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The Ambassador's Article- "Matsuri represents Japanese soul"

                                                                                                                                                                                        09 July 2015
                                                                                                                                                                                  Makio Miyagawa

Pilgrimage is the origin of tourism.  Pilgrimage is one of the forms in which humans have shown reverence to their gods.  Mecca, Jerusalem, Rome, Istanbul, and Athens have long been destinations for many visitors.  In olden days, when mobility of people was restricted not only under rules but also in terms of available means of transportation, pilgrimage provided both an authentic reason to travel and a motivation to spend fortunes for it.  Just as tourists do today, those who went to pilgrimage, brought back souvenirs and travel stories to fascinate others who remained.
Tanabata Festival: (C)Sendai Chamber of Commerce and Industry
For the Japanese, the oldest place for our pilgrimage is Ise Jingu(伊勢神宮), located south of Nagoya(名古屋), whose deities are believed to be are the ancestors of many ancient clans including the Imperial Family.  The shrines still exist at the same place in just the same shape as they did over 2,000 years ago.  The wooden shrine buildings have been rebuilt every 20 years as a long-established religious ritual, since the year 690.  Many generations of our ancestors have worshiped at this shrine for many centuries, just as they do today.

For many centuries, a set of organized travel to and from sacred places have blurred the line between tourism and pilgrimage.  In our modern age, no such religiously authentic reason is no longer needed to visit places.  Transportation methods have so conveniently been developed as to enable much quicker mobility with far less costs.  For the last two centuries, world tourist destinations have become numerous.

Tourist information centres have notified us that tours to Japan
in the coming summer are alluring tourists. With such gathering momentum added, Malaysian visitors to Japan reached a new record high of 249,521 in 2014, surpassing its previous high of 176,521 in 2013.  This registers a 41.4% increase.  As the Ambassador of Japan, I am very pleased to see tourism to Japan has been prospering year after year.

Tourist destinations in Japan have also diversified.  Major cities are no longer the sole targets of tourism.  Smaller towns and villages have begun attracting foreign visitors.    A recent survey revealed Malaysian tourists to Japan have tended to appreciate natural beauty or scenic spots of four seasons.  Let me recommend the readers to try enjoying festivals in Japan, even by way of experience.  All over Japan, throughout the year, there are numerous festivals, “Matsuri(祭)” in Japanese terminology, in which tourists may find parts of our culture and tradition. 
July and August are a summer festivity season in Japan.  Houses and villages prepare the return of souls of ancestors for several days either in July or in August, depending on regions.  Family shrines and altars are embellished with flowers and added flagrance of burning incense.  Banquets are served with light entertainments performed.  Fire is kindled in flaming torches on their arrival evening on the 13th to show them their way back home, and on their departure night on the 16th to give a farewell light to illuminate their way back to heaven.   Such religious tradition has transformed into festivity in modern times.  Local communities, villages and towns, perform their own special festivals almost all over Japan. 

This time of the year, what I would like to recommend most are the following three festivals in Aomori(青森), Akita(秋田) and Sendai(仙台), which take place coincidentally in early August consecutively. I hope the readers of Shinchew and our Malaysian friends will enjoy these festivals in our Northern prefectures, hopping from one city to another.  Our Shinkansen, the original high speed rail trains, will offer you rapid and punctual transportation services to make your trip to these three cities comfortably possible. 

Nebuta Festival(睡魔祭) is held in Aomori and Hirosaki(弘前) from 2nd to 7th August.  As many as forty multi-coloured festival floats – each, in average, ten metres wide and five metres tall - with luminous paper figures of warriors or princesses turn out on streets and parade around the cities after night falls.  The origin of this festival is believed to be a religious service in the eighth century of floating small wooden boats with lanterns in the late summer evening, sending off souls of ancestors returning to Heaven through rivers onto the sea, after several days of their revisits to their home.  
Nebuta Festival: (C)JTA/(C)JNTO
From 3rd to 6th August, Kanto Festival(竿灯祭)is held in Akita.  Energetic youths turn out on streets after dark and parade, lifting up approximately ten-meter-high poles, each, like a mast of a sailing ship, clustered with 24 or 46 candle-lit lanterns depending on the size of the pole.  The procession of over 250 such poles appear as if fully ripe rice plants were waving in autumnal wind.  The festival originated over 260 years ago, in prayer for rich harvest in the coming autumn, to solidify local communities and to train the youth.
Tanabata Festival (七夕祭)held from 6th to 8th August in Sendai, beautiful decorations crafted with bamboo and paper are hung down in the arcades in the centre of the city to offer citizens an occasion of feeling release and joy of mixing with others on hot summer evenings.  This festival originated more than four hundred years ago when the warlord wished to raise the level of dexterity of weaving and crafting by appreciating and promoting it through the competition of beauty of decorations.  Tanabata reminds an anecdote in the ancient China of a daughter of a King, though once allowed to marry a cowherd, was ordered to return to the Palace, as she failed to honour the King’s instruction to continue weaving. 

Matsuri are the embodiments of what we Japanese have inherited from our ancestors and what will be passed on to the future generations. Matsuri are not just about beautiful decorations and night stalls with delicious food, but rather, it represents our soul to maintain communications with our ancestors, to celebrate family, friends and neighbours bonding, to appreciate nature, and to keep our traditions alive. Those who wish to participate are all more than welcome too.  I hope you will enjoy them.
Kanto Festival: (C) Akita Kanto Executive Committee

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