Kurayami Matsuri - Kurayami (Darkness) Festival
Japan's best kept secret comes alive at night
Fuchu, a place I have been living in for the last 6 months, normally a quiet city located a 20-minute train ride from the heart of Tokyo, once a year it lights up with lanterns and floats at the beginning of May and the city takes on a surreal atmosphere like the hot spring town in Spirited Away.
Kurayami Festival is one of Tokyo’s most popular festivals and one with a rich and long history with roots that extend as far back as the 2nd century when Okunitama Shrine was established by Emperor Keiko and when Fuchu was the government seat of the old Musashi Province, which today comprises Tokyo Metropolis, most of Saitama Prefecture and part of Kanagawa Prefecture.
Kurayami Festival is held annually from April 30th to May 6th, with many family-friendly events available between morning and evening, however, the main festival days are May 4th and 5th, and the highlights of the festival are its late-hour ceremonies which take place in the dark.
Kurayami means “pitch dark” in reference to the Mikoshi (portable shrines) procession being originally held at midnight, with the town extinguishing all forms of light. This is because long ago it was believed that sacred things should not be seen with the naked eye, therefore in pitch dark humans were not allowed to see the god’s divine spirit being transferred from the shrine to the Mikoshi (portable shrine) and transported to the Otabisho (their one-night resting place). Today, the festival is well lit in the evening with paper lanterns as it attracts many visitors from Japan as well as from abroad, and in 2010 it was designated a Folk Cultural Treasure by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.
The schedule of events is as follows:
The first day involves a trip to Shinagawa where the priests and those who will participate in the festival cleanse themselves in the seawater and take this water back to Okunitama Shrine to be used during the festival to purify all things.
Prayers are offered in the morning in Okunitama Shrine for dry weather and safety during the festival. This year the prayers were answered as we had sunny and warm weather for the whole period of the festival.
In the evening the 8 mirrors that are used on the portable shrines (Mikoshi) are cleansed with salt because it is believed that the mirror reflects not only your physical self, but the spirit within, and so by cleansing the mirrors you are also cleansing those that will carry the Mikoshi (portable shrines).
From 6 pm 22 beautifully decorated wooden festival floats, featuring musicians and comical dancers, parade along the Zelkova Tree Street. Each float has its own costume and color, and there are usually children performing alongside adults. The floats sometimes end up side by side and an exuberant display of colors and dance follows. The festival music is called Fuchu Bayashi which is native to Fuchu. The musicians play the Japanese transverse high-pitched bamboo flute, shime-daiko (a small high-pitched Japanese drum with its head pulled taut by ropes), large taiko drum, hand bell and wooden clappers. The flutist is like the music conductor who directs the music. They start the song and direct the rhythm which the other musicians follow. I must admit I was charmed and impressed by the skill everyone presented.
During all this the shrine is incredibly busy, with food stalls and games at every corner. This year there was even a haunted house that only the bravest dared to enter!
At 8 pm there is a spectacular horse-riding ritual procession called “Komakurabe”, in which the speed, prowess and obedience of the horses is displayed. Six horses gallop down the road one by one. It is said that this originated from examination of horses for offering to the ruler.
The first full day of the festival. Processions take place from early in the morning.
At 12:30 pm there is a colorful and breathtaking, one-hour long lantern-themed flower performance called Manto Taikai. Not only is it a performance for the crowds gathered all around the place, but also a competition among the neighborhoods in Fuchu of who can wave the massive (more than 50 kg) Manto (paper decorated poles) the most gracefully. Later on, there is a colorful parade of all beautifully decorated Manto poles and the winning one receivers the prize.
From 5 pm to 6 pm, performers bang six giant taiko drums on the streets near Okunitama Shrine in order to purify the path for the portable shrines. I was in awe when I saw how huge all six taiko drums are. In the old days, they used to ram the taiko drums at each other. Since a bigger taiko was more advantageous, the neighborhoods sought to make the larger drum. The shrine’s largest taiko drum is also one of Japan’s largest with a skin diameter of two meters. Some people also stand on the taiko drums while they move, to control the tempo of the banging.
The day culminates in a parade of 22 lantern-laden ornate wooden floats between 6 pm and 9 pm along the Zelkova Tree Street in front of the shrine.
Various exciting and family-friendly events are held from the morning but the main event of the day is when eight portable shrines are carried through the streets.
Mikoshi Togyo, also known as Oide (procession of the portable shrines from their place of enshrinement), begins with the launch of fireworks at 6 o’clock in the evening while six of Japan’s biggest drums are beaten to reverberate like thunders and underground rumbling. Then, led by the drums and lantern lights, eight portable shrines emerge from the main shrine. Each one of them carries a different deity enshrined at the shrines in the old Musashi Province.
After a long and gratifying march, the portable shrines are placed inside the Otabisho (their one-night resting place) until 4 am the next day when they are carried out and returned to the shrine.
After experiencing Kurayami Festival - one of the oldest festivals in the Kanto region - for the first time in my life, I am sure there isn’t anything like it in all of Japan.
Words cannot describe just how beautiful this festival really is.
If you're in Japan during this time, it is a must-see!