Shiogama Minato Festival, the Parade of the Dragon Boats

June 21, 2020

Shiogama Minato Festival, the Parade of the Dragon Boats

Note: this post was re-posted from my old website, originally published in December 2017.

2nd Note: 2020 festival is officially canceled.

On a fine summer day in 2017, I finally managed to catch the 70th Shiogama Minato Festival after missing the one in the previous year. When I got there people had already flocked from near the station to the main road, where many food stalls were open.

What is Minato Festival you asked? Eh, I didn’t explain that? Very well let’s start from the beginning…

Such colors! Such festivities!

Shiogama is a small town neighboring Sendai in Miyagi prefecture. Normally it is just a pretty quiet town. But every year, on ‘Umi no hi’‘ or Marine Day, a national holiday in Japan, the sleepy municipal transforms into a huge platform for a summer festival called ‘Shiogama Minato Festival‘. Unlike other festivals, the origin of this festival is rather new for it started in 1948 after the end of World War II. During that time, the once flourished port city of Shiogama had come to an economic slump. In order to rejuvenate the town, the city officials decided to organize a festival that will honor the gods and provide entertainment for the citizens alike. Thus the Shiogama Minato Festival was born.

Throughout the years the festival date changed from the 20th of July to the 10th of July in conjunction with the annual festival of Shiogama Shrine, then changed again to August 5th, until the organizers decided on the third Monday of July, the date of Marine Day. The night before the festival, a rather grand fireworks display will be held on the bay next to Marine Gate, the ferry terminal located next to the bay. If you like summer festivities, I recommend also visit the day before.

Now that I have explained what is Minato Festival, time to move on to the main event!

Ceremony participants carried the mikoshi from the top of the stairs.

In a gist, Minato-Matsuri’s core is the procession of mikoshi or portable Shinto shrine from the shrine to the port. Thus, the ceremony begins in Shiogama Shrine, one of the most important Shinto shrines in the Tohoku region. Two of the shrine’s mikoshi are taken out from their abode. The priests chant prayers to venerate the gods inside the mikoshi, then the men clad in white clothing carry them down the shrine’s front stairway.

At least 10 adult males carry the mikoshi on their shoulders.
One of the officials checking in the procession.

The portable shrines will pass through the main thoroughfare of Shiogama while making stops along the way before getting to their final destination: the port. Here they would be loaded onto two ornamental boats for a royal parade around the port.

Here’s the port, where the boats are waiting.
Hohoumaru braving the waves.

The ornamental boats are named Hohoumaru and Ryuhoumaru, with a phoenix head adorning Hououmaru’s bow and a dragon head for Ryuhoumaru. Both were made in the 1960s and had been kept in fantastic shape throughout the years specifically for the annual event.

Load the mikoshi away!
Another mikoshi loaded to Ryuhoumaru.

Although the highlight of the parade is these two boats, almost all fishermen in Shiogama will participate with their boats. They would decorate their boats with various fishermen’s banners originally used to indicate a big haul. The said port was filled with colorful banners all the way up to the sky, a little bit similar to another festival that I have been to in Fukushima. People would cheer as the boats they’re riding on passed the mikoshi or when they made contact with another.

Some of the decorated boats waiting for the mikoshi to be loaded.
More boats waiting to sail!
The parade circling back towards port.

Past noon the loading ceremony finished and the sailing procession began. When the boats started to make their rounds towards the port I was treated to a rare sight, a parade, unlike anything I have ever seen before. Though the sun was striking and relentless, I could never take my eyes off the parade until eventually they stopped going in a circle and headed into the open sea for the final part of the festival, which unfortunately I could not witness unless I was aboard one of the boats. But I made a short cool video nonetheless!

As soon as the boats had gone towards the horizon, the visitors that flocked into the port moved on. Some went back home, but some like me stayed in Shiogama a little longer since in the main street there was this dancing parade that I could not miss for sure.

A cool dance parade as the closing of the festival.

Until next article folks!

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