of the Japanese year and attracts visitors from all over the country. At the festival a number of machi (districts of the city) are selected to perform.

The performance normally has three parts. First is the parading of the machi's kasaboko, a huge ceremonial umbrella, bearing the symbols of the machi. Next is the parading of a huge wooden boat on wheels, which is usually occupied by children playing drums and cymbals. Finally, there is a performance of some sort, sometimes involving the boat, but usually a dance.

Nagasaki's Kunchi is distinguished by two features, apart from the enormous effort of preparation which goes into it. Firstly, there is a variety of dances, which came to the city with people who were brought to the city to repopulate it after the Shimabara massacre of 1638. Secondly, there is the incorporation of Dutch and Chinese elements into the performances, which has occurred during its long history.

I saw the festivities at Otabisho on Tuesday morning, which started at 7am. There are seven different performances that make up the whole festival, each performed by a different machi and each lasting between 30-40 minutes. So yeah, it was a long morning.

Kohjiya Machi – The kawafune (Riverboat dance). The large, wooden boat is pulled along by a group of men, and rotated (in one direction only), which excites the crowd greatly. There was lots of yelling, cheering and clapping - no chance at all of anyone still being half-asleep by this point. The carp mounted on the roof of the float represent the carp in the Nakashima river which runs alongside the town.

Kohzen Machi – The Hon-Odori (Japanese dance). This was the first time I got to see/hear shamisen live, and it was wonderful. I also got to see geisha – yay. It started raining at the beginning of this dance, but that wasn't going to stop anyone. It's a good thing that geisha make-up practically has to be chiselled off to be removed.

Gin-ya Machi – The Shachi-daiko (Fish and Drums dance). This was just amazing. It was possibly my favourite of the performances. The taiko drummers were awesome; the sound reverberated through my chest the whole time. Add onto that the phenomenal displays of men heaving, pulling, throwing and catching a giant wooden float and you got yourself a performance that made me more glad than ever to be in Japan.

Yahata Machi – The Yumiya Hachiman Iwaibune/ Kenbu (celebration Boat/ Sword Dance). I was surprised to see only women doing the sword dance. They were obviously very skilled with their samurai swords and they gave an impressive, if a little intimidating, display of female strength. The celebration boat was pretty good too:

Manzai Machi – A Hon-dori (Japanese Dance). The music took a step or two up beat with the beginning of this performance, so that the sound of the Shamisen was now combined with more modern music. This really got the crowd going, with a lot of people joining in with the singing and dancing. It was awfully fun to simply watch too.

Nishihamono Machi – The Jabune (Dragon Boat). The dragon boat is apparently the largest object used in the festival, although they all looked similarly large to me. This boat is meant to represent the ship which brought Princess Anio to Nagasaki to marry Soutaro Araki, a wealthy trader. As you can see, unfortunately some of it had to be covered in clear plastic sheeting to protect it from the now heavy rain. The crowd (me included) got quite a shock when 'smoke' (water vapour) shot out of the dragon's mouth!

Gotoh Machi - Jaodori (Dragon Dance). Ah yes, the dragon dance. Some years there is a 'child dragon' but this year there was just an 'adult dragon', which I have to be honest was a slight relief because I was really tired by this point and my enthusiasm for the crowd's near-deafening cheers had dwindled somewhat. It was a fantastic performance, don't get me wrong. The performers aim for speed and height in this dance, when the leader guides the dragon in various directions with - what I can only describe as - a golden, spinning ball on the end of a staff (sorry, I don't know the name of it).

Kasaboko: Each machi's performance begins with a kasaboko, which is huge, parasol-like object. It carries a placard with the machi's name on it, as well as decorations on top, and a veil draped all around the sides. One man carries the 130-150 kg float on his shoulders, and to make things that little bit more difficult, the veil prevents him from seeing where he is going, so another person guides him with a flag. The carrier dances and spins in a circle, again, with much encouragement from the crowd. All very impressive.

If anybody is thinking of visiting Nagasaki and is unsure of when to do so, come at the beginning of October! This has been one of the highlights of Japan so far for me I feel privileged to have seen it all live, something that many Japanese don't even get the chance to enjoy.

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