The Japanese have a festival for every season. Maria Visconti dons her dancing geta and joins the fun.
Festivals in Japan are often rooted in ancient beliefs and events; they offer locals a chance to relive history and visitors a window into a fascinating culture. Most involve a lot of local participation and draw a crowd of spectators. However, there is one festival in Gujo-Hachiman in which locals and visitors join the action.
Gujo Odori Festival Step. Tap. Step. Tap. ''Looking at the moon,'' the dance instructor says, shading her eyes from imaginary moonshine. ''Looking at the river'' - our hands make horizontal waves. ''Looking at the mountain'' - we trace a triangle in the air. Step. Tap. Step. Tap. I am determined and do my best to glide elegantly. Tonight I have a date with the people of Gujo and this choreography class is a lifeline. (Classes are run daily during festival time at the Gujo Hachiman Hakurankan City Museum; 11am, 1pm, 2pm and 3pm.) For 32 nights between mid-July and the first week in September, this medieval town dances 400-year-old choreographies at the foot of Mount Hachiman in the Gujo Odori Festival. Ten traditional dances - inspired by children's play, a summer's night or the prancing of a Samurai's young horse - are danced not only by locals, in a Japanese version of line-dancing, but by visitors, too.
Hundreds of people dance en masse; most are dressed in yukatas (light cotton summer kimonos) but there are many, including visitors, dancing in everyday clothes. This being Japan and the choreography well-known to all, there are no bumps or clashes except for those provided by the band (an ensemble of shamisen, drums and flutes). The rhythmic stomping of the wooden geta (high platform sandal and ancestor of the thong) and the clapping of hands help to keep time. The well-organised lines move in perfect unison.
Get a yukata from your ryokan or hotel and buy a pair of inexpensive geta. Aim for the museum in the afternoon and take a choreography lesson as I did. After dinner find out where the action is and join the throng.
Away from the dance floor, Gujo is a great place for walking; bikes can be rented, too. Don't miss the Sogisui Source fountain, the spring that provides water in Gujo. Admire the projecting dividing panels inserted on the top floor between houses, designed to stop roaming Romeos from dropping into their Juliet's bedroom.
SPRING AND AUTUMN
Takayama Festival During the 17th century in Takayama , wealthy merchants poured money into the arts and crafts of the region. Instead of acquiring the skills of famed artists for their private collection, wealthy citizens paid craftsmen to create beautiful floats to be paraded in spring and autumn. Designs grew in complexity as competing tycoons upped their game.
Today, the carefully preserved, lacquered and gilded floats move along Takayama's Edo-era streets and over its many vermillion bridges, creating a magical spectacle in spring and autumn. This float of floats parade takes place on April 14-15 (in a festival called Sanno Matsuri) and October 9-10 (Hachiman Matsuri) each year.
If you cannot attend Takayama's festivals you can still admire the floats without the crowds - they are displayed at both the Yatai Kaikan Museum and at the Takayama Matsuri Museum, where a 70-metre tunnel-like approach lined with reproduction autumn floats (a third of the original size) leads to a giant underground cavern where festival floats and marionettes are exhibited. Centuries-old craftsmanship is combined with the latest animatronics to produce a show, which includes marionettes that play drums and dance.
On the streets, look for kura houses, which were designed as repositories of citizens' private heirlooms - and their valuable floats - to protect them from fire. Built solidly with mudbricks and stone, with interlocking fire-proof doors, these distinctive houses remain in use, converted into cafes and boutiques.
Sapporo Snow Festival On the northern island of Hokkaido, the Sapporo Snow Festival (seven days, starting in the second week of February) offers a spectacular white wonderland of intricately carved ice sculptures, including Egyptian sphinxes, pagodas, palaces and cartoon characters. The festival, started by six students in 1950, is now a Hokkaido trademark.
The Otaru Snow Light Path festival (about 30 minutes from Sapporo) illuminates the landscape with thousands of ice lanterns. This port town, with its dreamy canal, is a skiing and dining paradise. It is home to one of the best sushi restaurants on the island (Masazushi) and the ski fields have startling views of the sea. The Otaru festival can easily be combined with the Sapporo Festival.
OTHER PLACES TO PARTY
Kurama's Fire Festival is known as one of the most eccentric festivals in Japan and attracts hundreds of visitors. It takes place on October 22 in this mountain town near Kyoto. Groups of young men carry 80-kilogram flaming pine torches to a shrine to the accompaniment of wild drumming. The festival originally celebrated the arrival of a deity carried on a portable shrine.
The Wajima Kiriko Festival on the Noto Peninsula takes place during the Bon period in August. Kiriko (giant lanterns) are carried on the shoulders of up to 20 young people. The lanterns are so tall that guy ropes are needed to prevent them from overturning. The thirsty carriers stop at every inn where keepers ply them with sake. After a few stops the lanterns start swaying at alarming angles. A Taiko drumming display, featuring masked drummers, opens proceedings. The night ends by the sea where a 20-metre-tall torch is ignited on the beach.
For more information on Japan's festivals, see jnto.org.au.
The writer travelled courtesy of the Japan National Tourism Organisation.