There are all sorts of festivals held all across Japan and all throughout the year. Of the many that I have experienced, the Abare Matsuri may well be the most exciting. Nicknamed the Fire and Violence Festival, and held the weekend of the first Friday of July in the small fishing village of Ushitsu Abare is like no other festival I have seen.
The Saturday night festivities begin with a parade of huge kiriko lantern floats. Kiriko are unique to the Noto Peninsula of Ishikawa Prefecture, along the north coast of Japan. Many festivals have floats of some sort involved, but floats of this sort can only be found here. At Abare there are over thirty of them, each representing a different neighborhood. Held aloft by shouting men and women and carrying children playing drums and flutes the kiriko are noisy yet wonderful to behold.
As loud as they may be, the kiriko are neither on fire nor particularly violent. Though they are very, very heavy. Those aspects come into play a little bit later. Most Japanese festivals have their roots in Shinto, and as such often have mikoshi as their centerpiece. Mikoshi are portable shrines, and the basic idea is usually to take the local kami, or deity, out for a party. The kami leaves its usual abode in the shrine, and is carried all over town for a day or two before being put back in its house. Shinto has to be one of the only religions where one of the aims is to literally party with god. Sometimes they will even pour sake on the mikoshi, to get the kami drunk. Well, that is how things are normally. The people of Ushitsu don't like their local kami very much. So while they do parade around town with two mikoshi, they also stop at various areas and beat the stuffing out of them. They will slam the mikoshi on the ground, kick it, jump on it, pick it up and do it all over again.
At one point they dump it in the river and carry it around there for a bit. All the while dropping it, slamming it and beating it. So there you have the violence part.
The fire comes a little later, around 2am. A huge torch is lit over another section of river, and the mikoshi carriers deliver the same beatings as before, only now outlined in a shower of sparks and embers. Some of the group is entrusted with splashing water all over everything so nobody gets burned, but I still saw the mikoshi itself catch on fire a couple times, as well as the hillside. Which is why the fire department was on hand.
Despite almost five years in Japan, I have never before seen something so interesting, so crazy, and so much fun as a group of very drunk Japanese men kicking the utter crap out of shrine in a river with a huge fire overhead. Its the sort of thing that probably has to be seen to be truly appreciated, my writing about it just seems so tame in comparison.