It is traditionally believed in Japan that countless gods and deities live in the country. This is because agriculture, including rice faming, has long played a significant role in the lives of Japanese people. Farmers and others held many festivals to have gods grant their wishes. For example, they held festivals to pray for a prolific growth of rice, thank gods for a good harvest, appease evil spirits, pacify savage deities, prevent epidemics and pray for other wishes. The Sawara Grand Festival is held twice a year in July and October in the region. The summer festival is organized by the Yasaka Jinja Shrine and known as Gion Matsuri, while the autumn one is held by the Suwa Jinja Shrine to pray for abundant crop.
Gion Matsuri was initiated long ago to appease Gozu Tenno, a deity believed to cause the pandemic of infectious diseases, so that epidemics could be prevented. July is the rainy season in Japan and epidemics would break out around that humid month.
The Suwa Jinja festival in october is intended to thank gods for a good harvest. The 2 traditional festivals in July and October, both of which date back 300 years, are both nicknamed the "Sawara Grand Festival."
The highlight of the Sawara festival is the float parade, with 10 or so floats parading the streets during the festival period. These festival floats were created by craftsmen invited by wealthier merchants from Edo (old Tokyo), and featured sophisticated sculptures. The local merchants vied with one another to see who could have the largest doll on the top of their floats. The current form of the festival was established between the late Edo Period (1603-1867) and the early Meiji Era (1868-1912).
About 15 people play small gongs, small drums and other instruments aboard the floats to perform the elegant Sawara Bayashi festival music; one of the 3 prominent festival music of Japan. To the music, people carry out the departure ritual, perform the dance and steer the floats in an elegant and gallant manner. One of the unique ways of pulling the floats is known as "nono ji mawashi," in which floats are steered as if they write the "no" hiragana character.
In particular, the view of lantern-lit floats marching along the Onogawa River in the evening to Sawara Bayashi is a must-see. The picturesque scene reminds one of what Sawara used to be like in the Edo Period.
The float parade is designated as Japan’s significant intangible folk cultural asset.
Hina Matsuri (also known as Girls' Day) is a festival to pray for the health and safety of daughters by displaying "hina" dolls on the "Peach Day," one of "sekku" turning-point days in the Japanese calendar when traditional seasonal festivals are held on the day when the season changes.
Around that season, divine services have traditionally been held to protect people from illness, because it is said in Japan people are more prone to illness when the season changes. In the old days, people rubbed their body with dolls made of wood, plants and paper to transfer impurities to them, and then released those dolls into rivers and the sea. As time passed, the custom was combined with doll plays by girls and traditional sekku rituals. As a result, people have eventually come to display dolls on Hina Matsuri. Hina dolls became regarded as one of essential bride’s household effects by samurai families and others, and they gradually became more adorned with the passing of time. Typical hina dolls wear clothing created to resemble those for high-ranking courtiers in the Heian Period (794-1185) working in the Imperial Palace.
Sawara flourished during the Edo Period (1603-1867) so much that it was once called “Edo masari" (being superior to Edo-period Tokyo). Many stores and shops in the region, therefore, have handed down their own luxurious hina dolls from generation to generation, and now exhibit them for the sake of sightseers. In the Hina Matsuri season, the Sawara Hinabune event is held in the area, in which people clad in attire in the Heian Period perform old court music aboard "sappa bune" Japanese gondolas to create an elegant, ancient-time atmosphere on the Onogawa River.
The "Sawara Wife Association" organizes the "Bon Festival in Sawara" in mid-August every year. As part of the event, people release lanterns into the Onogawa River, which runs through central Katori City. That is called Yume Toro Nagashi (Dream lantern releasing).
To console the spirits of the dead, during the Bon festival period in mid-August, Japanese people typically light fires in the evening at each home to welcome and send back the spirits of the dead. The lantern releasing event is part of such a fire lighting ceremony, and offerings for the Bon festival are usually released with lit lanterns. People can write their wishes and dreams on the lanterns before releasing them.
One of the greatest fireworks events in the Kanto region, the traditional Suigo Omigawa Fireworks Festival over the Omigawa River has been lighting up the night sky over the riverside region for more than a century.
The annual fireworks festival is held on Aug. 1 on the bank of the Tonegawa River near the Omigawa Ohashi Bridge. Of 8,000 fireworks set off in the festival, the spectacular view of the “on-the-water-surface star mine” and "Niagara Falls" set fireworks has especially won high praise, attracting more than 150,000 spectators each year.
The venue of the fireworks festival is 20 minutes by foot from JR Omigawa Station and 20 minutes by car from the Sawara Katori Interchange on the Higashi-Kanto Expressway. The event site is also accessible by shuttle boat from near the Kami Ohashi Bridge on the Kurobegawa River in Katori City, with the fare for a round trip being 1,000 yen. You can walk to the Kami Ohashi Bridge in 10 minutes from JR Omigawa Station.
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