If it wasn't enough of a beautiful adventure to emerge off a ferry at 4:30 AM, on a tiny Japanese island called Ojika (a member of the Goto Islands of Nagasaki) not knowing what to expect, I was lucky enough to arrive the day before an お祭り, "omatsuri" began. Omatsuri, the Japanese word for festival, turns communities into distinctly Japanese style parties, with a healthy dose of food, dancing, and celebrations of spirits. In the Shinto belief system, 神 "kami," or gods, spirits, are found at shrines that are commonly found in villages and cities.
In this October festival on Ojika, like most other festivals in Japan, members of the community drink and celebrate for a few days leading up to the festival date, where the gods will be celebrated and called to bring good fortune. It is also thought to be an opportunity for the gods to leave the shrine and check in on the people that they are called to take care of. This celebration on Ojika island has been happening for many years, and as historical videos from back in around 1945 showcase, it hasn't actually changed very much at all. In fact, attending a matsuri on Ojika island is sort of like taking a time machine back to an older version of Japan. It's a testament to how well Ojika, and Japan as a whole, has managed to preserve its beautiful culture and traditions unlike many other areas of the world.
During the festival, the gods are ushered out of the temple into a portable shrine that is carried throughout the city, to the main area of the town. As the festival begins, a group of young children perform a well-rehearsed dance, to usher in the beginning of the show. That evening, everyone is ushered out of their homes to partake in treats being sold along the roadside; warabi mochi (pounded rice cake covered in soybean flour), anko (sweet red bean) filled buns, sodas in light up cups that make them look like disco balls, and classic treats such as takoyaki (octopus balls), and yakitori (grilled meats).
The next day, the main parade begins as the portable shrine transports the gods within back to their original home. Food stalls line the edges of the main streets, with the normally peaceful roads lining the harbour now packed with the majority of Ojika's community eagerly anticipating the beginning of the show. I imagine that many of the elderly residents reminisce about the many years of this same celebration during the matsuri, since it is a distinct marker of time passing on this small island where people seem to live such slow, peaceful and nature-filled lives.
As the portable shrine begins the parade, groups of performers follow close behind. Kids and elders alike dance together and showcase their dancing skills, singing, and even short skits of kabuki-style theater. Multiple groups of brightly coloured dancers wield fans and tap away on castanets, as small trucks decorated with paper flowers lead to shower them in music. One group of dancers mirrors the children on the first day but in much greater number, another group of adults wears bright red outfits and waves autumn leaves. The theater group sends the crowd into a chorus of laughter, watching beloved members of the community decked out in dramatic makeup and costumes and wielding plastic swords.
Two impressive dragons, one manned by a group of teenagers and one by a group of younger kids, pass by and terrorise the youngest members of the audience, sending them screeching to their parents while the rest of the public laughs with understanding that they'll be joining in on the laughter soon enough as they get just a little bit older. It's equal parts adorable and heartbreaking to watch the young ones nuzzle into their parents in tears while the dragons swoop around the streets, with loud celebratory bells to add percussion to their dancing. Their tears are shortly dried and replaced with excited smiles, due to members of the parade handing out candy to all the children they see.
The final group of performers is as a group of adults and children, some wearing masks, dance happily along to a singer who belts out an upbeat song about Ojika while strumming a guitar. A mother encourages her young daughter to participate in the dance, and she looks thrilled to be a part of the show.
As the parade makes it's way up the main street, the portable shrine is carried all the way back to where they began. As the matsuri completes, the spirits can make their way back home again, absolutely thrilled at how much love has come their way.