Yohashira Shrine Festival 2020: Signs of Life & Normalcy

Sat, Oct 3, 2020


The coronavirus future is still uncertain here in Japan. After a huge summer spike in cases the numbers are once again improving. how the upcoming flu season will play out is anyone’s guess. But on the surface – and on the street – things look almost normal. Once Japan begins (slowly) lifting restrictions on travelers coming in from overseas the usual sight of foreign tourists will (slowly) return as well.

Plenty of precautions remain in place. But for the past few days Matsumoto has seen something that this year has occurred far too rarely, if at all.


I’d heard the rumors, and wanted to go check it out for myself. And sure enough, as I rolled over the Sensaibashi Bridge and up to the entrance to Frog Street it was clear: the Yohashira Shrine Festival was happening.

I’ve been to the ocean countless times in my life, but whenever I see those pelagic blue waters after some time away it’s like being reborn. This week I found out that, for me, the same applies to festivals.


Like Frog Street, the shaded path leading from the left side of the Frog Street Police Station (not its official name but it could be) through to the front of Yohashira Shrine showed signs of life that could only mean Matsuri. Granted, the place was not teeming with people. But it was only midday. In a few hours the festival ‘dashi’ – those ornate, colorful, iconic festival floats – would line up and parade through the streets as the crowds gathered: kids out of school, adults out of work, and parents trying to keep from losing their young children.


From the dark inner hall of Yohashira Shrine came the uniquely eerie sounds of the hichiriki flutes, Accompanied by the inimitable chanting of the Kannushi, the priests of Shinto. In small groups or alone, people climbed the steps to pray – or just peer into the dimly-lit rituals going on. Across the rest of the shrine grounds were scattered things slightly less esoteric but no less a part of the Japanese festival.




Sadly, I missed all the illuminated fun yesterday evening. But I did see a palm reader in action.


He had some kind of protractor ruler thing, and was measuring something on one of his victim’s oops I mean customer’s palms. I tried to listen in but couldn’t catch much. In those few seconds I was pretty sure he didn’t throw out any of the typical lines – ‘you will travel’ or ‘you will meet someone’ or ‘you have the feeling you need to make a change’ – so he was either legit or unusually creative with his snake oil.

Sarcastic, I know, I’m just trying to hide the fact that I almost got pulled into his spiel.

Overall the scene down there around Yohashira Shrine was nothing I hadn’t seen many times before. But again, like the ocean, Japanese festivals are something of which I never tire.

In a year like this one, I appreciate them even more.