A Mecca for Enthusiasts of Dance: The On-Matsuri Festival, An Extravaganza of Ritual Performing Arts



Kasuga Wakamiya On-Matsuri, better known as On-Matsuri, or “Grand Festival” and one of Nara’s biggest festivals, is an almost overwhelmingly rich time-capsule opened once a year every year since its establishment in 1136, a re-enactment of that first iteration and an extravaganza of traditional performing arts, procession, costumery, and detailed Shinto ritual choreography designed to please a young god and thereby ensure health, wealth, and well-being to the realm. The festival runs from December 15th-18th (details below), but the main ceremonial proceedings start at midnight on December 17th (i.e. late night of the 16th) with a departure ceremony from the Kasuga-taisha Shrine where the god (kami), Kasuga Wakamiya, is accompanied by priests toward a temporary shrine, the Otabisho. The god is concealed behind branches of the evergreen sakaki tree and the priests escort him through the darkness with song and music.


The main section of the festival, at noon on the 17th –  the O-Watari-no-shiki – is, in part, a procession of historically costumed riders on around fifty horses through the streets of Nara to meet the god in his seat, the Otabisho. This is one of the highlights for spectators who get to view a parade of fashions through the ages. There is an interlude at the Ichi-no-torii shrine gate where a dance is performed under a pine tree famed for a manifestation of the Kasuga god (and known as the “Manifestation Pine” (Yogo-no-matsu). This is the prototype of the painted pine that customarily decorates the backdrop of the Noh stage, and indeed some of the dances that are to follow at the Otabisho in dedication to the god are the prototypes of the more fully developed theatre of Noh. At the temporary shrine an eight-hour series of song and dance is performed. This extensive programme is nothing short of a history of traditional Japanese dance and is both a ravishing delight to watch as well as a serious history of choreography, costume, religious significance, and theatre.


The programme opens with kagura (sacred music and dance offered to the gods). “Shrine maidens”, usually called “Miko” but here “Mikanko”, perform this sacred dance which is believed to have roots in ancient rituals of possession, oracle deliverance and purification. These are profoundly elegant pieces that have shed what might once have been more obviously shamanistic elements and as one of the few performance roles by women at the On-Matsuri are of great value. In fact, Nara National Museum’s On-Matsuri and the Sacred Art of Kasuga (December 9th-January 14th; details below) has a special focus on the Mikanko.



“Azuma Asobi” is a suite performed to folk songs and has an equally long history as that of Miko kagura in high-ranking events devoted to the gods, though it nearly died out on several occasions. There is also dengaku, another type of folk dance that gained favour with the nobility, like “Azuma Asobi”, as far back as the eighth century, “Seino-o”, a rare dance performed by men in court attire, sarugaku, known as the precursor to the now highly refined Noh dance/theatre, and Yamato-mai – literally “Japanese dance”, which distinguishes it from the eleven continental court dances (Bugaku) that follow. These begin as night starts to fall and continue into the night concluding at around 11pm, performed in the glowing light of little fires and soft lamps. Bugaku dance is extremely lavish in costume, including astonishing and fantastical masks, is both narrative and abstract, and derives from China/Central Asia and Korea having been imported during the eighth century and adopted by the court for their entertainments. The On-Matsuri repertoire intersperses slow and graceful compositions with livelier dances depicting battles between dragon-kings or military rulers from India or China, but the whole occasion is solemn, elegant, and mysterious, and feels very much an authentic iteration of an extremely old form of worship.


Inevitably, some aspects have changed with the centuries (this year’s is the 888th time the festival has been performed) and we read of carnivalesque knife-jugglers and stilt-walkers among the procession members of the past. Of course, the procession has been updated since the initial ritual – it includes period clothing up to the late nineteenth century. The festival, it seems, was more encompassing than others of the broader city populace, and its origins had been to solicit the favours of the Kasuga Wakamiya god, who controlled water, during a time of severe floods and famines. It would have brought the citizens together, and its success initiated the devotional cult that centred on this god, continuing its great feting in the form of this festival. Other very ancient elements remain, though: young boys (chigo) in striking hats decorated with tall bird feathers or other elaborate fittings fulfill a long role in Japanese religion as sacred beings susceptible as vessels for the gods. At one point during the festival they perform horseback archery. The Miko (or Mikanko) are especially connected to the transcendent too, their appellation a shortened form of what means “child of god” – and the Kasuga Wakamiya is himself is understood to be a child of two of the other gods enshrined at Kasuga Taisha.


The performances at the On-Matsuri have been designated a National Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property. The December 17th event can be crowded but/and are a rare opportunity for visitors to view millennia-old ritual customs and choreography as well as several traditions of Japan’s history of dance, music, and costume, and to experience a great number of Nara locals gathering together – and all in one day and a night.


Please feel free to contact us here at Kansai Treasure Travel anytime for further details or a custom tour, and see our 1 Day Nara and Uji Tailor-Made Tour.


Kasuga Wakamiya On-Matsuri Festival December 15th-18th

Entrance Free

Kasuga-taisha Shrine, 160 Kasugano-cho, Nara 630-8212 – and elsewhere (the events take place in different areas – see below)

From JR Nara or Kintetsu Nara train stations, about 20 minutes on foot or 8 minutes by bus to Kasuga-taisha Honden (the last stop). On the city loop bus, alight at Kasuga Taisha Omotesando and walk ten minutes.


On December 15th and 16th rituals for the success of the festival take place in front of the Wakamiya Shrine.

Main events take place on December 17th. The most prominent of these are listed here:

12 noon: O-Watari-no-shiki (procession) starting outside the Prefectural Office and proceeding along Sanjo-dori street

Around 1pm: Matsu-no-shita-shiki (ritual beneath the pine tree)

Around 2:30: Otabisho ritual

From around 2:30: Chigo Yabusame (archery on horseback performed by children)

3:30-around 10:30pm: Dance and music performances

11pm: Ritual return of the god

December 18th

1pm: Sumo tournament on the south side of the Otabisho


On-Matsuri and the Sacred Art of Kasuga exhibition at Nara National Museum, West Wing.

December 9th-January 14th 9:30-5pm.

The museum is open till 7pm on December 17th. The museum is closed on Mondays (except for January 8th) and on public holidays (Thursday, December 28th to Monday, January 1st and Tuesday, January 9th).

Entrance: General Admission 700 yen; University students 350 yen

Free Entrance on December 17th


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