funekko
Morioka, Iwate 2008. Photo: Quinlan Faris

Funekko Nagashi (舟っこ流し)is a local festival in Morioka, the capital of Iwate, celebrated each year on August 16 during the Obon holiday. Obon is a yearly three-day holiday honoring the dead. Most people return home to clean their family grave and make offerings to their ancestors during this time. Funekko Nagashi takes place on the final day of Obon.

About 15 wooden boats shaped like dragons are specially built by locals representing neighborhood groups or organizations. Each boat is elaborately decorated over the weeks leading up the festival and loaded with fireworks. The posthumous Buddhist names those that died during the year, along with Buddhist mantras are inscribed upon wooden planks on the boats. Groups of men wearing only fundoshi, a type of traditional loincloth, more Buddhist mantras painted on their bodies, wade into the Kitakami river leading the boats one by one and set them ablaze. Rockets fire into the air, showers of sparks blast from the mouths of dragons, and smoke and ash pour forth – so much that some well-prepared locals bring umbrellas. They usually start just before sunset, with darkness falling as the last of the funeral pyres ceases crackling and sink into the river. The effect is dramatic. After all the boats have been immolated, lanterns are set out to drift in the river. The festival closes with a fireworks performance.

The festival developed about 270 years ago when a group of women from the Tsushida Yukaku (licensed brothel quarter) were killed during a flooding of the Kitakami River. Locals began comforting their spirits by placing name tablets with Buddhist mantras and offerings on boats that they released into the river where they drowned. Over time it became tradition for any local that passed away that year to be honored in the same manner.

Where: Near the Meiji Bridge over the Kitakami river in Morioka, Iwate.

How to get there: Parking is scarce so best to walk from the JR Senbokucho Station. It’s about 10 minutes. Map here.

When: August 16th, from 4pm until after dark.

Contact: Morioka Tourism Center (in Japanese) 019-604-3305

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