Nikkei Matsuri: A celebration of Japanese heritage

The Bon-Odori dance celebration at Nikkei Place.| hoto by Stephen Ho.

Joining in the celebration of Japanese heritage, the Nikkei National Museum & Cultural Centre will be holding the annual Nikkei Matsuri Summer Festival from September 1–2.

Roger Lemire, Nikkei Centre’s executive director, shares his experience with various cultural aspects. He first explains what the term “matsuri” means to him.

“It basically means festival. And in Japan, [it means] the matsuri festival. There’s one in every town in Japan and everywhere,” says Lemire.

The word matsuri refers to culture, food and the traditions that are all celebrated in Japanese culture. Lemire reveals that the Nikkei Matsuri Festival encompasses the meaning of the word and aims to provide an authentic experience of a Japanese festival.

Matsuri is used in a variety of contexts.

“Basically, the term is used to reference all-encompassing festivals, whether it’s activities for children, cultural dance, food, or an entertainment program,” he says. “It is used as a kind of a blanket term that roughly translates to mean festival.”

The historical origin of the word goes back hundreds of years, according to Lemire. The original matsuri in Japan is a ceremony when people give thanks, and pray to the ancient gods, Buddha and their ancestors.

“In Vancouver, we call it Nikkei Matsuri, [in] which Nikkei is translated to people that have connections to the Japanese community,” says Lemire.

The festival welcomes anyone who is interested in learning about Japanese culture and heritage.

Traditions celebrated at Matsuri

Another activity that Nikkei Centre provides is related to “Mikoshi.”

“Mikoshi is a reference to the Shinto shrine. It’s usually brought out during the time of celebration,” Lemire says. “It carries the Shinto spirit [and] it’s held in high regard.”

Carolyn Nakagawa, education program coordinator at Nikkei Centre, elaborates more on this topic.

“Shinto is indigenous to Japan. It’s a really important part of Japanese culture,” she says. “The Mikoshi is usually carried during Matsuri by the people of the festival to carry the spirit of the Shinto god.”

Yagura is another essential component in Japanese culture as well.

“It’s basically a stage. It’s like a tower and it’s usually set up in the middle of Matsuri,” Lemire explains.

A lot of celebration activities revolve around Yagura.

“But it’s not really a stage, it has a more cultural representation to it. It has to have the colour and design as opposed to just a stage of a local event,” Lemire adds.

For some people, the traditions of the “Bon-Odori” festival is a rather new concept. Nakagawa carefully explains the traditions celebrated on this occasion to newcomers.

“Odori means Dance. Bon means the summer holiday Obon in Japan, which is a very important holiday in Japan,” explains Nakagawa. “It’s a holiday to honour our ancestors.”

The festival happens depending on the lunar calendar new year. It usually happens around July/August in Japan, according to the education program coordinator.

“And it’s a huge event because Japanese people all go back to their home villages where their families are from to greet the souls of their ancestors,” she adds.

She boils down the term to dancing to celebrate the fact that one is alive today because their ancestors all came together to bring them here.

Another essential item in any matsuri is the Happi coat. Nakagawa describes the robe as a jacket bearing a resemblance to the kimono. The coat allows one to perform physical activities more easily with freedom of body movements.

“They are worn in Matsuri by Taiko drummers especially as well as other kinds of groups. For example, in Japan, sometimes firefighters will wear them,” she says. “And they have some kind of emblem to show you what group you’re part of when you wear a Happi coat.”

Nikkei Centre and Nikkei Matsuri invite everyone to learn more about the wonders of Japanese culture.


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