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about The Wakamatsuri Festival

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The Wakamatsuri festival is held each year in May, on a holiday near to the anniversary of Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu’s death (May 17th in the new calendar).

It is considered a “Great Festival Procession” of the Kishu-Toshogu Shrine, a shrine built in 1621 by Tokugawa Yorinobu, the 10th child of Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Many believe that the festival was named after Waka Mountain, where the Kishu-Toshogu Shrine is located.

The festival began to be celebrated in 1622, shortly after the start of the Edo Period and the Tokugawa shogunate.

Because it began so soon after the Warring States Period, much of the objects and costumes we see in the parade reflect the styles of this era, an aspect which makes it a very unique and special parade even in Japan.

It was formerly considered one of the “Three Great Festivals” of Japan and the most important in the Kishu region (modern-day Wakayama and Mie Prefectures).

The main feature of the festival is its parade, a procession three-quarters of a kilometer in length which features close to 1000 people in period costume performing, demonstrating a traditional art, or simply having fun.

Traditionally an opportunity for skilled artisans or performers to display their wares and abilities and be noticed by viewers of elite social classes, this spectacle takes place in the beautiful and historical seaside district of Wakaura, in the southern part of the city.

Note: Due to the rare and valuable nature of the artifacts and costumes, the festival parade is not held outside on rainy days. On those days, a shortened version of parade is held indoors.

Wakamatsuri Parade Roles: Order and Explanation

The parade usually has around 65 different ‘stages’,
each featuring anywhere from 1 to 50 performers,
with the exception of the mikoshi shrine-bearers which number around 120.

On the day of the festival, this mikoshi (“portable shrine”) is said to contain the spirit of Tokugawa Ieyasu himself, and is raised, lowered, twisted, and turned so that he can observe the town from different angles and assess for himself how nicely it’s coming along.

Stages of the parade:

1. Procession Master

Play the role of parade leaders. Control the pace and direction of the entire procession.

2. ‘Gong Striker’

Ushers in the parade. Holds a wood mallet and metal gong which he/she strikes once every 5 or 6 steps.

3. Shrine Flag-Bearers

Hold and display the flag of the Kishu-Toshogu Shrine.

4. Point Flag-Bearers

Display the five-color flag according to Shinto rites.

5. Magistrates
6. Magistrates’ Retainers
7. Court Ladies
8. Court Musicians
9. Chest Carriers

Carry the tools of worship, offerings, and other valuable artifacts.

10. O-Sakaki

It is believed that those who bring a branch of this tree home with them and place it in a prominent place will become happy and their household will become luckier.

11. Offering Box
12. Lion Dancers

Two lions which play the same role that the two koma inu dog statues outside most Shinto shrines play, protection from evil.

13. Shrine Maidens

Maidens in the service of a Shinto shrine.

14. Sacred Treasures

Held by a Shinto high priest.

15. Left and Right Ministers
16. Fan-bearers

The ministers’ subjects.

17. Sword-bearers

Accompany the ministers.

18. Head Priest
19. First Metal Scratchers

They accompany the following Taiko drum group.
They don’t strike the metal so much as “scrape” it.

20. Second Metal Scratchers

Depending on the rhythm, they convey travelling across fields or crossing rivers, etc.

21. First Taiko Drummers

Along with the metal gongs, the Taiko is one of the few noisemakers in the parade.

22. Mikoshi
23. Women’s Mikoshi
24. Children’s Mikoshi
25. Imperial Mikoshi

This mikoshi is too heavy to be carried, so it is wheeled through town.

26. High Priests

Watch over the mikoshi from behind.

27. Armored Soldiers

Samurai wearing armor and waving flags.

28. Procession Master
29. Sumo Wrestlers
30. Travelling Merchants

Displaying their merchandise, they travelled the world peddling their wares and would come back in time for the festival with stories of the world and their travels to regale spectators.

31. Merchant Children

Children’s version of above, elementary school girls.
Added in the Taisho period, these children dance as they march forward.

32. Fan Taiko

Many people of the time believed strongly in Nichiren Buddhism.
The dance is a prayer for their happiness in the afterlife.

33. Mochi Flower Dance

When freshly made, mochi rice cakes were place on bamboo leaves, so these dancers hold the leaves while they dance.

34-38. Mochi-Pounding Dances

Mochi rice cakes are made with a stone mortar and wooden mallet which acts as a pestle.
This performance demonstrates the steps one would take to make mochi in times past.
– Mortar Stand
– Mochi Kneaders
– Mochi Pounder
– Etc.

39. Dancing Girls

Girls dressed as dancers.

40. Flower Offering

Symbolizes an offering of a mountain of flowers to the kami.

41. Procession Master
42. Spear-tipped Parasol
43-49. Saika Dances

Dances which celebrate the victory of battle.
– Great Taiko Drummers
– Flute Players
– Etc.

50. Saika Clan Gathering
51. Warriors

Naginata pole weapon wielding, armor-clad brave warriors.

52. Procession Master
53. Naginata Pole Weapon Masters

One of the most difficult performances in the parade. Requires a high degree of dexterity and skill.

54-61. Arrow Guards

Structures made to receive arrows in battle in order to protect the warriors.

62. Procession Master
63. Mask Wearers

Also called “One Hundred Masks,” these masked performers are very scary.
It is said that the children that cry from seeing these masks will grow to be healthy and strong.

64. Chinese Ship

A dragon’s head decorates the prow of this Chinese boat. People of high status traditionally ride on the boat.

65. Procession Master
66. Hunting Tools

This last performance displays the hunters’ tools that were used in the Edo period to hunt animals in the mountains or hills.

Note: The number and order of the stages is subject to change at any time and for a variety of reasons.
This list is provided only as a reference.

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