Today, I visited the Karakasa Lantern Festival (からかさ万灯 – karakasamando) at Washi shrine in Tsuchiura. Well, it is listed as an event in Tsuchiura, but the shrine is actually in Niihari, which was merged recently to the city of Tsuchiura (link). Unfortunately, there is not much information about this festival in English. The only thing I could find out is that it is held for a rain invocation ceremony. The hightlight of the event is a fireworks which lits from an umbrella shaped frame of 5 m height. This unusual shape for a fireworks was it what made me curious to go to the festival.
Washi shrine is about 20 min by car from Tsukuba center. I don’t think that it is easy to get there by other means: The countryside roads are very narrow and therefore dangerous for bikes, and public transportation in this area seems to be very poor. So if you want to go, you should take your car or ask a friend to drive with you there.
The festival starts in the afternoon, but I only went there in the evening. I arrived at approximately 7 pm in Niihari, and parked my car at the parking lot of the Fujisawa elementary school. The parking looked already quite full, but I found quickly a place. From the parking lot, it is a 5 – 10 min walk to Washi shrine. Parts of the road are lined with lanterns, which are inscribed with the name of the matsuri (からかさ万灯). As the area is rather dark, it is very scenic to look at and walk by.
The street approaching the shrine is lined with food stalls, the usual matsuri treats: Yakisoba, Takoyaki, shaved ice, sweets. On the small open space next to the shrine is the karakasa frame. The area in the direct vicinity of the “umbrella” is closed, most obviously for safety reasons. The other half of the space is taken by the stage and the watching crowd.
The evening entertainment program started at 7 pm. It was mostly locals performing music acts, some contemporary, some more traditional. I admit, I did not watch the entertainment, it was finally not as interesting as anticipated. Instead I got some food and talked with my friend who came with me to see the fireworks.
The festival felt very local, in a positive sense: It was well visited, but not too crowded, the atmosphere was very laid back. Many women and girls put on yukata, which looks always picturesque.
Do you see the numerous kanji written on the wall in the gallery above? These are the names of the donors for this festival. Along with the name of the donor (this can be an individual or a company) is the amount of donated money indicated. Below is a close up. In case you are wondering, the kanji for numbers are written differently than usual, such as 壱 for 一 and 萬 for 万. These kanji are called “daiji” and are used for formal documents, and apparently also for donations to shrines. For example, on the picture, there are several people who donated 10,000 Yen. But you don’t have to donate money, there is also someone who gave 7kg of grapes :).
Maybe 30 min before the start of the fireworks, we approached the fence to the umbrella frame and waited for the spectacle to begin. I would recommend to go there even a bit earlier to get a good spot. Many older men with cameras on tripods come there hours before the start of the fireworks. There is only one side of the space open to watch, so everyone gathers there. If you are in the 10th line, it might be more difficult to get a good view.
Some musicians play the matsuri music (is it called hayashi?) and then the fireworks begins. First, some letters forming the word からかさ万灯 are lit up. Then its turn for the umbrella-firework. I might be overinterpreting the sight, but the fireworks looks as if it is raining under the umbrella. Knowing that it is a rain invocation ceremony, it is maybe intended. After the “rain”, the upper part of the “umbrella” starts glistening. The whole event only lasts a few minutes, so you should pay well attention. After the fireworks is finished, many people go the frame and try get some flowers (made of cloth, maybe?) which are fixed under the umbrella screen. The flowers seems to bring luck. This marks the end of the festival: as it is custom in Japan at the end of an event, everyone heads home immediatly and people start cleaning, so that if you come only one hour later again, it looks like nothing ever happened.
I definitely recommend visiting the karakasa matsuri, if you are interested in local events around Tsukuba. You can get a feeling how ordinary people enjoy summer festivals, as opposed to the crowd and tourist attracting mega-events. It feels very laid back and is a perfect pass time for a hot summer night. Click on a picture in the galleries to open the slide show and don’t miss the video of the fireworks below.
I found infos about the festival on the Ibarakey blog, otherwise, there is almost no information in available in English. To my knowledge, the festival is always in mid-August, I assume around Obon. Google for “からかさ万灯” or “からかさ万灯 土浦” to find Japanese pages (such as here).