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Japanese Festivals That'll Make You Say What!?

Introduction

There always seems to be two stereotypes about Japan - buttoned up and polite, or extremely weird. While both stereotypes are true to an extent this article will focus purely more on the weird side of Japan, particularly the whacky festivals that may not always make sense to foreigners. 

Believe it or not, there is a method to the madness and nothing is celebrated in Japan without a purpose. Even if you don't particularly care for the reason of the festival it's still a fun time, so enjoy yourself!

Kanamara Matsuri (The Penis Festival)

This may not be appropriate for young children, but the purpose of the festival is more educational than it is sexual. The festival is held in Kawasaki during the month of April and celebrates fertility, happy marriages and healthy births. The festival also promotes healthy sexual relationships as well as raising awareness to STD's and STI's.
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Of course, it wouldn't be a penis festival without penis merchandise. You'll see plenty of penis hats, lollipops, shirts, costumes and giant wooden penises being paraded around. There is also a contest for who can carve the best penis out of radishes. 
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Hadaka Matsuri (The Naked Festival)

There are more than a couple hadaka matsuri taking place around Japan, but the most famous location is in Saidai-ji with almost 10,000 men and boys participating. The festival date varies each year, but the festival is commonly held in late February. For 2018 the festival will be celebrated on February 17th and for 2019 the date is set for February 16th.

The purpose of the festival is to gain luck and good fortune for the following year by grabbing a pair of lucky talismans thrown by priests. The men aren't naked, but wear a traditional Japanese loincloth that pretty much shows everything besides their genitals.
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The festival begins at 12am when all the lights are turned off and the men wait for the priests to drop the lucky wooden talismans from the shrine. You'll know once they've been thrown into the crowd because you'll see everyone pushing and climbing on top of each other to grab the two wooden sticks. Once someone has successfully grabbed the sticks they will stick it in a box filled with rice and be deemed the luckiest man.
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Along with the two stick there are bundles of other lucky items thrown into the crowd to create more of a challenge. 

Naki Sumo Matsuri (Baby Crying Festival)

The sound of a baby whaling is one of the top 10 most annoying sounds, but in this festival babies are encouraged to be as loud possible to win the gold!

During the Naki Sumo Matsuri two sumo wrestlers each hold a baby, face each other and proceed to make weird faces and wear scary masks to make the babies cry. The baby who cries first, the loudest, or the longest is crowned winner. An official sumo referee judges the match.
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The belief behind this 400 year old tradition is that the cry of a baby will scare away demons, granting them a long and healthy life. 
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Hokkai Heso Matsuri (Belly Button Festival)

This has become one of the most popular summer festival in Furano, Hokkaido. The festival was first celebrated in 1969 and was meant to unify Furano's people because they were spread over a large area. Furano is located in the very center of Hokkaido, thus inspiring the name "belly button festival".
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The main attraction is the Heso Odori (Belloybutton Dance) where performers dress up, paint their stomachs with funny faces and compete for various pries. The heso (bellybutton) is often painted to look like a mouth. 

Akutai Matsuri (Cursing Festival)

This is a great festival if you have some pent up anger that you need to get out. While Japanese people are known to be polite and reserved they're still human and get angry just like everyone else.

The festival takes place at the Saishoji Temple in Ashikaga on the third Sunday of December. Worshipers are led by thirteen people dressed as red-faced mountain goblins called tengu up Mount Atago to Atago Shrine. During the journey worshipers will yell curse words and insults.
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The tengu will also make offerings at eighteen small shrines on the way up. Worshipers will try to steal the offerings while shouting insults and curse words, this is said to bring good fortune. After reaching Atago Shrine participants are blessed by the Shinto priest and the tengu toss rice cakes into the crowd. 

Paantu Matsuri

Paantu are supernatural beings that are covered in mud and leaves, they also wear long masks. The goal of the paantu are to cover everything with mud to ward off evil spirits. During the paantu matsuri men dress up as these supernatural beings and walk around with priestesses and throw mud on people, buildings, cars etc. to banish evil spirits.

Besides banishing evil, the paantu are also meant to scare kids. Similar to the boogeyman, the paantu are supposed to frighten kids into doing the right thing and follow the pure path.
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The festival takes place on Miyako Island located in Okinawa. There are two versions of the festival, the one I've described is practiced in the Hirara Shimajiri area. The festival takes place in September. 

The second version of the festival is located in the Ueno Nobaru area and takes place in December. Instead of men dressing up as Paantu, one boy is chosen to dress up in mud and leaves and walk around the streets with a group of women playing traditional drums. 

Oga Namahage Matsuri

A Namahage is an ugly demon that wears a large mask and carries a knife and pail. The demon visits homes that contain children in Oga City, Akita Prefecture on New Year's Eve. The night before New Year's the demon goes around dancing and shouting, calling to lazy and disobedient children. The worst part about this is that the parents invite them into their home and give them mochi and sake in return for good health and crops in the following year.
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Before leaving, the demons scare obedience into the kids and repeat the process with another house. This isn't really a festival, but it's still a really weird tradition. 

Takeuchi Matsuri (Bamboo Battle Festival)

This may be a festival that you should watch rather than participate in. Every February 15th in Rokugo, Misato townspeople divide themselves into two teams - North and South. After many rounds of sake, the men put on helmets and arm themselves with 20-foot bamboo poles.
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There are three rounds of fights where the men start hitting each other with the bamboo sticks. Getting hit with a bamboo pole isn't pleasant and participants often walk away with bruises, cuts and welts. During the third round the poles are set on fire and there's an all out brawl against the two teams. 

If the North wins it means there will be a good rice harvest for the coming year and if the South wins that's a signal that the price of rice will go up. 

Onbashira Matsuri (Honored Pillars Festival)

This another pretty dangerous festival that I wouldn't suggest you actively participate in. Onbashira Matsuri is held every six years in the Lake Suwa area of Nagano Prefecture to renew the four Shrines at the Suwa Grand Shrine. To renew the Shrines sixteen fir trees are chosen to be cut down and are then rode down the mountain to the Shrine. The trees are then erected on the four corners of each Shrine. The festival is deemed the most dangerous in Japan because so many people are injured or even killed when riding down the mountain on the log.

The festival lasts a total of seven months and consists of two parts, Yamadashi and Satobiki. Yamadashi takes place during April and Satobiki takes place in May.

Yamadashi
Yamadashi translates to "coming out of the mountains". This part of the festival involves citizens choosing sixteen 56-62 feet tall fir trees. The trees are cut down using specially crafted axes and are rode down the mountain by young men trying to prove their bravery. Once down the mountain the trees are adorned with traditional red and white Shinto decorations.
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Satobiki
One month later during Satobiki the logs are brought to the four Shrines: Honmiya, Maemiya, Harumiya, and Akimiya where the are erected by hand using ropes. There's also singing and dancing while the logs are being raised.
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Conclusion

There are plenty of things to do in Japan if you want to let your weird side out. While some of these events require that you simply watch rather than partake it's still entertaining to see the weirder side of Japanese culture. The best part about Japanese festivals though is the food and refreshments that they serve, so sit back and enjoy the show!

Resources:
1. https://www.tripzilla.com/weird-festivals-japan/44104
2. https://theculturetrip.com/asia/japan/articles/things-you-need-to-know-about-japans-naked-festival/
3. https://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2015/02/okayamas-naked-festival/385724/
4. http://www.furanotourism.com/en/spot/spot_D.php?id=450
5. https://stronglang.wordpress.com/2015/12/31/akutai-matsuri-japans-festivals-of-abusive-language/
6. https://allabout-japan.com/en/article/4393/
7. http://akitajet.com/wiki/Takeuchi_Festival
8. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Onbashira

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