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There is no better way to taste traditional Japanese life and culture than through one of the thousands of matsuri held across Japan each year. They come in all shapes in sizes, with dancing, singing, drinking, lots and lots of drinking, naked g-stringed men, massive floats, and portable shrines to take the gods (8 million at last count) out for a spin around the neighborhood and a bit of fresh air.

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Most are innocent communal affairs, well maybe not the g-stringed extravaganza, a number are huge, such as Kyoto’s Gion Matsuri, but a few are down right deadly. In a world that is overly concerned with safety and preventing lawsuits, these masturi offer the chance to break through the grip of the rational mind through unmitigated danger and experience the ecstasy of touching the turbulent forces of the spiritual world. Or maybe its just an incredible adrenaline rush.

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If you are traveling to Japan here is my list of the 3 Most Dangerous Matsuri that you should attend. Don’t worry you can watch behind the ropes like all the other tourists.

1. Onbashira Matsuri- Suwa, Nagano Prefecture

Photo by toshi0104

This insanely dangerous festival is held only every six years, and with good reason. Giant ceder trees are cut from the surrounding primordial forest and pulled out of the mountains. At its climax thirty to forty people sit on 17 meters long logs, each weighing over ten tons, and race down a steep mountain. Deaths and serious injuries are not uncommon as an unlucky few fly off and are crushed. The logs are used to rebuild the Suwa Taisha Shrine in order to spiritually renew the area with the gods living in the trees.

This matsuri tops my list because the next festival is happening the first weekend in April 2010. Plan now as it won’t happen again for another 6 years. Over two million people attended the last event in 2004, so book a hotel and transportation in advance if you plan to go. More information can be found here.

2. Sagicho Matsuri- Omihachiman, Shiga Prefecture

Photo by Andy Heather

Sagicho matsuri is a fighting festival in which ten massive floats made of bamboo and pine are paraded around the rural city. Each float belongs to a separate section of town and is decorated with thousands of bright red paper strips and an elaborate  model of that year’s Zodiac animal made entirely from natural marine products and grain. Each section of town attempts to out style the other and no expenses are spared. For two days the floats are carried around town by men, dressed as women to appease the female Shinto god enshrined at the local  Himure Hachimangu Shrine.

When other floats are encountered each side spins their  one ton float in a show of strength culminating in a mad dash at top speed into each other in a bone crunching crash. Teams battle for dominance until one float has pinned the other to the ground. After each battle  a celebratory sake and beer chug, naturally from the dedicated alcohol cart following each float,  ensures a long drunk day where someone always gets hurt.

I choose this one because I was involved and I know how dangerous and drunken it can be. Unfortunately, one of my own teammates broke his neck when he feel from the top of the float. Luckily he recovered…8 months later.  Stay until the end, if you haven’t passed out, and you are rewarded with the spectacular torching of floats in front of the shrine.

The festival takes place on March 15h and 16 in 2010. For more information see here.

3. Takeuchi Matsuri- Rokugo, Akita Prefecture

In the evening of February 15th, after a full day of chugging sake, the small northern town of Rokugo prepares for war.  They don helmets, divide the town into North and South and outfit their men with 40 foot bamboo polls. Yes, this is just one day after Valentine’s Day! Each side faces off in a prepared fighting arena, about 100 men to a side, and proceed to beat, whack and pummel the other side’s heads, legs and torsos causing cuts and welts on their enemies (neighbors and friends on any other day of the year). The first and second rounds are limited to “just” the bamboo poles and lasts three minutes each.

The third round is when things get serious as a bonfire is lit and the armies engulf their polls in the fire. Armed with blazing poles the townspeople enter a winner takes all final battle. In this brutal battle poles are quickly forgotten as  fist fights break out across the battleground, with deserters sometimes being dragged back into the arena for some more “fun”. According to the folk story, if the North wins the rice harvest will be bountiful for the year, a reality seemingly lost on the South in the heat of battle. Make sure you stay far enough back in the crowd so that you don’t get pulled in…unless you like a good street brawl with sticks and fire!

Directions to Rokugo can be found here.

There you have it, my three choices for the most dangerous matsuri in Japan. You may be wondering why I picked only three. Good question! The answer is simple, Japan loves the number three and most lists are ordered in triples.

There are of course many other choices for dangerous festivals in Japan, so join the conversation and argue for your own picks for Most Dangerous.

across in your travels or even in your local market? Leave your comments below.

Blogsherpa Travel CarnivalThis post is part of the Lonely Planet BlogSherpa Travel Blog Carnival hosted this time by Erin over at La Tortuga Viajera. The Carnival is hosted every two weeks by a BlogSherpa member. The topic this time is Unique Customs. I hosted the last one here on Todd’s Wanderings about Travel Safety.

It was also hosted in the February Japan Blog Matsuri, hosted by www.muza-chan.net

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7 Responses to “3 Most Dangerous Japanese Matsuri (festivals) to Experience”

  1. inkaNo Gravatar says:

    What an experience. If I drank alcohol, I would have needed a brandy just reading about it. As is, I had a very strong coffee instead.
    inka´s recent [type] ..A few things to know about Mykonos

  2. NancieNo Gravatar says:

    I’m amazed! I’ve missed these 3 in 2010, but I’ll make a point of getting to at least one before I leave Asia. Great post.
    .-= Nancie ´s recent blog .. =-.

  3. Wow, these people are crazy! The footage from Takeuchi Matsuri is pretty scary.

  4. Muza-chanNo Gravatar says:

    Absolutely amazing, all three of them… and tempting.. at least to watch! :)

  5. AndyNo Gravatar says:

    Thank you for the photo credit, a lot of people forget to credit, so I genuinely appreciate. And thanks for a really interesting article too.

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