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Yamaga Toro Matsuri: A Summer Festival In Kumamoto Prefecture

Updated: Apr 25

Emperor Keiko's Guided Journey: A Legendary Origin

Every August, Kumamoto comes alive with the Yamaga Toro Matsuri, a Lantern Festival that's become a local gem. While I haven't made it to the festival yet, my time in Yamaga has given me a good feel for what makes it special. The roots of the festival go back to a touching tale from the 1st and 2nd Centuries, where Emperor Keiko's journey through Kyushu hit a foggy snag near Yamaga. Locals, armed with lanterns, guided him, leading to the enshrinement of the emperor at the Omiya Shrine, the festival's central spot. Each year, lanterns light up the night in his honor.

Sen'nin Toro Odori: Dancing Lights of Tradition

The festival's highlight is the Sen'nin Toro Odori, a dance featuring 1,000 local women in Yukata, each balancing a delicate washi paper lantern on their heads. Set to the folk tune Yoheho Bushi, it's not just visually stunning but also captures the festival's spirit. While I've only caught glimpses through videos and photos, I'm dead set on being there in person this year.

A woman wearing a washi paper Yamaga Toro lantern on her head. She is wearing a kimono, and standing in a traditional Japanese tea room.
She was one of the two performers of the private Toro Matsuri dance, and it was incredible. I'm for sure going to the real festival this year!

During my stay, I lucked into a private performance, where two dancers shared the festival's backstory and the touching tale of Emperor Keiko. The dance, a sincere tribute, creates a genuine link to the festival's roots.

The Artistry of Washi Paper Lanterns

Surprisingly, the lanterns aren't heavy gold or silver but delicate washi paper creations, standing at a modest 40cm with intricate designs. This traditional art form, rooted in the Muromachi period (1336-1573), demands at least ten years of training. Astonishingly, only seven masters globally have the skill to craft these lanterns.

A washi paper lantern used to decorate the Yamaga Toro Matsuri
These washi lanterns are completely made out of paper!

Crafting Tradition: A Workshop Experience

In a workshop with a master craftsman, we took part in a crash course in making these lanterns. The delicate process involves intricate steps. This traditional art form isn't just about Yamaga's cultural heritage but also a living expression of the artisans' dedication. With only seven masters worldwide and the youngest being 40, there's a unique opportunity for those passionate about preserving this cultural tradition.

Modern Applications of Traditional Art

Beyond the festival buzz, these skilled craftsmen are using their know-how to create cool home and hotel décor. Our lodging, a Kominkan, not only showcased the traditional use of lanterns but also highlighted their present-day applications as pieces of art that jazz up the interior. From washi paper mobiles and incense diffusers, this craft is testament to the blend of tradition and modernity. These vibrant pieces bring a touch of contemporary style within the laid-back setting of a kominkan.

A decorative washi paper art piece in a Kominkan
Even the decorations at the Kominkan were made out of paper. It was incredible to see a traditional craft style used for contemporary art

Yamaga: A Gem of Tradition and Modernity

Yamaga, just an hour from Kumamoto, may be small, but it's got character. Beyond the festival, there are local onsens, tasty eats, and exclusive experiences that make it worth the visit. With its chill festival in August, Yamaga's not just a stop on a tour; it's a peek into the heart of a town with a rich history and cool artsy vibes.

With summer matsuri being a big part of Japanese culture and tradition, we want to take our guests to lesser-known areas of the country to witness and partake in these ancient festivals. If this sounds like something you want to experience, please enquire to start planning your tour!

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