Warabi Hadaka Matsuri - a Massive Muddy Naked Men Festival in Chiba
Tokyo, Yokohama and Kanto
Chichibu Night Festival is an outstanding Festival Floats event that takes place every year in Saitama prefecture. The tradition of worshipping “yama (山)” or mountain as a deity is popular in many areas in the world. The mountains represent something mighty, mythical, and supernatural. By the way, Juggernaut is also an English word that describes a huge, powerful, and overwhelming force or something possessing such force. This word derives from the name of an Indian deity Vishnu’s avatar: Jagannath.
The tradition of honoring this ancient god of Hinduism remains in several parts of Eastern India. Local people in each region prepare huge chariots – “ratha” anew every year for the annual festival that they call “Rath Yatra”. With a pileup of colorful decorations on the chariots like a “mountain”, they pull rathas in large processions with the god on the sacred vehicles. Among the rathas for Jagannath to sit on, there is one that reaches 29 meters high and weighs 300 tons. Probably, this tradition came to Japan in ancient times through the Asian Continent. Then, it helped the formation of “dashi (山車)” or festive float (with wheels) culture in many districts of the country. And the culture of “dashi-matsuri (山車祭り)” have been inherited for ages in Chichibu, too.
The city stands in the westernmost area of Saitama Prefecture. Chichibu is largely mountainous, belonging to “Chichibu-Tama-Kai (秩父多摩甲斐)” National Park. Though it sounds like a place far away from the Tokyo Metropolitan area, Chichibu is relatively easy to reach by public transport. It is Saitama’s largest municipality straddling Tokyo Metropolis and three other neighboring prefectures: Gunma, Nagano, and Yamanashi.
According to a local record of ancient matters, there were three provinces in current Saitama Prefecture, including “Chichibu-no-kuni (知知夫国)” or Chichibu Province. The Yamato Imperial Court sent a military force to the areas to be under its dominance. Then, the three provinces merged into “Musashi-no-kuni (武蔵国)” or Musashi Province in the 6th century. After that, locals discovered native copper deposits in the Chichibu area and offered it to the Imperial Court in 708. The government started using copper to produce official coins for the Court. They are among the oldest coinage in Japan. Deepening a political and economic relationship with the Court, Chichibu became an influential province in ancient Japan.
The Chichibu Night Festival is an annual festival in December. The main venue is Chichibu Shrine in central Chichibu, which is about 90 minutes by train from Tokyo.
Chichibu Shrine, established by a descendant of the governor called “kuni-no-miyatsuko (国造)” of ancient Chichibu Province in the 10th century, is over 1,000 years old and has been playing the major role in religious events in the Chichibu area. In the Engishiki (延喜式), a Japanese book compiled in 927 by the Imperial Court on laws and customs about religious ceremonies, Chichibu Shrine was among the Court-recognized Shinto shrines. This is how the shrine became one of the most influential in the Kanto region. Thus, many powerful samurai lords paid visits to this sanctuary. The current shrine was rebuilt in 1592 under the support of Tokugawa Ieyasu, one of the greatest samurai lords and unifier of Japan.
The image courtesy of MGA73bot2
Chichibu Shrine hosts a lot of festivals. The rice-planting festival takes place in April. In mid-summer, Kawase Festival, famous for its 400 kg portable “mikoshi (神輿)” shrine and cleansing ceremony in the Arakawa River, takes place on July 19th and 20th. But this Night Festival in December attracts about 300,000 visitors just in two days every year. I would say that it features the biggest number of visitors among all the events in Chichibu.
The image courtesy of Kaori Hilton
The whole festival spans the first six days in December, and its highlight is on December 2nd and 3rd. Besides, you will see exciting attractions – festive float processions – taking place. The audience is fascinated with the sacred vehicles moving stately. All eyes are on their ornate decorations with paper lanterns, embroidered curtains, gorgeous wood carvings, and “kagura (神楽)” – Shinto theatrical performances accompanied by traditional music. These are all in the list of Important Cultural Assets of Japan.
In 2016, UNESCO decided to register “Japan’s festive floats and processions” in its list of Intangible Cultural Heritages. Among the heritage floats you will find the ones used at Chichibu Night Festival. These are six huge floats – four “yatai (屋台)” floats and two “kasahoko (傘鉾)” floats. See them parading down the streets during the festival! Inside the yatai floats, people play music to the rhythm of taiko drums during the processions. And the kasahoko floats feature decorations that represent a divine spirit. They have a long halberd-shaped pillar from which the parasols spread down like hanging willows. Besides, the six floats belong to each local community and show off their own splendor and magnificence.
The yatai floats parade takes place twice a day with their first session from 12:00 to 16:30 and the second session from 18:00 to 20:00. The route they take is one-kilometer long from Kamimachi through Nakamachi and Motomachi to Chichibu Shrine. The most impressive part you can’t miss is how people let the float turn and change its course by using a huge wooden bar for levitation. They can raise up its front part to put a special turntable under the platform and rotate the entire body of the float in the opposite direction. Local people call this direction-changing technique “hikimawashi (引き廻し)”, which translates as “pulling and turning”. Also, the audience is overwhelmed by the thrilling scenes of two floats playing kind of “chicken game” as if they about to crash head-on into each other but narrowly avoid it on the street.
The floats start parading from 9:00 a.m. and return by the same course that they did the previous day. They go from Chichibu Shrine through Motomachi, Nakamachi, and Kamimachi to their destination – “Otabisho (御旅所)”. Besides, in the daytime, you can enjoy kabuki performances on the special “apron stage” using the platform of a yatai float in the grounds of the shrine. Performers from a district that hosts the stage event each year show their graceful songs and dances.
The highlight of the festival is at night. Around 6:00 p.m., a sacred procession of the portable shrine accompanied by two horses leaves the shrine for Otabisho. According to local folklore, Otabisho is the place as a rendezvous for “Ryujin (龍神)”, dragon deity from Mt. Buko, and “Myoken (妙見)”, a bodhisattva of Chichibu Shrine. The six yatai and yamahoko floats follow the stately procession. On the way to Otabisho, there is a steep slope – “Dangozaka (団子坂)”, which makes it harder for people to pull up the floats weighing as heavy as 20 tons each. But seeing people pulling together is an exceptionally spectacular sight to see.
You can enjoy gorgeous sparks of fireworks in the night sky both on December 2nd and 3rd.
These fireworks provide a great backdrop to the festival floats which are really instagenic.
Several parking areas are available in the city, but they are expected to be crowded during the festival. I recommend using public transportation.
The Chichibu Night Festival is among Japan’s three great “dashi” festivals, the two others are the Gion Festival in Kyoto and the Takayama Festival in Gifu. Both festivals are also in the UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Assets list. If you have an interest in them, please read the articles about the festivals on FestivalGo!
If you would like to visit this festival and explore Saitama prefecture with a friendly local guide, please check the banner below!
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Image courtesy of Yuya Saito
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Image courtesy of Tomomarusan
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