Uchiwa Matsuri – Japanese Fan Festival

10 years ago by in Travel

Summer time is the time for matsuri — or festivals — in Japan. It seems like just about every city, town and village has some form of matsuri going on throughout the summer. Some matsuri are famous and pull in people from all over the world. Others are more local events. But big or small, matsuri can be a lot of fun.

Just north of Tokyo, the small city of Kumagaya hosts several matsuri throughout the year. The Uchiwa Matsuri held at the end of July seems to be held just for the sake of having a good time. The origin of this festival is rather mundane. In the late 19th century, shops would hand out free fans — Uchiwa — to all passerbys and customers around the third weekend of July.

Uchiwa are flat fans originally constructed of paper and bamboo. Nowadays, plastic and wood is more often used. They are often carried at festivals. Stores of today and yesteryear pass out free Uchiwa as advertisements with the practical (not too mention thoughtful) purpose of fanning oneself off during the hot, humid Japanese summer. Uchiwa are thought to have come from Korea.

Perhaps the sudden generosity of the shop owners so surprised the citizens of Kumagaya that they felt like putting together a festival just to celebrate it. As it is, Kumagaya, generally has the highest temperatures in the Tokyo region during the summer. Free fans would have been a blessing before the advent of electric fans and air conditioning.

There are five decorative floats which are quite tall and topped with a mannequin figure representing legendary persons from the past. One figure is Jimmu, the legendary first emperor of Japan who supposedly ruled Japan in the 5th century B.C. Another has the namesake of Kumagaya, Kumagai Naozane, a 12th Century samurai who became famous for his exploits in the Gempei War. He was forced to kill a young enemy which led him to become a Buddhist monk. This story has been retold again and again in various forms through Noh, Kabuki, and artwork. The town took his name because he grew up in the area long ago.

Noise, noise, noise seemed to be the order of the day at the Uchiwa Matsuri. But one thing I noticed conspicuously absent on all those decorative floats was any mention or depiction of the festival’s namesake — fans. Sure, there were fans a-plenty in the crowd both folding and flat but this was to be expected considering the heat. I was expecting floats that were either in the shape of fans or floats covered with fans. Perhaps given the heat, fans on floats would have been seen as a dreadful misuse.

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