Ofune Matsuri – “Boat Festival” in the Yamabe Area (with videos)
This lively festival takes place every year during Golden Week in the Yamabe area on the east side of Matsumoto. There are nine neighborhoods in Yamabe that take part in the festival, each with their own “boat.” The boats, called “fune,” are a kind of traditional wooden float with two huge wheels on either side and are adorned with lavish wood carvings depicting different scenes or legends. The boat shape is created by attaching long, wooden posts in the front and back, then draping over colored cloth to form a bow and a stern. Each fune, most of them being a couple of hundred years old, has its own unique carvings and color patterns for the cloth used to create the boat shape.
The timing of the festival coincides with the planting of rice and other crops, an the festival day, the fune depart their respective neighborhoods and make their way to the local shrine, Susukigawa Jinja, to ask the gods for a good harvest in the fall. You might wonder why there are giant boats parading around the mountainous region of Matsumoto – there are many stories, but according to one of the elder men in the Yamabe area, the region was settled by migrants from around Izumo on the Japan Sea. Another story tells of migrants from seaside areas in Kyushu, the Azumi people. Though the new settlers were originally from ocean-side areas, they brought their culture and customs with them, including the Ofune Festival.
The fune, being extremely heavy and difficult (and dangerous) to maneuver, are pushed and pulled through the streets by the young men from the neighborhood chanting “Yoisa! Hoisa!” as the go. There are a couple of flute players and taiko drummers inside the float, and a few people who stand on top to yell out encouragements to the pullers. On some stretches of the route, the fune aren’t just simply pulled in straight line, rather the men rock the front and back of the floats up and down while zigzagging across the streets – just as a boat would sway and rock on the ocean waves.
Before going to the Susukigawa Shrine, all nine fune line up in front of the Matsumoto City Education and Culture Center for a short break (and a refill of sake!), as the next part of the route – entering the road to the shrine – is one of the more difficult parts. Each fune must build up speed to turn a sharp corner, which is not only narrow, but also located on an incline. If not maneuvered precisely, the heavy float will crash into the road signs or worse, one of the houses on the road.
After turning the corner, the fune now line up in front of the shrine gate, where a crowd of people is waiting to watch their grand entrance. First the shrine’s Shinto priest blesses the fune and then they prepare to enter. Again, the men must build up speed to turn corner in the shrine, except this time the ground is now a soft, forest floor which makes it even more difficult to push the shrine through, not to mention there is not a crowd of people who, if they are not careful, they will crash right into. It’s quite exhilarating if you can get up close to watch this part of the festival.
After all the fune have entered the shrine premises, each neighborhood separates into their own group and everyone eats lunch and enjoys more beer and sake under the Susukigawa Shrine’s magnificent trees. Once all the festivities are over, the fune are pulled back to their respective neighborhoods.
If you are in the Matsumoto area during Golden Week, definitely go see this festival! If you know someone in the area, or strike up a conversation with one of the locals during the festival, you may even be able to join in on the picnic and share a swig or two of sake 😉