Shiga’s Top 10 festivals in April-May

April is a great month. Soon after the onslaught of cherry blossoms, we have an onslaught of festivals (matsuri). This is the time to go out and celebrate the coming of spring, pray for good harvests, and see the traditional splendor of Shiga. The highest number of matsuri are held during these two months, especially during the string of national holidays in late April and early May called Golden Week. During the Golden Week holidays, Shiga has multiple festivals on the same day.

To make it easier to decide which ones to see, I’ve picked Shiga Prefecture’s Top 10 Festivals for April-May. I ranked them based on scale (number of participants, length of festival, etc.), grandioseness, cultural importance/significance, cultural perpetuation and practice for younger generations, uniqueness, and enjoyment by spectators.

1. Nagahama Hikiyama Matsuri, Nagahama Hachiman Shrine, Nagahama, April 15
Deciding Shiga’s No. 1 spring festival was a toss-up between the Nagahama Hikiyama Matsuri and Sanno-sai (No. 2 below). But I gave the edge to the Hikiyama Matsuri because it centers on passing on a traditional art to kids. Young boys undergo weeks-long rigorous training in voice and acting to put on a kabuki play during the festival. Out of 12 kabuki floats, festival features four ornate kabuki floats (hikiyama) with a small stage for authentic kabuki plays performed by grade school boys. Even if you cannot understand what they are saying, just looking at their makeup, costumes, and acting will delight. The kabuki performances start at the shrine at 10 am. Then the floats are pulled to other spots across central Nagahama (Otemon-dori shopping arcade) where the boys perform again. By the evening, all the floats gather at the Otabisho across town (near Hokoku Shrine) for more revelry until 9:30 pm when it ends. Although it gets crowded in front of the float, you can usually see the kabuki actors because they are elevated on the float. Although April 15 is the main festival day, they also have other festival events on adjacent days (see festival schedule here) and kabuki is performed on April 13, 14, 15, and 16 as well. My video | Google Map

Sanno-sai Festival, Hiyoshi Taisha

2. Sanno-sai Festival, Hiyoshi Taisha Shrine, Otsu, April 12-15
Held by Hiyoshi Taisha Shrine in western Otsu at the foot of Mt. Hiei. This is perhaps Shiga Prefecture’s largest festival in terms of participants and the number of events. Held over a few days, you can see diverse events and rituals like an evening torch procession, thunderous rocking of portable shrines, and even a boat procession on the lake. One thing I like is the joint cooperation of Shinto and Buddhist priests in the ceremonies. You can see and hear both Shinto priests and Tendai Buddhist priests from Enryakuji temple praying or chanting at the same ceremony during the festival. So it’s not entirely a Shinto festival. Hiyoshi Taisha Shrine was historically affiliated with Enryakuji temple until the state required that Shinto and Buddhism be separate organizations. It’s up to you to decide which day and what time to see the festival. Click on the link above to see my photos of the festival (taken on April 13-15) to decide what you want to see. I saw and photographed all the major festival events except on the first day when they brought down the portable shrine from a low mountain. If it’s one festival that wore me out after three days, it’s this one. My video | Google Map

3. Nyu Chawan Matsuri, Nyu Shrine, Yogo (Nagahama), once every several years on May 4
Another of my all-time favorite festivals. They have three wooden floats topped with lofty “balancing act” chawan bowl decorations. They also hold beautiful sacred dances by boys dressed as girls. A procession of colorful flower umbrella dancers also provides a colorful accent to the festival. It’s held deep in a mountain valley of Yogo in northern Nagahama so the whole area is lush and peaceful. The only problem is that the festival is held only once every 5-6 years. The last time it was held was in 2009. According to rumors, the festival will be held in May 2014, next year. My video | Google Map

Hino Matsuri floats at Umamioka Watamuki Shrine.

4. Hino Matsuri, Hino, May 3
Shiga has a good number of float festivals, but one of the grandest ones in spring is the Hino Matsuri. It’s grand because they have as many as 16 ornate floats with large wooden wheels that they pull through the main streets of Hino town. Each float belongs to a specific neighborhood in Hino and they are decorated with elaborate tapestries, paper lanterns, and a homemade paper sculpture on the roof that changes every year. They also have side attractions like a portable shrine procession and ceremonies featuring a sacred dance. From the morning, the floats are pulled along the streets to gather at Umamioka Watamuki Shrine, the center of the action. They play festival music and show off their floats. If you have time, you should also visit Shakunage Gorge, famous for rhododendron growing in a scenic gorge. There are lovely nature walking paths. Buses run from Hino StationMy video | Google Map

Higashi-Omi Giant Kite Festival held on the last Sun. in May.

5. Higashi-Omi Giant Kite Festival (formerly Yokaichi Giant Kite Festival) (Odako Matsuri), Higashi-Omi, last Sun. in May. *Update: Due to a tragic kite crash in May 2015, the Odako Matsuri kite festival will be cancelled this year in May 2016.
The giant kite, made of washi paper and a bamboo frame, measures about 13 meters by 12 meters (size of 100 tatami mats) and weighs 700 kg. It is a work of art with a distinct shape, cutouts, and paint job featuring a traditional design of a large kanji character and twin animals. The design is selected from entries from the public and a new giant kite with a new design is made every three years. The public is also invited to help build the new kite every three years during the summer. On the festival day, the kite is flown on a riverbank a few times. It usually doesn’t stay aloft for very long unless there are strong winds. It can even crash so they clear the whole area whenever they fly the kite. You can also sign up to pull the kite. I did it once and they run at full speed. Kind of scary because if you trip and fall, you might get trampled. From 2013, the festival site shifted to the Fureai Undo Park in Notogawa. Free shuttle buses will run from Notogawa Station. After (or before) the festival, be sure to check out the Odako Kaikan Giant Kite museum. Shuttle buses run to the museum. My video | Google Map

Kenketo Matsuri in Tsuchiyama, Koka.

6. Kenketo Matsuri, Koka (Tsuchiyama), May 3
Held at Takigi Jinja Shrine (龍樹神社), Kenketo Odori is a dance performed by eight boys aged 7 to 12. First there’s a procession to the shrine, and the boys start dancing at the shrine at around 2 pm. The dance was originally started to ward off calamities. The boys wear tall peacock feathers on their heads. The dance is a National Intangible Folk Cultural Property. The festival has an interesting twist when the crowd rushes to the man (sometimes knocking him down) holding a flower basket to take all the flowers. To get to the shrine, get off Kibukawa Station (JR Kusatsu Line and Ohmi Railways) and catch the Aikuru Bus. Get off at Higashi Maeno. The shrine is a short walk toward the river. My video | Google Map

Shichikawa Matsuri, Takashima

Shichikawa Matsuri’s yakko-furi procession.

7. Shichikawa Matsuri, Takashima, May 4
The largest festival in western Shiga is held at Oarahiko Shrine. It features a yakko-furi (samurai laborers) procession, yabusame horse runs, and portable shrine procession. The shrine is nearest to Shin-Asahi Station (JR Kosei Line). If it’s too far to walk, you can rent a bicycle at the train station. My video | Google Map

Ayame girls at Hyozu Matsuri.

8. Hyozu Matsuri, Hyozu Taisha Shrine, Yasu, May 5
I call this Shiga’s best portable shrine festival. Over 35 portable srhines (mikoshi) are carried around Hyozu Taisha Shrine in a very lively and gregarious style. Two of the mikoshi are carried by all women called “Ayame,” meaning iris flowers. They wear colorful happi coats to carry the mikoshi. The only thing is that the gravel path can kick up dust. Best to watch the festival from upwind. A few foreigners also participate. It starts in the morning and ends in mid-afternoon.  My video | Google Map

9. Hachiman Matsuri, Himure Hachimangu Shrine, Omi-Hachiman, April 14
Shiga’s biggest fire festival featuring several tall straw torches (as high as 10 meters) that are lit from 8 pm. If you have time during the day, you should come and look at the torches which are great works of art. The festival is prayer for an abundant harvest. They light the torches one by one. This festival is usually billed together with the Sagicho Matsuri another fire festival held in March. Sagicho Matsuri is still my favorite festival in Omi-Hachiman. My video | Google Map

10. Taga Matsuri, Taga Taisha Shrine, Taga, April 22
If you like horses and traditional costumes, see this festival. They have a long procession featuring Shinto priests, children in costume, women warriors, and more people on 40 horses. A total of 500 people are in the procession. There is a morning procession leaving Taga Taisha at 10:30 am for Totonomiya Shrine deep in Taga’s countryside, and an afternoon (main) procession leaving Taga Taisha at 2 pm for the Otabisho, a short distance away from Taga Taisha. Walkable from Taga Taisha-mae StationMy video | Google Map

For other spring festivals in Shiga, see my previous posts: April 2012 | May 2011 | May 2010 | 2009 Chawan Matsuri

Summer 2012 in Shiga Prefecture

Hino hifuri

Hino Hifuri Torch Festival.

Japan has re-entered the age of nuclear power, starting with Shiga’s backyard. Despite widespread opposition, the Japanese government has given the green light to restart the Oi nuclear power plants in neighboring Fukui Prefecture, Japan’s mecca of nuclear power plants. On July 1, 2012, they began firing up two Oi nuclear power plants amid protests near the power plant and many thousands of protestors in front of the Prime Minister’s residence in Tokyo. The protesters have received relatively little Japanese media attention. It’s no wonder because many news media executives (including NHK) also serve (or served) in executive positions at the power companies. The power companies have a lock on both the government and news media. It’s been a cozy relationship since decades ago. Prime Minister Noda and other Cabinet ministers are also mum on their reaction to the protesters, as if the protesters didn’t exist.

The media in Kansai is instead giving much attention to the possibility of rolling blackouts (called keikaku teiden 計画停電) and how they can affect businesses and how the police are preparing to deal with powerless traffic signals. I guess it’s a ploy to make us feel better about the Oi restart.

Although the weatherman is predicting an average, hot summer, we’re all hoping for a cool summer to minimize air-conditioning. The name of the game this summer is Power Conservation. From July to early Sept., the Kansai Region is being asked to save power by 15% or by 10% after the Oi nuclear power plants reach full output later this month.

Shiga Prefecture is encouraging residents to get out of their homes (and turn off the air-conditioning) by offering free admission to its prefectural cultural facilities on weekdays from July 23 to Aug. 31. Visit The Museum of Modern Art, Shiga; Lake Biwa Museum; Samegai Trout Farm;  Azuchi Castle Archaeological Museum; and Shigaraki Ceramic Park for free. To enter for free, you have to show a printout of a flyer that will appear on this page. Or show a copy of the Shiga Plus One newsletter (July-Aug. issue 滋賀プラスワン 7・8月号). The free admission is apparently directed toward Shiga residents and not tourists. But they won’t be checking whether you’re a resident or not, so take advantage of this if you haven’t been to any of these worthwhile places whether you’re a Shiga resident or not.

Shiga receives electric power from Kansai Electric Power Co. (KEPCO) which depended on nuclear power generation for almost half of its power generation before the Fukushima nuclear disaster on March 11, 2011. KEPCO’s dependence on nuclear power was the highest in Japan compared to other power companies. Thus, the shutdown of all its nuclear power plants in neighboring Fukui Prefecture dealt KEPCO the most serious shortfall in power.

Although Shiga Governor Yukiko Kada and the governors of Kyoto and Osaka voiced their initial opposition to the restart, they had little choice but to go along with Prime Minister Noda’s decision in the end. All that back-and-forth talk about the central government trying to gain the consent of local residents before any nuclear restart was just a smokescreen for a final decision that had been made long before.

What’s gonna happen if there’s another nuclear accident? What will happen to nearby Lake Biwa which supplies water to millions in the Kansai Region? How and where can residents evacuate in case of a nuclear accident? These and many other questions have been left unanswered. An expert pointed out that Oi’s large power generator trucks, which supposed to serve as a backup power source for the plant’s cooling systems, are parked right below a high concrete slope which can collapse onto the trucks during a large quake.

Nuclear reactors in a disaster-prone country like Japan is obviously a bad idea and it’s frightening to think that this situation has existed for so many decades with our nearly total ignorance of the vulnerabilities and dangers of nuclear power plants right in our backyard. Not to mention the hush-hush coverups when accidents occurred.

No one can trust the power companies, government, and media anymore whenever they tell us, “it’s safe.” We’ve always been told to be prepared for earthquakes, but never for nuclear accidents. Japan already has earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons, floods, and volcanic eruptions to contend with and doesn’t need another threat for mass disaster. This Japan Times editorial sums up the current situation and my feelings very well:

Meanwhile, here are some of the many events, fireworks, and festivals in Shiga this summer (Web sites are in Japanese):

July 21, 2012 (Sat.), 7 pm-8:40 pm – Yokaichi Shotoku Matsuri, Higashi-Omi 八日市聖徳まつり
Folk dance festival in front of Yokaichi Station on the Omi Railways. Hundreds of people will dance the Goshu Ondo (江州音頭) which is a bon dance and folk song native to Shiga. First there will be a parade of mascot characters from 7 pm to 7:40 pm, followed by the folk dancers from 7:50 pm to 8:40 pm.

July 28, 2012 (Sat.), 3 pm – Shigaraki Fire Festival, Koka しがらき火まつり
Impressive procession of 700 torches following a 2.2 km route from the Shigaraki Chiiki Shimin Center (甲賀市信楽地域市民センター) to the Atago area starting at 7:45 pm. The procession is 50 min. long. Followed by fireworks until 10 pm.

July 28-29, 2012 (Sat. from 8 am, Sun. from 6 am), Japan International Birdman Rally, Hikone 鳥人間コンテスト
Held annually since 1977, contestants from all over Japan compete to see who can fly the furthest over Lake Biwa in their handmade and human-powered flying contraptions. On Sat., they will hold time trials for propeller planes and the glider contest. On Sun., human-powered propeller planes will compete for distance. The event is held on Matsubara Beach in Hikone, right near the Japan Center for Michigan Universities. Note that the event schedule/holding is subject to weather conditions. If it’s too windy (typhoon), it can be canceled or postponed. Sponsored by Yomiuri TV who will broadcast the contest on a later date.

Mizunomori Lotus Pond. Click image to see more photos.

July 28-29, 2012, Mizunomori Lotus Festival, Karasuma Peninsula, Kusatsu みずの森 ハス祭り
Karasuma Peninsula includes Lake Biwa Museum and a huge lotus field that blooms in July. The weekend festival is scheduled to have some musical entertainment (taisho koto and yoshibue reed flutes).

Aug. 1, 2012 (Mon.), 7:45 pm – 8:30 pm – Hikone Fireworks 彦根大花火大会
On Matsubara Beach, spectacular fireworks over the lake, including a 15-min. finale. Expect a large crowd. If canceled due to foul weather, it will be postponed to Aug. 2. Shuttle buses will be provided from JR Hikone Station taking you to the Hikone Sports Ground (県立彦根総合運動場) from where you walk to the beach for 15 min.

Taga Taisha Lantern Festival. Click to see more images.

Aug. 3-5, 2012 (Fri.-Sun.), 7 pm – 9:30 pm – Taga Taisha Mantosai Lantern Festival 多賀大社万燈祭
Held at Taga Taisha Shrine in Taga, the Mantosai or 10,000-Lantern Festival is a beautiful night festival when over 10,000 paper lanterns are lit within the shrine grounds from 7 pm to 9:30 pm. The donated lanterns are for the repose of ancestral spirits. Various sacred dances and entertainment are also held nightly during the weekend festival.

B-kyu food fair

Long lines at Shiga’s 1st B-kyu Gourmet Battle in Otsu. Click to see more images.

Aug. 4-5, 2012 (Sat.-Sun.), 11 am-9 pm – Shiga B-class Gourmet Battle, Otsu 滋賀B級グルメバトル
B-class gourmet (B-kyu in Japanese) is food that is cheap and aimed at the working class. It also includes good ‘ol home cooking. The Hama-Otsu lakefront (near Hama-Otsu Station on the Keihan Line) will have 60 food booths serving cheap food (priced from 100 to 500 yen) using homegrown ingredient(s) from Shiga such as Omi-gyu beef, red konyaku (devil’s tongue), and fish from Lake Biwa. It is a “battle” or contest where the food booths receive popular votes (via disposable chopsticks) from customers. A jazz festival will also be held and fireworks on both nights at 8:50 pm. Note that the food booths require tickets instead of cash. You can buy 1,000-yen ticket books having ten 100 yen tickets. The food festival was held for the first time last July and turned out to be wildly popular with a total of 120,000 people attending over the two-day period. It was so crowded and many booths ran out of food quickly. Best to go early. I only dread the summer heat, standing in long lines in front of the popular booths. Fortunately, even the not-so-popular food booths were good. Read my report for last year here.

Aug. 6, 2012 (Mon.), 7:30 pm-8:30 pm – Nagahama Kita-Biwako Fireworks, 長浜・北びわ湖大花火大会
I thought last year was the last time Nagahama would hold their fireworks, but looks like they are having it again this summer. Details are sketchy as of this writing. To be held near Nagahama Port which is a god-awful, tiny place to watch it unless you reserve a space early.

Aug. 8, 2012 (Wed.), 7:15 pm-8:30 pm – Hikone Music and Dance Contest (Hikone-bayashi So-Odori Taikai) 彦根ばやし総おどり大会
Lively festival music and dance parade along Hikone’s main shopping streets centering in Ginza. The street will also be festooned with Tanabata streamers (during Aug. 4-8).

Biwako hanabi

Hama-Otsu on Biwako fireworks day. Tall walls block your view.

Aug. 8, 2012 (Wed.), 7:30 pm-8:30 pm – Biwako Fireworks, Otsu びわ湖大花火大会
Big display, but a steep admission (around 4,000 yen) is charged in prime viewing areas along Hama-Otsu. Hama-Otsu Port will be totally walled off so you cannot see the fireworks from the street. Farther away is the free area along Nagisa Park which is terribly crowded with people reserving viewing spots from noon. Spectacular show, but have fun trying to get home via the tiny nearby train stations or gridlocked roads afterward. Foul weather will postpone it to Aug. 10. (If the weather is questionable, call 0180-99-3339 to find out if the fireworks will be held or not.)

Aug. 14-15, 2012 (Tue.-Wed.) – Hifuri Torch Festival, Hino 火ふり祭
Held for two evenings during the obon season (photo at top). Participants light their torches at Gosha Shrine and tap the torches on the road as they proceed to Hibarino park where the torches are thrown up to a large pine tree. The more torches get stuck on the tree, the better the next harvest will be. Near Hino Station (Ohmi Railways).

Takebe Taisha boat procession on Seta River. Click to see more images.

Aug. 17, 2012 (Fri.), 5 pm (boats depart), 8 pm-9 pm (fireworks) – Takebe Taisha Senko-sai Festival, Seta River, Otsu 船幸祭・瀬田川花火大会
One of Otsu’s Big Three Festivals, the Senko-sai is a portable shrine procession on boats going down Setagawa River from Seta-no-Karahashi Bridge to Nango sluice and back. Held annually by Takebe Taisha Shrine (worships legendary warrior Yamato Takeru) near the bridge. The festival starts at 5 pm when the portable shrines leave the shrine, and climaxes with fireworks on Seta River after the boats return at about 8:00 pm. The festival attracts few spectators (unlike the Tenjin Matsuri in Osaka), but large crowds start to gather in the evening for the riverside fireworks starting after the festival boats arrive back at 8 pm. Near JR Ishiyama Station and Karahashi-mae Station on the Keihan Line.

Aug. 18, 2012 (Sat.), 8:30 pm – Makino Highland Reed Torch Festival, Makino, Takashima マキノ高原ヨシたいまつ祭り
The festivities start at noon climaxing at 8:30 pm with the lighting of numerous reed torches dotting the grassy highland area and ending with fireworks.  The festival event schedule is yet to be determined as of this writing. From JR Makino Station (Kosei Line), take the “town bus” and get off at Makino Kogen Onsen Sarasa (マキノ高原温泉さらさ). Buses leave Makino Station once an hour until 6 pm (schedule here).

And don’t forget the white sand beaches on the western shores of Lake Biwa like Omi-Maiko for swimming. Wishing you all a cool summer, in more ways than one.

Setsubun at Taga Taisha Shrine

Ogre dancers at Taga Taisha Setsubun. Click image to see more photos.

February 3 is the Setsubun Festival at many temples and shrines in Japan. It marks the beginning of spring according to the lunar calendar. They yell, “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” (鬼は外! 福は内!) while they throw beans at ogre to eliminate the evil (oni) of the previous year and bring in good fortune (fuku).

In Shiga Prefecture, the most impressive Setsubun festival is held at Taga Taisha Shrine in Taga town. They have impressive ogre (called oni in Japanese) dancers from Shimane Prefecture to act as the demons to chase away during the festival. The bean-throwing is called mame-maki. They will hold two mame-maki sessions on Feb. 3, at 11 am and 2 pm. Expect a large crowd.

It starts with a ceremony in the shrine’s worship hall. Then a dramatic performance by the ogre on stage where they are chased away by priests throwing beans at them. The main event is when over a hundred people born in the year of the dragon begin to throw soybeans and mochi to the crowd. The soybeans are thrown in little paper bags, so you can still pick them up and eat them even if they fall to the ground. But the mochi are hard as a rock, so watch out. The bean-throwing is fun, but potentially dangerous with beans or mochi hitting your face/head and people pushing you around. Taking pictures is pretty risky as well. One mochi even hit my camera lens. Fortunately, no damage. You should always look up and see where the mochi and beans are flying.

Taga Taisha is near Taga Taisha-mae Station on the Ohmi Railways Taga Line. Google Map here.

Mame-maki at Taga Taisha.

Video link:

Taga Taisha Setsubun official Website:
More photos:


Happy 2012!

Wishing everyone in Shiga a Happy New Year.

Praying for a safe, healthy, and prosperous 2012.


(Dragon photo was shot at Taga Taisha Shrine’s lantern festival in Aug.)

New Year’s worshippers in Shiga

The Shiga Prefectural Police Department has estimated that 1.31 million people will pray at shrines and temples in Shiga during the first three days of 2012. This is more than New Year’s in 2011. Going to pray at a shrine or temple during New Year’s is called hatsumode (初詣).

Shiga’s most popular shrines during New Year’s and the estimated number of worshippers during the first three days of the 2012 have been announced as follows:

1. Taga Taisha Shrine (多賀大社) in Taga, next to Hikone, 470,000 worshippers
2. Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine (長浜八幡宮) in Nagahama, 150,000 worshippers
3. Omi Jingu Shrine (近江神宮) in Otsu, 140,000 worshippers
4. Tarobo Shrine (太郎坊宮) in Higashi-Omi, 120,000 worshippers
5. Hiyoshi Taisha Shrine (日吉大社) in western Otsu, 100,000 worshippers

As usual, Taga Taisha will see the lion’s share of worshippers. No doubt, the shrine’s auspicious name is a major draw. “Taga” means many felicitations. Perfect for new year’s prayers.

And on New Year’s Eve, Buddhist temples will be ringing in the new year at around midnight. At Hikone Castle, there is the Time-Keeping Bell or Jiho-sho (時報鐘) which the public can ring from 11:30 pm. The bell is on the way to the tenshu castle tower. The castle gate will be open from 11 pm.

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