Summer means different things for people all across the planet. In Nagasaki, summer means the annual Spirit Boat Procession. This is truly an event like non-other in Japan, and one of Nagasaki’s must see cultural events.
What is it?
Nagasaki has a very diverse and mixed cultural history. Having historically been a place for Chinese immigrants, the only place to trade with foreigners, and one of the only places in Japan were Christianity got a foothold makes this town quite unique.
This uniqueness has caused certain traditions and cultures to begin blending. One such event that came out of this is the Spirit Boat Procession. There are various theories on the origin of the event, but it’s believed to have come up due to the large population of Chinese living in Nagasaki, and is based off many traditional Chinese festivals.
It is held during the Obon festival, which is a festival for honoring the spirits of ancestors. Anyone in Nagasaki who has lost a family member that year has the choice to see them off using one of these spirit boats. (People who haven’t lost anyone sometimes create a boat as well to celebrate the ancestors). The tradition goes, that the spirit world only opens during this three-day event. In order for the spirits of the their recently deceased loved ones to make it to the spiritual world they need a vessel to make the journey. This is where the boat comes from.
The family will build this spirit boat, and then carry it the duration of the route with its final destination being the sea where they are burned. (Or more recently a final zone where they are crushed by an excavator, due the mass pollution these boats would cause burning in the water).
As building these boats can be a costly process, some families and communities elect to have neighborhood boats. These boats are built to house the symbols and pictures of everyone from the neighborhood. This way everyone can split the cost and still have a boat in the procession for their loved one.
Traditionally these boats were really small, one person boats. But as the festival grew and became larger, so did the boats. They grew so much in size in fact, that a lot of the boats have to be carried by 20 – 50 people. Some are even rolled down.
During the journey through the streets, thousands of fireworks are set off around the boat. The symbolic meaning of this is to ward away the evil spirits during the journey, so that the loved one may get to the spiritual world safely. Fireworks are also launched outside the parade route as a welcoming of past spirits back to earth for the celebration.
Believe me when I tell you, this isn’t a somber experience. It resembles a celebratory battlefield more than it does a funeral procession.
I remember one of my professors stating that something like 25% -35% of the fireworks/firecrackers Japan uses in a year are used here during the event.
Every single boat will have a gigantic barrel, backpack, or wheelbarrow filled with these firecrackers. As they walk along the route, they light them off and throw them into the streets.
An Artistic Experience
One of the coolest elements of this celebration has to be the design of the boats involved. There is no guideline to how these boats are to be created. Each is specifically designed to reflect the interests and passions of the deceased. A sushi chef might have a boat built to look like a sushi counter, while a politician might have one that resembles a government building.
The boats are then further decorated with pictures, or important material possessions the deceased enjoy. Again, there are no rules to this, things like sports equipment, favorite team jersey, a gigantic shogi piece, or bottles of their favorite alcohol are often put on the boats. Family emblems are also almost always painted on the boat.
When and Where?
This event takes place in Nagasaki on August 15th annually. The actual procession takes place in central Nagasaki.
There are many ways to get to Nagasaki. You can catch a bus in Fukuoka at the airport, you can fly in to Nagasaki International airport, or you can take a train.
Peach airlines flies here from Osaka once a day. It's a great cheap way to get to Nagasaki. Right outside the airport there are a line of buses that will take you tall the different parts of Nagasaki.
As for trains, Nagasaki Eki is the last stop on the line for the entire Japanese train system, so you won’t miss it. From Fukuoka there is only one line that goes south. Get on it and just ride it to the end.
If you are looking for a summer celebration, this event is a must see. It is something that is not only uniquely Japanese, but also unique to the Nagasaki area. I promise you won’t be disappointed.
Ghost stories and spirits walking the earth; summer 'Obon' season is upon us in Japan. Obon, to outsiders seems like a summer holiday of food, festivals, travel and dancing, but all of these summer traditions are rooted in a more ghostly and spiritual tradition.