Culture Quest World Tour

compass image and text: Culture Quest World TourOphelia Owl on the arm of Parsifal Peguin

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Children’s Day

May 5:

Once celebrated as Boys’ Day, May 5 is now for all children. On a tall bamboo pole people traditionally flew a kite in the shape of a carp for every boy in the family. To the Japanese, the carp shows strength, courage, and determination in the way it leaps upstream, and these are qualities they want their children to have, too. Boys and girls go to Shinto shrines, where priests wave white paper streamers over their heads, bless them, and wish them health and happiness.

Gion Matsuri

July 17:

The best known festival in Japan and the biggest in Kyoto. It began in the year 869 when hundreds of people died in an epidemic that swept through Kyoto. The head priest of the Gion Shrine mounted sixty-six spears on a small shrine, took it to the Emperor’s garden, and the sickness ended. In thankfulness to the gods, the priest led a parade through the streets. The parade has been held ever since, except for the period of the Onin War (1467-1477), which destroyed the city.
There are many special events during the month of July, but the biggest event is the parade of elaborate, carefully preserved floats on July 17. There are twenty-nine hoko ‘spears’ floats and twenty-two smaller yama ‘mountains’ flotas. The huge hoko weigh as much as ten tons and can be thirty feet tall; they look like beautiful towers on wheels. They are decorated with Chinese and Japanese painting. Just under their lacquered roofs musicians play flutes and drums. From the rooftops of the floats men toss straw good-luck favors to the crowds. The hoko roll slowly on their big wooden wheels, pulled with ropes by parade participants.
Yama floats weigh only about a ton, and are carried on long poles by groups of men. Life-size dolls on platforms sit on top of each float to symbolize characters in the story that the float depicts.
Other cities in Japan have their own "Gion" festivals.

Hina Matsuri (Doll Festival)

March 3:

Long ago the Japanese used to rub paper dolls on their bodies to draw out evil spirits, then throw the dolls into a river. In the 1700s the dolls began to be made out of clay, and many people liked them too much to throw them away. Mothers saved the dolls for their daughters and now, on "doll festival," most girls display a set of 15 dolls on stands covered with red cloth. Each set creates a beautifully dressed royal court, with an emperor, his wife, and their attendants. Girls visit each other to admire the displays.


February 15:

In Yohoto in northern Japan, children make huts out of snow every year for the "Snow Cave Festival." They lay a straw mat on the floor, build an altar to the god of water, and light a hibachi (a charcoal stove) which keeps the hut warm and heats soup, tea, or rice wine. Candles or electric lamps light the huts, and families visit one another, leaving their boots outside. Some children even spend the night in their kamakura.


November 15:

Shichi-Go-San(Seven-Five-Three) — celebrates all Japanese children who are seven, five, and three years old. The children dress in kimonos and go to a shrine with their families, carrying paper bags printed with good luck signs. The priest drops "thousand-year" candies into the bags, and parents fill them with other presents. Many think the festival began long ago when children often died young, a parents wanted to express their gratitude for those who survived.