The Nihonmatsu Lantern Festival (or Nihonmatsu Chochin Matsuri 二本松提灯祭り), is an unforgettable three days of excitement, fire, town pride and cultural history.
It also happens to be one of Japan’s best kept secrets. Despite being recognised as one of the nation’s Top 3 Lantern Festivals (alongside Akita’s Kanto Festival and the Owaritsushima-Tenno Matsuri in Aichi), it is relatively unknown outside the prefecture…until now!
Every year on October 4, 5 and 6 an incredible atmosphere engulfs the otherwise sleepy castle town of Nihonmatsu in central Fukushima. In true Japanese festival form you will find streets lined with festival food and friendly locals handing out free sake to anyone that smiles at them. But you will also find seven huge festival floats called ‘Taikodai’, each adorned with over 300 lanterns! The Taikodai parade from Kasumiga-jo Castle through the main streets of town, all the while surrounded by lively townspeople in festival garb chanting ‘Wa-shoi, Wa-shoi’ – themselves alight with copious amounts of sake and festival cheer!
The origins of the festival itself date back over 300 years. As you can imagine, the festival is ingrained in the local culture and plays a huge role in the identity of those who grow up in Nihonmatsu.
Historically, the town can be separated into seven different neighbourhoods. For the sake of the festival, each neighbourhood has its own unique Taikodai decorated with its crest and symbols. The floats are the absolute pride of each neighbourhood! All seven Taikodai are lit with the same fire from Nihonmatsu Shrine, finally coming together to parade as one at the end of the first night of the festival.
Elements of the seven Taikodai
Diagram of one of the Taikodai of the Nihonmatsu Lantern Festival (Credit: Nihonmatsu City Homepage)
At the base of each float there is space for the festival ‘hayashi’ or musicians – young boys playing traditional Japanese taiko drums and flutes (one large drum, three smaller drums, five flutes and one hand-bell, to be precise). Each town has its own unique rhythm and melody that are played almost non-stop throughout the whole festival, changing only when passing another Taikodai. The seven unique pieces of festival music have been designated important intangible cultural assets by Fukushima Prefecture.
Sharin or ‘Wappa’ (車輪・ワッパ・Wheels/steering)
Each float is made of wood and rests on four wheels, attached by a single central axis. As such, steering, changing direction and controlling the speed of the floats is an incredibly difficult and often dangerous business, especially considering that the streets of Nihonmatsu are anything but flat! The roads themselves are paved over huge hills and it is the job of the ‘direction’ team or ‘unko-kakari’ to not only push and pull the floats uphill, but to carefully direct and control them coming down. Considering that most of the time they are all drunk off their faces, it truly is an amazing feat that injuries are few.
Suginari (すぎなり・Float tail)
Each of the floats also features a unique ‘tail’ which range (from the ground) in height up to 11 metres. They are retractable by hand and you will often see the men (Yane-kakari) standing at the top of the floats carefully lowering them to pass underneath low hanging electrical wires and other obstacles. They are made of bamboo and typically sport 8 lanterns at the tip.
The men that hang-out on top of each float have several important roles to play! Along with controlling the suginari, they are responsible for relighting lanterns that burn out (or controlling any that catch fire, which does happen!) as well as the most important role; riling up and exciting the crowds below with lively chanting, dancing and hanging from the sides of the float. In other words, they are the life of the party!
The Seven Neighbourhoods of Nihonmatsu
Throughout the festival, each of the seven neighbourhoods will do their best to outshine the others in pride, passion and energy! Each town has its own character and personality, represented by a unique symbol. It is easy to distinguish who belongs to who as the costumes worn and lanterns carried by each festival goer are covered in the symbol of their neighbourhood (there are also stalls selling neighborhood merch so you can choose your favourite and get involved!).
Photo Credit: Nihonmatsu City Blog
October 4: Yoi-matsuri 宵祭り
(17:30 ~ 23:30)
The evening of October 4th is by far the highlight of the festival. This is the only time in the whole three-day period when you can see all seven floats parade together. The floats are lit with fire from Nihonmatsu Shrine and make their way from the castle to the shrine in front of the station, growing livelier and livelier as they go. The peak is when all seven line up along one of the steepest slopes (usually at around 8~8:30pm) before turning onto the main street. If you are travelling to see this festival, this is the event you do not want to miss!!
(08:35 ~ early evening)
On the second day, the most spiritually significant event of the festival – the transferral of the mikoshi (portable shrines) – occurs at Nihonmatsu Shrine. Beginning at 8:35am, the mikoshi from each neighbourhood will depart from in front of Nihonmatsu Station and spend some time parading around their own area before visiting the shrine. At night, the lanterns are again attached and lit and each taikodai will parade around its own area. Compared to the first evening, this day is much more subdued (but still a great atmosphere)!
October 6: Ato-matsuri 後祭り
(05:30pm ~ late!)
On the last day of the festival, again the Taikodai begin by circulating around their own neighbourhoods. In the evening they split into two groups (one of 3 floats and one of 4 floats) and parade around together. As the festival comes to a close, the music and chanting become louder and louder as no one really wants it all to end!
Luckily, it will be back again the following year!
The Nihonmatsu Lantern festival is one of those magical events that really makes you fall in love with Japan. There is something so incredibly captivating and contagious about the spirit and energy of the townspeople. Even those visiting from far away will feel like they somehow belong and are proud to call Nihonmatsu their home!
‘Kikumatsu-kun’, town mascot of Nihonmatsu. He represents two of Nihonmatsu’s festivals: The Chochin Matsuri and the Kiku-ningyo Matsuri (Chrysanthemum Doll Festival)
Nihonmatsu is easily accessible by local train on the JR Tohoku Line. The festival itself takes place just a short walk from the station (there is a festival information stand set up about 300m directly in front of Nihonmatsu Station, next to Nihonmatsu Shrine).
Take the Tohoku Shinkansen to Koriyama (around 1.5 hours). Change to the local JR Tohoku Line in the direction of Fukushima City or Sendai, getting off at Nihonmatsu Station.
Take the JR Tohoku Line from Sendai Station to Nihonmatsu station. You can also opt to buy a ‘W ticket’ from the ticket office which will give you a discount rate of 2000 for a round trip!
If you are short on time, you can also opt to catch the Shinkansen from Sendai to Fukushima City, and change to a local train to Nihonmatsu from there.
A useful webpage for checking train times and connections can be found here: hyperdia
***Please note that Nihonmatsu is sometimes spelled ‘Nihommatsu‘ in transport apps and search engines***
Google Maps: Downtown Nihonmatsu (Station area)
A map of the routes to be taken by the Taikodai on each of the three days. You can actually follow the movements of each float LIVE by satellite mapping, from this link posted by the Nihonmatsu City Office: https://doconeel.com/nihonmatsu/map.php?member=1&map=1