Is a festival sufficient consolation for a broken hearted soul? The city of Nara believes it is and rolls out a parade of people and children dressed in traditional robes, a dragon-headed boat and a phoenix-headed boat, gagaku Imperial court music, lanterns and much more to appease the soul of a serving woman who lost favor with the Emperor. This is Uneme Matsuri Festival and it is visually spectacular.
According to the “Yamato Monogatari” legend, there was an uneme, a serving woman in the Imperial Court tasked with helping the Emperor with his daily needs, who earned the Emperor’s favor and fell in love with him. When the Emperor lost interest in her and turned his attentions to other women the Uneme was heartbroken. Consumed by grief the uneme drowned herself in the Sarusawa Pond. After her death the spirit of the deceased began appearing on the shores of the Sarusawa Pond, so the people of Nara erected a shrine on the pond’s northwest bank and started an annual festival to appease the woman’s grieving soul.
Supposedly the soul of the uneme, which took up residence in the shrine’s altar, couldn’t bear to look at the place where she took her life and one night, she turned the shrine’s altar around so that it no longer faced the pond. According to legend the soul of the uneme also appeared in her hometown in present day Koriyama City in Fukushima Prefecture. A second Uneme Shrine and festival was established there as well. The connection made by the twin Uneme Shrines and festivals has made Nara and Koriyama into sister cities.
The Uneme Matsuri Festival held to appease the deceased woman’s soul, is held annually on the night of the full autumn moon in September, the Chushu no Meigetsu in Japanese. The festival begins at 17:00 with the departing of the Hanaougi Hono Gyoretsu parade from JR Nara Station. The parade, consisting of adults and children in traditional Nara-era robes, bears a 2-meter-tall hanaougi flower fan and both the Ms. Nara beauty queen and the Ms. Uneme beauty queen (from Koriyama City) in traditional Imperial carriages make their way up the ~1km Sanjo-dori shopping street to Uneme Shrine.
Once the parade reaches the shrine the hanaougi is dedicated and offered to the deity of the shrine and at 19:00 the hanaougi and Ms. Nara and Ms. Uneme are brought aboard the decorative boats and rowed twice around the Sarusawa Pond. After the second circuit the hanaougi is floated on the pond and the festival ends.
In addition to the spectacle of the parade and decorative boats, the Sarusawa Pond will be lined with traditional lanterns and festival food vendors, and game stalls will be set up to entertain festival-goers. Uneme Matsuri is a traditional festival in Nara that is closely associated with the start of autumn. Like other Nara festivals and events, Uneme Matsuri was canceled during the pandemic but this year, it will be back to its fullest and we for one can't wait.
Date: Friday, September 29th.
The parade will start at JR Nara Station at 17:00.
At 18:00 a special musical performance explaining the story will be held at Sarusawa Pond.
At 19:00 the dragon boat will be boarded and paddled around the pond.
"Uneme Matsuri" F
Author: NARA Visitor Center & Inn