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

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Plum blossoms in Shiga Prefecture

Nagahama Hokoen Park plum blossoms.

Updated: Jan. 4, 2017

Plum blossoms, called ume (梅) in Japanese, have absolutely the sweetest and most pacifying fragrance of all the flowers in Japan. Whenever you see plum blossoms, put your nose right next to the flower and smell. It will sooth your soul. There are many varieties of plum blossoms, but they basically white, pink, or red and each color smells differently. The white ones have the most dainty smell, while the red ones have a stronger and more concentrated sweet smell.

Plum blossoms have been an intricate part of Japanese culture, art, and aesthetics for centuries. The term shochikubai (松竹梅), meaning pine, bamboo, and plum blossoms, is an auspicious and favorite aesthetic concept in Japan that you can find on folding screens, sliding fusuma doors, and Japanese paintings.

In most parts of Japan, plum blossoms bloom in Feb. and March. In Hokkaido, they bloom in May, at the same time as cherry blossoms. When they reach full bloom depends on how cold/warm the winter is. The colder it is, the later they bloom.

Although Shiga does not have huge plum blossom groves like in Minabe, Wakayama or Kairakuen Garden in Mito (Ibaraki Prefecture), Shiga has a few good plum groves called bairin (梅林) or plum gardens (baien 梅園) and plum blossom bonsai displays called bonbaiten (盆梅展) held from early Jan. to mid-March.

Nagahama Hokoen Park (also, “Ho Park”) 豊公園
Although Hokoen Park is most famous for cherry blossoms, it also has a decent number of plum trees. Great place to photograph them with Nagahama Castle in the background (photo above). They bloom in late Feb. to March. Near JR Nagahama Station. Google Map

Nagahama Bonbaiten

Nagahama Bonbaiten 長浜盆梅展, Until March 12, 2017. Hours: 9 am–5 pm
This is perhaps Shiga’s most famous plum blossom bonsai exhibition, held annually for 62 years since 1952. The venue is the stately Keiunkan (慶雲館), a Japanese-style former guesthouse originally built in 1887 to accommodate Emperor Meiji when he visited Nagahama. It’s near JR Nagahama Station. They have 90 bonsai trees on display, including one that is almost 3 meters tall or 400 years old. Don’t touch and try to smell these prized trees. Nagahama also has another bonbaiten in Azai. Admission: 500 yen (200 yen for high school and younger) Google Map

Kamo-no-sato Bonbaiten, Maibara 鴨の里盆梅展, Until March 10, 2017. Hours: 9 am–5 pm (enter by 4:30 pm)
Held in Green Park Santo (グリーンパーク山東), a large recreational park in Maibara. Inside the Spark Santo hall (すぱーく山東) are about 120 bonsai plum trees raised by over 30 devoted growers. They also have an orchid show at the same time. Near JR Omi-Nagaoka Station. Admission: 400 yen (200 yen for high school and younger, free for elementary schoolers) Google Map

Omi-Fuji Karyoku Koen Park (Omi-Fuji Green Acres), Yasu 近江富士花緑公園
Sandwiched between the foot of Mt. Mikami and Kibogaoka Bunka Park, Omi-Fuji Karyoku Koen Park (also called Omi-Fuji Green Acres) is about flowers and greenery, including plum and cherry blossoms. They have a blog showing the progress of their plum blossoms blooming. Buses from JR Yasu Station go to Kibogaoka Bunka Koen Park’s Kibogaoka Nishi Gate from which you can walk to the park. Hours: 9 am – 5 pm. Google Map

Statue of Saint Shinran in front of the plum tree he planted at Homanji temple in Echigawa, Aisho.

Homanji temple, Aisho 宝満寺
This temple in Echigawa has a historically significant plum tree in front of the Hondo main hall. While traveling, Saint Shinran, founder of the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist Sect, was unable to cross the Echigawa River due to flooding. So he stayed at this temple temporarily. During that time, he planted a plum tree which bloom red plum blossoms. Near Ohmi Railways Echigawa Station. Google Map

Plum blossoms at Ishiyama-dera temple. Smell the different varieties.

Ishiyama-dera, Otsu 石山寺
Ishiyama temple has an impressive 400 plum trees in three hillside plum groves. Since there is a variety of plums, there’s a good chance of seeing at least a few in full bloom in Feb. or March. They have a blog showing how much the plums are blooming. Ishiyama-dera also has an indoor plum tree ikebana (Mishogoryu School 未生御流) exhibition called Ume Tsukushi-ten (梅つくし展) until March 18, 2013 in one of their temple buildings called Myoo-in (明王院). This indoor exhibition is free if you have paid the temple admission fee. Near JR Ishiyama Station and Keihan Ishiyama-dera Station. Hours: 8:00 am – 4:30 pm (enter by 4 pm), Temple admission: 500 yen Google Map

Sakamoto Bonbaiten, Otsu 坂本盆梅展
I’ve never seen this, but it looks worthwhile. About 50 small and medium-size plum blossom bonsai trees are exhibited in the noted garden of Kyu-Chikurin-in (旧竹林院) in the temple town of Sakamoto. Near Sakamoto Station on the Keihan Ishiyama-Sakamoto Line. Peak period is from mid- to late Feb. Until March 3, 2013. Hours: 9 am – 5 pm (enter by 4:30 pm), Admission: 310 yen (150 yen for kids) Google Map

 

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