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.
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 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 5pm 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 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 7pm 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.
The 2017, The Uneme Matsuri will take place on Wednesday, October the 3rd to Thursday the 4th. 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. Rides on the dragon-headed and phoenix-headed boats will also be offered from 10am-4pm on October the 4th. This is the only time that anyone can go for a paddle around the sacred Sarusawa Pond.