Focus on Japan: festivals, baseball, and sumo

By Lawrence I. Charters

Off Duty, May 1986, p. JPN-6

At the height of spring, May in Japan is a time of historic festivals, colorful pageants, baseball and sumo wrestling.

Tokugawa Ieyasu, the great warrior-statesman who united warring Japan in the 1600s, was an equally astute letter writer. Most of his correspondence concerned politics, military affairs and religion, but even in his simplest communication, Ieyasu usually touched on the subject of the weather. Because Japan is in a temperate zone, the four seasons are sharply defined, and May marks the border between the cool, sometimes gray days of spring and the hot, steamy days of summer.

May brings a profusion of festivals, including the Aoi Matsuri (Hollyhock Festival), the world’s oldest festivity. Held on May 15 in Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capital, the Aoi Matsuri dates back to the seventh century and probably looks much the same today as it did almost 1,400 years ago. From the starting point at the Kyoto Imperial Palace, thousands of people join the parade dressed as nobles, priests and retainers of the Heian period (A.D. 794 to 1185) . Although Aoi Matsuri is one Kyoto’s three largest festivals, May 15 is a working day this year, so you may have to do some extra planning in order to attend. Do it; you won’t regret it.

Those who like their festivals on a smaller scale might try the Kurofune Matsuri (Black Ship Festival) in Shimoda on May 16 and 17. Today a port city of 32,000 people, Shimoda is situated on the beautiful Izu Peninsula and was chosen in 1856 to be the site of the first American consulate in Japan. The festival is a recent innovation, first held in 1932 to honor the kurofune or black ships of Commodore Perry, who visited Japan and opened it to trade with the United States in 1854.

During the two-day celebration, hundreds of participants dress in nineteenth-century American clothing and colorful Japanese costumes of the Edo period (seventeenth to nineteenth century).

If you are quick, you might be able to dash from Shimoda to Nikko for the Grand Festival of Toshogu Shrine. Surrounded by the spectacular natural beauty of Nikko National Park, Toshogu Shrine is breathtaking. An old Japanese expression warns that you should “never say kekko (magnificent) until you have seen Nikko,” and this is one old saying that deserves your attention.

Toshogu Shrine was established by the grandson of Tokugawa Ieyasu as a tribute to his grandfather. After the mammoth efforts of thousands of craftsmen from all over Japan, the memorial was finished in 1636, and Ieyasu was enshrined there as a Shinto god. Consisting of several incredibly ornate buildings decorated with tons of bright enamel and over a million sheets of gold leaf, the shrine is such a far cry from the simple, graceful lines of traditional Shinto design that some Japanese complain that it “isn’t really Japanese.”

Be that as it may, the Grand Festival on May 17 and 18 is unmistakably Japanese. Under towering cedar trees, planted by Ieyasu’s grandson more than 400 years ago, a huge cast — dressed in Edo-period costume — assembles for the Sennin-Gyoretsu, the “procession of a thousand warriors.”

If you live in the Kanto Plains area, May is a perfect time for watching sports. Tokyo and Yokohama both host major league baseball teams, and many Americans find the Japanese brand of the game more exciting than the original, back-home version.

More exotic sports fare is presented at the Ryogoku Kokugikan (Ryogoku National Stadium) from May 11 to 25, when the Natsu Basho (Summer Sumo Tournament) takes place. Six tournaments are held each year, and the Natsu Basho is the second of three staged in Tokyo’s Kokugikan. Grand Champion Chionofuji has yet to lose a tournament in the new building (opened in January 1985), but up-and-coming ozeki (champions) Onokuni and Kitao, as well as the giant 500-pound Hawaiian, Konishiki, are all anxious to spoil his record.

Sumo, which dates from the earliest days of Japan, is very popular among both Japanese and foreigners living in Japan, and competition for tickets can be fierce. Get yours well in advance, and then go to the stadium early. In addition to the sumo matches, the building’s other attractions — the museum, shrine and restaurant — are all just as rewarding.

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