In the western area of Matsumoto, you will find the old neighborhood of Hata. Hata is famous in Japan for its superb watermelons, but it has a long history. Walk around streets here and you’ll find beautiful, traditional farmhouses that are surprisingly huge and very well maintained. Looking up a bit of the history, apparently, this area has been a fruit growing region since long ago and the farmers here were able to earn a healthy profit (hence the giant houses).
Hata has a shrine, Suwa Shrine (originally built in 863), that holds a small, yet exciting festival every autumn called the “Reitaisai,” or Grand Festival. During this event, two traditional wooden festival floats, or “dashi,” are pulled around the neighborhood streets and eventually to the shrine as an homage to the deities there.
Because the dashi are so big and heavy, it takes several people to move them through the streets—a task that is left to the energetic young men of the town. In the front, the dashi are pulled with thick ropes and other push from behind. There are also people who ride inside the dashi and play the flute or taiko drums.
One unique thing about this festival is the lanterns on the dashi and throughout the town are still lit with real candles, not electricity. Because of the obvious fire hazards and for the sake of convenience, most other festivals that use dashi floats with laterns now use batteries/electric generators to light them up. At Hata’s Reitaisai festival, however, each and everyone is lit with a candle! Unsurprisingly, there were also a lot of firefighters on watch during the event.
At the shrine, festival-goers came to pay a visit and make an offering to the shrine deities. There were several food stalls and festival games set up, too, so the place was teeming with kids and teenagers from the neighborhood. Just in front of the shrine’s main sanctuary, people were gathered around to watch the young miko, or shrine maidens, perform a traditional dance for the festival.
The Reitaisai festival happens every year on the 4th Saturday and Sunday of September. At other times, you can still come to just visit the shrine and walk around the neighborhood, too. It’s a 15-minute walk from Hata Station on the Kamikochi Line. Check out the map here.