The spookiest festival of the year is just around the corner, sneaking ever closer. Perhaps you’ve been preparing for Halloween with horror movies, pumpkins, and by putting a lot of effort into decking out your Animal Crossing Island with items from the new update.
Japanese stores will be ready with special Halloween sweets, and discount store Don Quijote will be selling a range of cheap costumes and accessories. You won’t find many people trick or treating, but central urban areas like Shibuya in Tokyo or Dotonbori in Osaka will normally be filling up with crowds. People meet to celebrate, drink, and dress up as a huge variety of characters, arriving as everything from Dracula to Doraemon.
Halloween is an essentially an imported festival though, an event that Japan started to embrace as they were starting to embrace American culture, encouraged by Tokyo Disney World’s huge Halloween party in the late 90’s. So what does Japan’s spooky calendar look like?
Each year on October 3rd Ichijo Dori hosts a parade from the world of spirits, as the street fills with demons and Yōkai step from the shadows into the city of Kyoto. Locals and tourists don masks and costumes to recreate the infamous Hyakki Yagyō (百鬼夜行) of legend, a chaotic procession of mythical troublemakers.
It’s one of the best festivals to see a mixed up jumble of demons in Japan, with plenty of variety in costumes. Most of the wandering spirits are pulled from history however, with Oni, Kappa and Kitsune taking their places as fan favourites.
A new year’s ritual in the Oga Peninsula of Akita, Namahage is a much smaller event that Kyoto’s Yōkai Parade but no less of a spectacle. The modern version of the festival focuses is on the physically powerful Oni, brutish demons popular in Japanese folklore as ogre-like villains.
During Namahage men dressed in furious, brightly coloured Oni masks and straw capes go around absolutely terrifying children. The Yōkai Parade certainly leaves some children crying, but Namahage leaves them with lifelong trauma. In thick local accents Oni armed with wooden knives roam the streets calling out for badly behaved children. It’s like having the monsters from your bedtime story knock at your door.
Oni also feature in one of Japan’s most widely observed festivals, albeit with less fearsome attire. Setsubun (literally season divide) marks the beginning of spring and presents a chance to cleanse the evil of the previous year and welcome new luck for the future. In order to achieve this some unlucky member of the family dresses up as an Oni (or at least wears a mask) and is then pelted with beans, which Oni are magically vulnerable to. Why beans? The Japanese word for bean (豆) sounds the same as destroying evil (魔滅), which apparently makes them perfect demon deterrent.
Our last festival is another local one, held on the island of Miyako-jima in Okinawa. Here villagers dress as mythical paantu, holding large wooden masks and wearing cloaks of mud splattered leaves. The intention is to spread luck and scare away evil, and sacred mud is spread onto new buildings. The mud is also spread onto the faces of anyone who doesn’t run away fast enough, meaning this festival manages to content with Namahage as most nightmare inducing for children.
Hopefully next year things clear up and we’ll have a chance to get involved with these festivals, but until then, stay safe and stay spooky!
Paantu/Namage: Wikimedia commons
Kyoto Yōkai Parade: Sasha Alexander on Instagram at _sash_alex