As we head toward summer in Japan, it means one thing – festivals, lots of them! Japanese love a matsuri (festival) and whether you are a visitor to Japan, or living here yourself, there’s no better time to get outdoors and get involved in a summer festival.
If you are visiting Nagano City in August then make sure you time your visit to join the city’s famous Binzuru Dance Festival. Held on the first Saturday of the month, the festival celebrates Binzuru, a fabled follower of the Buddha (during the lifetime of the Buddha), who plays an important role in Japanese Buddhism and Nagano City’s most famous cultural site, Zenko-ji Temple.
The Binzuru Dance Festival brings more than 200 groups comprised of numerous individual dancers to the city, to perform traditional dance in a parade through the city and toward Zenko-ji Temple. Large crowds attend to watch the performance and join in themselves – dancing, laughing, and smiling away in the warm summer night.
Matsuris take place throughout the country, from local community festivals in the smallest villages through to famous festivals in the large cities that attract thousands of visitors from all over the world. These events are a time for celebration.
The reason for that celebration can be as varied as the size and locations of the festivals. In short, there’s a festival for every imaginable reason with one thing in common – any reason is a good reason to get outside, wrap yourself into a yukata (light/summer kimono), grab a cold drink, hit up a food vendor, get vocal, and start dancing!
Who was Binzuru?
During his lifetime (approximately 2600 years ago in what is now northern India and Nepal), the Buddha had numerous followers. One of these followers (disciple may be the better term) is referred to as ‘Binzuru ‘in Japan; a devout Buddhist during his lifetime who is claimed to have held certain psychic and preternatural powers of healing.
There are many stories about Binzuru. The best known tell of him curing illness and performing for the entertainment of others. Binzuru’s need to show off displeased the Buddha as it distracted from his teachings and revealed an underlying vanity (something we must rid ourselves of if we wish to become enlightened and Buddhas ourselves). As a result, Binzuru fell from favour with the Buddha and it took many years of dedicated service and pious devotion to win back his trust. At the end of this life, the Buddha asked that Binzuru remain in this realm to teach the dharma (Buddhist law) and guide us toward enlightenment.
Nagano’s Binzuru Dance Festival celebrates his story and leads spectators and performers alike to Zenko-ji Temple, where a timber statue of Binzuru sits within the main hall. People flock to Zenko-ji to rub the statue and seek healing for ailments. It is said that if you rub the statue in an area corresponding to where you are experiencing pain, discomfort, and suffering, Binzuru will bring you healing and solace. The statue is 305 years old and clearly exhibits the most common ailments, with the features of his face along with his stomach, knees, shoulders, and fingers rubbed smooth over the years.
The festival draws a big crowd so if you are planning to attend, it’s worth finding nearby accommodation for the night. Located in the central Nagano City, Hotel Kokusai 21 is one of the most convenient locations for those wanting to enjoy the festival to its fullest and an extremely popular hotel with international visitors.
By staying at Kokusai 21 you will be within easy walking distance of the parade route, so when you’re danced-out and ready to call it a night, you won’t have far to stroll (and won’t have to deal with the crowds in and around Nagano Station). As previously featured, Hotel Kokusai 21 is one of Nagano City’s premier hotels with exceptional service including a range of restaurants serving Japanese and Western cuisine.
This year’s festival is scheduled for Saturday 4th August 2018, with the main parade and dance performance beginning at 6PM. The festival is easily accessible on foot from both JR Nagano Station and Hotel Kokusai 21. Just follow the crowds!