Written by: William Habington
May 3rd, 2016
Good afternoon to all our devoted readers. Today’s blog is a special one, being the first in this page’s history to be devoted to an event in Matsumoto. Since the SHK homepage is now being reinvented as a site devoted to both Kamikochi and Matsumoto (in whose jurisdiction it lies), you can expect more of this from now on. OK, that’s enough throat clearing because we’d like to bring your attention to a remarkable event taking place this Golden Week in the east Matsumoto area of Satoyamabe. The Ofune Matsuri or “Boat Festival” is bound to draw puzzled looks given that it’s taking place in what is a land locked city. Having directly participated in the event myself, I can testify to its color, vibrancy, and buoyant celebratory air. Read on for details and my attempt at an explanation of what it’s all about.
My own introduction to the Ofune Matsuri was as a passive observer during Golden Week, 2010. At that time, I’d been living in the Satoyamabe neighbourhood of Matsumoto for the better part of a year but didn’t know many people in the surrounding area. I happened to hear festival sounds coming from across the street and ventured over to see what was going on. To make a long story short, I met and befriend my neighbours, the Tochimotos and was invited to participate in the following year’s event. Naturally, I jumped at the oportunity. The large, exquisitely detailed festival floats proved an irresistable lure.
As it turned out, my role in the festival procession was to help push and pull these floats (舞台 or “butai” in Japanese) through narrow, winding streets leading to the Susuki Shrine.
On the first day, I went to a warehouse to witness the Nishiaraimachi neighbourhood “boat” being taken out of storage. the next hour saw some maintenance being performed before we hit the streets for a tour of the area leading to the shrine. After a sweaty couple of hours which saw us taking frequent pit stops for beer, we returned the star attraction to the warehouse to await the main event the next day.
I should add that helping to push the Ofune is strenuous and intimidating, as this photo suggests:
The real exitement happens on the fifth, when all the revellers are amped and the beer and nihonshu flow freely. I myself spent an unforgettable and exhausting day of drinking and hard labour, taking the お舟 to the shrine and back. Without a doubt, the highlight was the “dance” performed within the shrine in which my commrades and I spun the massive two-wheeled butai around in circles. The fact that we all had zouri (traditional Japanese grass slippers) on our feet made it all the more nervy.
So why, you may ask, would a place like Matsumoto have an event involving boats? Well, the answer is long and complicated and not without elements of conjecture. The most popular theory is that the natutical nature of the Ofune Matsuri derives from Matsumoto’s connection to the Azumi-zoku, an ancient sea-faring people who immigrated to the Azumino Basin area centuries ago. More on this topic may be found in a longer article I wrote for the site years ago (scroll down halfway to avoid the lengthy preable): https://www.kamikochi.org/articles/featured-articles/142-asusa-nature-and-culture-flow-as-one-in-the-sacred-river-2.html
If you’re in the area and wondering how best to enjoy the Ofune Matsuri, I would recommend finding a place to leave your car, then proceeding to Satoyamabe on foot. If you arrive in mid-morning just follow the sounds of the festival procession toward the shrine (much of the celebrations and merriment occur on the way there. Around midday, the butai will all be parked within the shrine, allowing you the chance to inspect their detailed decorations close up:
There will be food stalls and various kinds of performance within the shrine, so there’s plenty to do while you wait for the climactic exits of the Ofune after lunch. You are advised to stay until they have all left as it’s definitely the most interesting part of the day.
Before I wrap this up, let me first give you the essentials of the event.
Date/Time: May 4th and 5th (main event to be held on the 5th, morning to afternoon)
Place: Satoyamabe, in and around the Susuki Shrine: https://www.google.co.jp/maps/search/%E8%96%84%E7%A5%9E%E7%A4%BE%E3%80%80%E6%9D%BE%E6%9C%ACemail@example.com,137.9400407,13z/data=!3m1!4b1
We hope to see some of you in Matsumoto, so make it out if you can and have a wonderful Golden Week holiday!