Japan’s Local Festivals: Spirit and Ceremony

Dragon God Brings the Rain at Saitama Festival


Every four years residents of a Saitama city construct a giant dragon god and carry it through the streets in a rainmaking festival whose roots date back to the seventeenth century.

Prayers for Rain

In the afternoon of August 7, 2016, an extraordinary dragon god swayed its giant body—36 meters long and weighing 3 tons—as it set off on a procession through the streets of a small city north of Tokyo. From the starting point at Shirahige (literally “White Whiskers”) Shrine, it was accompanied by the stirring rhythm of taiko drums and strains of conch music, representing thunder. This was the beginning of the Suneori Amagoi Festival, a rainmaking ritual in Tsurugashima, Saitama Prefecture.

Carrying the 3-ton dragon god through the town.

From ancient times, the Kandachigaike pond in the city’s Suneori district brimmed with spring water, supporting farmers in the local community. In periods of dry weather, people prayed for rain in front of the nearby Raidensha shrine. These appeals were said to be miraculously effective.

Offering a prayer while pouring water from Raiden Shrine into Kandachigaike.

In the first half of the seventeenth century, however, much of the pond was reclaimed to be used as rice fields. After this, it is said, the prayers for rain lost their power. It was believed this was because the giant serpent that once lived in the pond had moved to another watery home on the grounds of Raiden Shrine in Itakura, Gunma Prefecture. The solution was to travel to the Gunma shrine and bring back the pond’s water in a bamboo tube. The rainmaking ritual immediately regained its marvelous efficacy.

From these roots, the festival developed to include construction of a giant dragon god. It is not clear when exactly this aspect began, but records tell of a “snake” that was made and cast into the pond in an 1877 ritual.

The festival was originally held in years with lingering dry spells, when it seemed the crops might all be lost. The farmers fervently prayed for rainfall to quench the parched fields. One year, impatient for a turn in the weather, they gathered their remaining strength and willpower to build a huge dragon; with so much at stake, the festival must have been a fearsome sight.

Reviving Local Ties

With urbanization, however, the number of farmers declined in Tsurugashima and there was less need for rainmaking. From 1964, the once vital festival was no longer held.

Participants open a barrel of sake in the traditional kagami-biraki (opening of the mirror) at Shirahige Shrine before the festival.

Over a decade passed before it started up again. Alarmed by fraying community ties, local residents formed a Suneori Amagoi Festival committee, relaunching the event in 1976. Where once the festival was held in times of drought, it would now take place every four years—the same years that the Olympics were held.

Kawamura Haruhito from the city’s policy department commented: “Reviving the traditional festival has given new strength to local ties. Our ancestors prayed with a sense of awe at nature’s power. We need to tell later generations about those ancestors’ lives as part of nature and the festival they created. We are working to pass on the kind of event that encourages children raised in Tsurugashima to later say proudly, ‘My town is home to the Suneori Amagaoi Festival.’”

As a result of these efforts, in 2013 the festival was awarded the grand prize in an annual competition for local events sponsored by the Japan Center for Regional Development. This acknowledgement of the festival’s value in bringing together old and new citizens to pass on tradition spurred on organizers and participants this year.

For each festival, the huge body of the dragon god is completed in just a day and a half through the work of 250 local residents. Takazawa Norikuni of the festival committee explained how it is done.

“The framework is made of 70 giant mōsōchiku bamboo poles. This is fleshed out with 570 bundles of straw. On the day of the festival, it is decorated with kumazasa bamboo plants and other greenery. For farmers in the old days, these materials were close to hand and could be gathered quickly with everyone’s help. But now there are no farmers in the area growing barley, so members of the festival committee grow it specifically for making the dragon god’s body.”

On the day of the festival, participants decorate the body with green kumazasa bamboo plants.

Angering the Water God

Before beginning its 2016 journey, the dragon received divine status in a ceremony at Shirahige Shrine. As water brought from Raiden Shrine in Gunma Prefecture was poured into its gaping mouth, it became a dragon god. Some 300 men then carried it the 2 kilometers from the shrine to Kandachigaike, while the thundering sounds of the drums and conches reverberated in all directions, calling out for the clouds to open. Curiously enough, during the dragon god’s progress, the glare of the sun died down and a cool wind started to blow.

The 36-meter beast looks like a real creature as it emerges from the trees.

An hour and a half after it left Shirahige Shrine, the dragon god lumbered out of a clump of trees into view of the pond. It seemed to be a monster from another world.

Sacred water from the Raiden shrine had also been poured into Kandachigaike. The dragon god weaved its way steadily through the trees and solemnly entered the pond. Its great body rose and fell in the water, twisting and circling, as selected residents beat at the surface with model swords or clamored at their conches in a bid to anger the water god into bringing thunder and rain.

Ame fure Tanjaku / koko ni kakare kurokumo

Make it rain, Taishakuten.
Bring black clouds here.

Participants energetically cried out this distinctive call for rain. In the Japanese lyrics, Tanjaku refers to Taishakuten (Indra in Sanskrit), the Buddhist guardian deity.

The dragon god enters the pond in the climax of the festival.

Auspicious Fragments of the Body

The festival reached its climax in the dismantling of the dragon god, representing its ascent to heaven. The lovingly constructed body was smashed into pieces in just five minutes. Residents pillaged the golden jewels attached to its head, the eyes, ears, and other parts said to be auspicious, taking them home to put on display.

The main purpose of the festival is now boosting community ties rather than rainmaking. Still, people say that even today, there is a high chance of rain by the end of the day following the festival. Perhaps it still retains some of its old power.

Participants rush to grab parts of the dismantled dragon god.

(Originally published in Japanese on September 9, 2016. Text by Katō Kyōko. Photographs by Munakata Satoshi.)

Saitama Prefecture festivals