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Onbashira Festival at Susukigawa Shrine in Matsumoto

The Onbashira log and its rope

The Onbashira log and its rope

The Onbashira Festival of the Lake Suwa area in Nagano is one of most famous festival in Japan and also one of the most dangerous because it involves felling a number of huge trees from the mountain forests, riding the logs (which weigh several tons) down the steep mountain slope and then erecting (by hand!!) at the local Shinto shrine. To get a better idea of events of Lake Suwa’s festival, you can see some fantastic photos here and here and here.

Although Lake Suwa’s Onbashira event is perhaps the largest and most exciting, Matsumoto also has its own (toned down) versions of the festival that take place at some of the shrines in the city. The actual day of the festival depends on the particular shrine, but like in Lake Suwa, it takes place only once every six years. The rituals of Onbashira date back hundreds of years and the trees offered to the shrine were used in rebuilding its structure as the wood deteriorated from age.

A torii gate at Susukigawa Shrine

A torii gate at Susukigawa Shrine

I was lucky enough to get to experience the Susukigawa Shrine Onbashira Festival right after moving to Matsumoto this past Golden Week. The whole ritual starts a few months before the actual festival when the two trees are felled and brought down from the mountain (unfortunately I didn’t get so see that part). By the day of the festival, the trunks of the trees have had their bark removed and the wooden smoothed out. In order to transport each tree to the shrine, gigantic ropes are attached to it so the entire neighborhood can help pull it through the streets. Although the young men of the neighborhood are the main participants, women, children and the elderly also help pull the rope (in fact, it would probably be impossible to move the tree trunks without their help).

Crowds gathered for the departure of the Onbashira log to the shrine.

Crowds gathered for the departure of the Onbashira log to the shrine.

The Onbashira log departs the Yunohara neighborhood

The Onbashira log departs the Yunohara neighborhood

Turning the Onbashira log around a corner

Turning the Onbashira log around a corner

The process of pulling the Onbashira log along is quite a sight. Three or four of the young men actually stand on top of the log (not to mention make it even heavier…), acting as the leading “cheerleaders” who shout out encouragement and chants to the pullers. Then there are men armed with long, sturdy sticks who help nudge the log along by wedging their sticks underneath the front and leveraging it up so it budges just enough to give traction to the pullers. The pullers heave the log in sync with the chants of the cheerers. If you attend the festival, you’ll also notice the colorful “pompoms” on a stick, if you will, that the festival participants wave and shake for encouragement.

The Onbashira logs arrive at Susukigawa Shrine around noon, where everyone takes a long break for lunch. Like in the Ofune Matsuri (Boat Festival), the crowd separates in to their respective neighborhoods and have a big picnic together under the shrine’s humongous trees. Here another interesting ritual occurs: in each neighborhood group, the men pass around one of the “pompoms” and take turns singing, waving the pompom in circles over their heads. The songs and style of singing seem to be specific to the Onbashira Festival, and I’m guessing have been passed down through the generations (though the lyrics can be made up in an impromptu fashion – see the video below).

One of the Onbashira logs parked before the gate of the shrine.

One of the Onbashira logs parked before the gate of the shrine.

One of the lunches eat at the shrine.

One of the lunches eat at the shrine.

One of the elder men taking his turn singing.

One of the elder men taking his turn singing, pompom in hand.

After lunch, singing, and a dose of sake, it’s time for the main event – erecting the Onbashira logs at the side of the shrine. First the logs, which are parked just outside the shrine premises, need to be pulled up next to either side of the shrine’s main building. This is a bit more difficult than pulling on the street because of the soft ground under the trees and a couple of shallow steps on the path. Crowds gather around the narrow shrine path to watch and cheer on.

Crowd watching the Onbashira log getting pulled through the shrine gate.

Crowd watching the Onbashira log getting pulled through the shrine gate.

Using large sticks in attempt to lift the front of the log over a small step.

Using large sticks in attempt to lift the front of the log over a small step.

Men pulling the rope to move the log

Men pulling the rope to move the log

When the Onbashira logs are finally positioned on both sides of the shrine, they are erected so they stand up perfectly straight. Due to several accidents in past years, unfortunately (or fortunately) the logs are lifted using cranes instead of pure manpower. Still, using a crane is more difficult than it sounds and it is a spectacle to watch the three or four ton logs getting picked up and somehow maneuvered into their posts. In yet another peculiar ritual, once the Onbashira are standing, some of the men take gigantic wooden mallets and hammer at the base of the logs (due to the large crowd, I unfortunately couldn’t get a photo of this).

Onbashira log being lifted by a crane.

Onbashira log being lifted by a crane.

Onbashira logs standing on both sides of the shrine.

Onbashira logs standing on both sides of the shrine.

The log after it has been stood up straight.

The log after it has been stood up straight.

Considering the infrequency of the festival, it may be hard to be able to go, but do keep an eye out if you’re around the Matsumoto and Suwa area and check if Onbashira is scheduled. The next festival in Suwa is in 2022 and in Matsumoto in 2023. Hopefully you enjoyed the photos for now :)

Ofune Matsuri – “Boat Festival” in the Yamabe Area (with videos)

This lively festival takes place every year during Golden Week in the Yamabe area on the east side of Matsumoto. There are nine neighborhoods in Yamabe that take part in the festival, each with their own “boat.” The boats, called “fune,” are a kind of traditional wooden float with two huge wheels on either side and are adorned with lavish wood carvings depicting different scenes or legends. The boat shape is created by attaching long, wooden posts in the front and back, then draping over colored cloth to form a bow and a stern. Each fune, most of them being a couple of hundred years old, has its own unique carvings and color patterns for the cloth used to create the boat shape.

The fune from the Fujii neighborhood

The fune from the Fujii neighborhood

Each fune has its own special carvings

Each fune has its own special carvings

Elaborate carvings on one of the fune floats.

Elaborate carvings on one of the fune floats.

This fune has dragon carvings going up its four posts

This fune has dragon carvings going up its four posts

The timing of the festival coincides with the planting of rice and other crops, an the festival day, the fune depart their respective neighborhoods and make their way to the local shrine, Susukigawa Jinja, to ask the gods for a good harvest in the fall. You might wonder why there are giant boats parading around the mountainous region of Matsumoto – there are many stories, but according to one of the elder men in the Yamabe area, the region was settled by migrants from around Izumo on the Japan Sea. Another story tells of migrants from seaside areas in Kyushu, the Azumi people. Though the new settlers were originally from ocean-side areas, they brought their culture and customs with them, including the Ofune Festival.

The fune, being extremely heavy and difficult (and dangerous) to maneuver, are pushed and pulled through the streets by the young men from the neighborhood chanting “Yoisa! Hoisa!” as the go. There are a couple of flute players and taiko drummers inside the float, and a few people who stand on top to yell out encouragements to the pullers. On some stretches of the route, the fune aren’t just simply pulled in straight line, rather the men rock the front and back of the floats up and down while zigzagging across the streets – just as a boat would sway and rock on the ocean waves.

Before going to the Susukigawa Shrine, all nine fune line up in front of the Matsumoto City Education and Culture Center for a short break (and a refill of sake!), as the next part of the route – entering the road to the shrine – is one of the more difficult parts. Each fune must build up speed to turn a sharp corner, which is not only narrow, but also located on an incline. If not maneuvered precisely, the heavy float will crash into the road signs or worse, one of the houses on the road.

All the fune lined up in front of the Education and Culture Center

All the fune lined up in front of the Education and Culture Center

This boat is preparing to turn the sharp corner to the shrine.

This boat is preparing to turn the sharp corner to the shrine.

After successfully turning the corner.

After successfully turning the corner.

Pushing up the incline street to the shrine

Pushing up the incline street to the shrine

 

After turning the corner, the fune now line up in front of the shrine gate, where a crowd of people is waiting to watch their grand entrance. First the shrine’s Shinto priest blesses the fune and then they prepare to enter. Again, the men must build up speed to turn corner in the shrine, except this time the ground is now a soft, forest floor which makes it even more difficult to push the shrine through, not to mention there is not a crowd of people who, if they are not careful, they will crash right into. It’s quite exhilarating if you can get up close to watch this part of the festival.

 

Getting ready to run through the gate!

Getting ready to run through the gate!

Entering the shrine gate

Entering the shrine gate

After running through the shrine gate

After running through the shrine gate

Pushing up the incline inside the shrine premises

Pushing up the incline inside the shrine premises

After all the fune have entered the shrine premises, each neighborhood separates into their own group and everyone eats lunch and enjoys more beer and sake under the Susukigawa Shrine’s magnificent trees. Once all the festivities are over, the fune are pulled back to their respective neighborhoods.

If you are in the Matsumoto area during Golden Week, definitely go see this festival! If you know someone in the area, or strike up a conversation with one of the locals during the festival, you may even be able to join in on the picnic and share a swig or two of sake 😉

This fune is being pulled home with the help of the entire neighborhood.

This fune is being pulled home with the help of the entire neighborhood.

Matsumoto City Museum – A Good Dose of Castles, Samurais and Matsumoto Culture

Matsumoto celebrates its city anniversary on May 1st of every year by opening all the city museums to visitors free of cost – the perfect chance to go explore a few places in the city.  I chose to check out the Matsumoto City Museum, which is right next to Matsumoto Castle. Here you can get your fill of samurai equipment, ancient pottery, Matsumoto history through the years and Matsumoto local culture.

Matsumoto City Museum from the outside.

Matsumoto City Museum from the outside.

Samurai armor with a red face mask.

Samurai armor with a red face mask.

 

Following the suggested viewing route, I started off learning about Matsumoto in the ancient days long before the samurai with shattered-and -reconstructed pieces of Jomon pottery and primitive arrowheads and stone tools. And despite being what seemed like a collection of simple wooden logs, the Edo-era wooden plumbing  display was very interesting. Can you imagine that you can build an entire plumbing and water system using carved out wooden pipes and wooden joints?

Ancient pottery and tools from Matsumoto

Ancient pottery and tools from Matsumoto

Sections of wooden pipes used transport water.

Sections of wooden pipes used transport water.

 

The next section of the museum featured all kinds of information, displays and artifacts from Matsumoto Castle, the castle lords and the samurais including beautiful decorative tiles of the castle roof, samurai weapons and training equipment, items used by the castle lords and giant, old hand-drawn maps of the castle and surrounding town. There were also some more “everyday” artifacts used by commoners and merchants, as well as one of my favorites, the big wooden “water guns” used to put out fires.

Japanese bows and arrows

Japanese longbows and arrows

samurai armor

Intricately detailed, full suits of armor

Labeled as a "Japanese gargoyle", this is one of the elements from the castle's roof.

Labeled as a “Japanese gargoyle”, this is one of the elements from the castle’s roof.

Forms of entertainment used by samurai families

Forms of entertainment used by samurai families

Big wooden water guns for fire fighting

Big wooden water guns for fire fighting

 

The next area featured items from more recent times including wartime Japan and retroesque artifacts from the Showa period. After that you get to learn about some of the neat local festivals that started hundreds of years ago and still go on in Matsumoto.

showa tank

A retro toy tank from the Showa Period

first mayor of matsumoto

First mayor of Matsumoto and his personal belongings. Yes, that is a silk top hat.

Tanabata dolls from Matsumoto's unique Tanabata festival

Quirky Tanabata dolls from Matsumoto’s unique Tanabata festival

Straw horse for the Koto-youya event

Straw horse for the Koto-youya event

 

The Matsumoto City Museum also holds special exhibitions, and luckily for me, I came during the samurai sword exhibition featuring swords and blades made in the different sword-making regions of Japan. If you’re at all interested in samurai weapons, the exhibition lasts another month until June 4th. You’ll learn some interesting facts like part of the sword hilts are made out of shark skin and that swords had special rain covers to protect them from getting wet (which makes sense but I would have never thought of it!).

Sword exhibition flier

Flier for the sword exhibition

Blades of samurai swords

Blades of samurai swords

Swords in their hilts

Swords in their hilts

sword emblem

Emblem engraved into the base of a sword blade.

rain covers

Rain covers for the swords. Who knew?

Anyways, if you’re going to see Matsumoto Castle, the museum is a great complementary stop that’ll let you see amazing artifacts and learn more about the city.

Open from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (last entry at 4:30)

During Golden Week season (Apr. 29th – May 7th) this year: 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. (last entry at 5:30)

Matsumoto Folk Craft Museum – Handcrafted Artifacts from Everyday Life

I spent my Saturday morning exploring the Matsumoto Folk Craft Museum, a little gem that lies just outside of the central Matsumoto. The museum has on display thousands of traditional hand crafted, everyday things ranging from pickling crocks, smoking pipes and old toys to kimono, trinket boxes, furniture and old store signs from years ago. Many of the items are from Japan, including Nagano, but there are also several artifacts from around the world, as well, such as Korea, Mexico, Southeast Asia, and Africa. According to the staff, certain parts of the collection are changed up four times a year to offer exhibitions with different themes.

I have to be honest, I wasn’t expecting to be impressed because the information online about the museum lacked any particularly enticing photos or detailed descriptions. But upon arriving at the museum, I knew I was going to enjoy it. The folkcrafts are housed inside of one of Matsumoto’s characteristic Edo-period warehouses with “namako-style” black and white earthen walls adorned with geometric crisscross patterns. Before reaching the main building, you pass through a  small, forest-like Japanese garden.

The outer gates of the Matsumoto Folk Craft Museum

The outer gates of the Matsumoto Folk Craft Museum

The main building of the museum with crisscross patterning.

The main building of the museum with crisscross patterning.

 

Once inside, I was pleasantly surprised that it felt more like a cozy Japanese grandma’s house filled with antiques than a museum. The museum is not large so if you simply walk through without taking time to examine all the artifacts, you can probably be done within 30 minutes.

A wooden daruma from Yamagata on a beautiful wooden chest.

A wooden daruma from Yamagata on a beautiful wooden chest.

A collection of furniture, crocks and other things.

A collection of furniture, crocks and other things.

Patterned vase

Patterned vase

 

However, I was instantly captivated by the simple beauty of the museum’s handicrafts and spent nearly two hours examining and photographing their intricacies. The designs, patterns and colors of the crafts are inspiring and some even breathtaking such as the kimono from the indigenous Ainu people of Hokkaido. I loved seeing the collection of wooden combs from around the world, the Edo-period shop signs and the colorful glazes of the pickling crocks. What’s great is that a lot of the things on display are right out in the open rather than behind glass walls so you can get extra close, looking in every nook and cranny of the piece.

Sign from a comb shop

Sign from a comb shop

Signs for a brush shop and money exchanger

Signs for a brush shop and money exchanger

Combs from around the world

Combs from around the world

Korean dolls

Korean dolls

Water pot from Turkey

Water pot from Turkey

Japanese crock

Japanese crock

Part of the museum features crafts made by the founder of the museum himself, the late Taro Maruyama. Maruyama owned a folkcraft shop in Matsumoto where he also made his own goods. I found his wooden crafts glazed or lacquered in red and patterned with eggshell (!) designs particularly striking. I can’t imagine how much patience it must have taken to produce these patterns with eggshells!

Wooden box patterned with eggshells

Wooden box patterned with eggshells

Another wooden box patterned with eggshells

Another wooden box patterned with eggshells

Hexagonal box with intricate eggshell pattern

Hexagonal box with intricate eggshell pattern

Tray with oak leaves made with eggshells

Tray with oak leaves made with eggshells

 

One interesting thing about the Matsumoto Folkcraft Museum is that almost none of the items have a written description apart from where it came from and what the item was. Maruyama’s philosophy was that it was enough for the crafts to simply be “beautiful” — rather than burden it with an explanation of when, where and how something was used. Indeed, I did find it refreshing to enjoy the handicrafts for what they were, without feeling obligated to read lengthy descriptions, imagining for myself who may have used them and what life must have been like back then.

Traditional horse riding equipment

Traditional horse riding equipment

Carrier for transporting loads on one's back

Carrier for transporting loads on one’s back

 

When you reach the last room, there is a tatami mat area set up like a room in a traditional Japanese house where you can sit and enjoy the atmosphere of the building.

Tatami space complete with furniture and indoor fire pit.

Tatami space complete with furniture and indoor fire pit.

Though the Matsumoto Craft Museum is a little bit out of the way from other popular places, if you have the time, I highly recommend checking it out. There may not be any samurai or imperial artifacts, but this museum gives you a peek of the ordinary lives from the past and the amazing things traditional craftsmen can accomplish with just their hands.

Take the Utsukushigahara Onsen bus (#30) from Matsumoto Station bus terminal (there is also a bus stop by Matsumoto Castle) and get off at the “Matsumoto Mingei-kan (Matsumoto Folkcraft Museum)” stop. You can also walk there from the station in about 45 minutes or from the castle in about 30 minutes (or even better, rent a bicycle!). See Google Map.

Open 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (last admission at 4:30) and closed on Mondays.

To learn more about the history of the museum, check out this article here.

Fall Foliage Collaborates with Yayoi Kusama’s Artwork on City Museum of Art

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Now fall foliage in downtown Matsumoto is at the final stage.

This morning, at the entrance of Matsumoto City Museum of Art, I was surprised to see beautiful red colored trees collaborating with Matumoto-born Yayoi Kusama’s artwork on the building. Nature’s red and yellow colors are competing with artificial red and yellows.
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The artwork was created before fall foliage starts. Is it just coincidence, or calculated art by Yayoi Kusama? Genius!

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You can enjoy the Kusama world in the permanent exhibition inside the building.

Tea Ceremony at Matsumoto Castle and Tea Room in Hyakuchikutei

image1In the Matsumoto Castle garden, a tea ceremony is held several times a year.

This summer, it’ll be held on August 6th and 7th, at the beginning of the free admission period for visitors wearing kimono, and also the extension period of entrance hours (8:00 till door closes at 17:30 , normally 8:30-16:30) (until August 16).

Members of the youth group of the Urasenke school of tea ceremony school wearing yukata (a kind of kimono) will serve you cold green powdered tea with Japanese cake for 500 yen. The leader of the group speaks English.

ikegamiHyakuchikuChashitsuAlso, there is a full-scale tea-ceremony room (tyashitsu) with a tea garden in Ikegami Hyakuchikutei, just a few minutes walk northward from the castle.

You can look inside the tea room and garden freely (9:00-17:00 except Monday) without charge when it is not used.

13083097_1706562706266342_5794503086238738997_nHow about wearing kimono at newly opened Kimono & Ninja Costume Wearing & Rental Shop ‘Hanakomichi’, go to the castle, take your photo with an armored man of ‘omotenashi-tai’, enter the castle free of charge, taste cold tea at the castle garden (if you visit Aug 6 or 7), then visit the tea room in Hyakuchikutei?
This is a perfect plan to experience traditional castle culture!

Kiyomizu Art Festival in the Western Hills of Matsumoto.

For those with an appreciation for art and who may want to feel a little cooler in the summer heat, nearby Matsumoto on the western slopes of the surrounding hills is a place called Kiyomizu Highland named after the Temple there that was the original temple from which Kiyomizu temple in Kyoto was named. The locals there are putting on an art festival with a variety of open Studios and even musical events at the Kiyomizu Skyland resort hotel over the next two weeks.

Should you want to vistit or even pop in on the original Kiyomizu temple take a look at the schedule below or the facebook page ( https://www.facebook.com/KiyomizuArtfes?fref=pb&hc_location=profile_browser)if you can read or work with Japanese with a translator.
While you are there you can take a nice Onsen style bath with a great view of the entire Matsumoto Valley and along the Japan Alps at Kiyomizu Skyland. The temperature up their is a good 5 degrees cooler making it a popular mountain cabin locality. You may even spot some monkeys getting about along the way.

Takigi Noh, August 8th Friday


August 8th 5pm – 8pm
Matsumoto castle
Charge: Free

Noh, one of the traditional dramatic arts of Japan, is famous for its masks and its lavish costumes. Usually a Noh performance is given in a Noh theatre, on a Noh stage specially designed for the performance.

But every August in Matsumoto a special outdoor performance is given right in the inner garden of Matsumoto castle, starting in the early evening and continuing by lanternlight after the sun sets. Noh plays are hundreds of years old and sung in their own peculiar way, and most Japanese audience members are just as lost as the foreigners in attendance as far as the dialogue goes. But the nighttime staging of the Takigi Noh gives the symbol-heavy and supernatural dramas back a bit of the atmosphere that they once had, and thekyogen (“crazy talk”) comedies in between the two short Noh plays help relieve the tension with lots of physical comedy about drinking and getting the best of your feudal lord.

Candle Night in Matsumoto Museum of Art

On Friday night of June 20, which is one day before the summer solstice, the “Candle Night” event was held at Matsumoto Museum of Art.

It is held on the summer and winter solstice every year to enlighten people on environmental issues. But it is also a nice (and free of charge!) event to enjoy the fantastic night by only the light of candles on green glass in the yard of the museum with art and live music.

Kids enjoyed running around and adults enjoyed sitting on turf in my favorite courtyard of the museum.

A big objet d’art “The Visionary Flowers” by the world famous modern artist Yayoi Kusama, who is from Matsumoto, was also lit up by candles. and more mysterious than usual during Candle Night.

Candles in natural spring water flow

The building of the museum designed by a Japanese famous architect is also fancy.


All Kinds of Craftwork Gathered in Craft Town Matsumoto

Matsumoto is now popular by its oldest castle in Japan, but it is also famous for “Craft Town” among many Japanese.

In addition to folk handicraft makers, shops and the Matsumoto Folkcraft Museum, now some popular craftspersons escaped from urban life and lives in Matsumoto and the neighbor town Hotaka, Azumino. You can see and buy craftworks and “Matsumoto Furniture” in some shops in Nakamachi Street.

Once in every year — the last weekend of May, Craft Fair Matsumoto, which is the biggest and oldest craft fair (field exhibition) in Japan, is held in the beautiful park “Agatanomori”.

300 craft artists selected among 1000+ applicants from all over Japan exhibit and sell all kind of craftwork including lacquer ware, pottery, silk, wood, dyeing, etc.

Here are photos of this year’s Craft Fair;

Lacquer ware used for miso soup and other Japanese dishes

Traditional “Mastumoto broom” handmade from special grass, now popular in Japan because it is ecological and tasteful



Demonstration of silk weaving (you can experience it freely)

Silkworms you can touch!



Wooden chopsticks and spoons made from various kinds of tree

Clocks even hands of which are made from wood



Metal kanji characters

Clothes dyed by natural materials



Ceramics craft

It's a small world (really tiny craft works)



Kitchen knives and frying pans

Tableware some of which are small chair shape



Leather shoes

Glasswork



Village blacksmiths' booth is popular every year

Fashionable hats



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