Watch, eat, play, unwind. The joys of travel are many and diverse, but in the end, the focus is often on experiencing everyday life rooted in a foreign culture, different from the everyday life we know. The discoveries and learnings we gain by leaping into another culture bring us joy, surprise, and delight. That’s why when we travel, we seek out things unique to the area and we try to get in touch with the daily lives of the locals as much as possible.
There are all kinds of ways to get in touch with daily life at your destination—enjoying local cuisine, visiting the countryside, making friends while traveling—and participating in a festival is one of them. However, very few events express the atmosphere of an area as much as festivals do. Festivals offer us opportunities to experience not only the history and culture of an area, but also the character and values of the people who live there, which we rarely have a chance to witness. You could say that experiencing a festival leads to learning more deeply about the land. Here, we’d like to introduce some of Kumamoto’s festivals as a way to learn more about the fascinating appeal of Kumamoto.
Boasting one of the longest histories of all the festivals in Kumamoto, the Zuibyo Festival really evokes all the traditions of Kumamoto as a castle town. This large festival is hosted by Fujisaki Hachiman-gu, a major shrine in the Kumamoto city area, and is said to have a history of more than 1,000 years. One significant characteristic of this festival is the procession of warriors known as the Zuibyo. The word zuibyo means “procession of following soldiers.” As one of the festival’s events, whenever the shrine’s object of worship (shintai) is taken outside the shrine, it is accompanied—originally by genuine samurai, now by citizens dressed up in samurai armor, who form a procession and parade around the city. Behind this solemn procession of citizens in samurai garb, who guard the shrine’s shintai, follows a lively procession of about 70 decorated horses and 20,000 supporters. Anyone who views this dashing, gallant event should feel directly in touch with the traditions of the castle town of Kumamoto.
Incidentally, it’s not uncommon among the Japanese to believe that “history and tradition are important” for festivals, and “the older and more venerable the festival, the greater its size and energy.” Of course, there are reasons behind such beliefs, but the festival known as the Hinokuni Festival generates huge excitement every year without this necessarily being true.
About 40 years ago, the Hinokuni Festival was launched in order to create a festival in which all citizens can enjoy participating, so its history is very short compared to the Zuibyo Festival (over 1,000 years!). Despite this, because it’s not bound by history or tradition, but instead offers all kinds of events in the festive spirit of “Let’s do whatever’s fun!,” it’s now the largest festival in Kumamoto with a turnout of 340,000 people. By the way, Hinokuni (which means “land of fire”) is another name for Kumamoto that has been around for a long time, and although various theories exist, it is said to be based on legends about fire. Isn’t this the ideal name for a Kumamoto festival created by modern-day Kumamoto residents? The festival’s highlight is the event called “So Odori” (which means “dancing together”), and the lively spirit of more than 5,000 people dancing around the city gives a truly climactic sense of the festival.
There are many other festivals in Kumamoto, all of which are interesting for their regional traditions and diverse richness. As well as these, there are new festivals that have only emerged in recent years. One example is the Mizu Akari festival (a combination of the words for “water” and “lantern” in Japanese). By decorating the city with festive bamboo lanterns, the festival works to resolve the social and environmental issue of damage to bamboo groves caused by neglect. Nowadays, festivals are not simply observed to maintain tradition. Through new efforts like the Mizu Akari festival, new possibilities for festivals to “create the future” are opening up.
This land is home to countless festivals that have sprouted up anew and been passed down ever since. There are quite a few festivals in Kumamoto alone, and it would be an impossible task to introduce all of them here. However, even just a small glimpse offers an insight into the character and values of the people who live in this land of Kumamoto—people who have inherited the vibrant traditions of a castle town, people who enjoy the present moment to the fullest, and people grateful for the rich environment with which they have been blessed.
With restrictions on events due to the COVID-19 pandemic making it difficult to enjoy festivals as before, it is no longer desirable to openly call for participation in events, and it is unknown what may arise in the future. Still, the meaning and value of festivals and similar events so deeply linked to our human activities must not be lost. After we’ve endured this difficult time and built a world where we once more can attend festivals to our heart’s content, you are encouraged to enjoy these festivals as opportunities to explore Kumamoto in greater depth.