Festivals are held in many parts of Fukui throughout the year. While the Japanese word matsuri is usually translated as “festival,” its meaning also includes religious ceremonies. These events mark changes in the seasons, serve as prayers for the year to come, and connect people to tradition.
Katsuyama Sagicho Festival
The Sagicho Festival is held in Katsuyama on the last full weekend of February. This festival dates back over 300 years, and serves as a celebration of the coming of spring and a prayer for an abundant harvest. A week before the festivities, colorful strips of paper called tanzaku are hung around town as decorations. Then, for the weekend, twelve temporary towers called yagura are erected around town, and performers dressed in colorful garments play traditional songs on the shinobue flute, shamisen, and taiko drums. The townspeople also build playful displays known as tsukurimono, based on themes such as current affairs or that year’s zodiac animal, made of everyday items like kitchen tools or shoes. The finale comes on Sunday night, when a sacred fire is carried from Shinmei Jinja Shrine out to stacks of wood by the Kuzuryu River, for bonfires collectively known as the Dondo-yaki. Visitors and townsfolk alike warm themselves by the roaring fires—and even use the heat to cook mochi using long sticks.
In northwestern Fukui, the town of Mikuni is home to one of the largest festivals in the Hokuriku region, with over 300 years of history. The Mikuni Festival is held every year on May 19–21, with the main event of the festival on May 20, and is best known for its unique floats: each neighborhood of Mikuni constructs a float as much as six and a half meters tall, depicting a figure from Japanese history or legends. The floats can be viewed by the public for a few days before the festival, and on May 20, the floats and a mikoshi portable shrine gather at Mikuni Shrine. A ceremony is held at the shrine, then, at 1:00 p.m., the floats and mikoshi leave to begin their procession around town, filling the air with festive music played on the shamisen, shinobue flute, and taiko drums. At 6:00 p.m., the main procession ends, and the festival becomes a more intimate experience. The floats split up and travel around town independently for the next few hours, before they each make their way back to their own neighborhood. Their trips home through the narrow streets of Mikuni take the floats past hundreds of festival stalls. This can require collaboration at times, with some food sellers pulling their stalls out of the way, and people on the floats using a tool to push power lines up and over their float, so they can safely pass underneath.
Distinctive Seasonal Events Found Only in Fukui
Mihama Hiruga Underwater Tug-of-War
Each year on the third Sunday of January, young men from the town of Mihama, in southern Fukui, hold a tug-of-war in a freezing cold river. The tug-of-war rope represents a sea serpent, and is some 20 to 30 centimeters thick and 40 to 50 meters long. Unlike standard tug-of-war rules, though, the event is not considered complete until the rope has been ripped in two, so the teams struggle in the water to pull it apart by hand, sometimes even using their teeth. Finally, the torn rope is sent out to the Sea of Japan as an offering. This competition serves as a traditional prayer for large fishing hauls in the coming year. The tug-of-war began as a ritual for the town’s fishing community nearly 400 years ago: in 1635, a canal opened that connected the Sea of Japan to Lake Hiruga. According to a local folk tale, shortly after the canal was opened, a sea serpent used it canal to make its way inland from the sea to the lake, and was fought off by the people of the town. This underwater tug-of-war represents a re-enactment of this legend.
March brings a pair of connected rituals held at temples in both Fukui and Nara. On March 2, the Omizu-Okuri (lit. “water-sending”) ritual is held at Jinguji Temple in Obama, in southern Fukui. The solemn nighttime procession is lit by a large pinewood torch, carried by monks from Jinguji Temple. Once the procession reaches Unose, along the Onyu River, a ceremony is performed by monks dressed in white, to bless the okozui “sacred water.” Visitors are welcome to watch the riverside ceremony, and can even join the torch-lit procession. After this ritual, the okozui is believed to flow south over the next ten days to Todaiji Temple in Nara, where it is received during the Omizu-Tori (lit. “water-drawing”) ritual ten days later, marking the arrival of spring.