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CELEBRATE!

Religious festivals in Japan, anything but reverent, often sweep you off your feet with their intensity, rowdiness and diversity. Tokyo's most rollicking are the boisterous and all encompassing Sanja Matsuri in the earthy Asakusa district, the equally vibrant Kanda Matsuri at the Kanda Myoijin Shrine in the Kanda area, and the exciting Sanno Matsuri in Akasaka. In Osaka, the most celebrated of celebrations is the exuberant Tenjin Matsuri at the Tenmangu Shrine, near the Osaka Imperial Hotel. Festivals are happily held at all times of the year, and international guests are invariably warmly welcomed.

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Festival gear often includes hachimaki, headbands worn as a symbol of effort or determination by the wearer, such as those on the heads of the young ladies pictured above, and typically feature inspirational slogans or motifs such as the rising sun. Revelers also traditionally wear happi coats, handako short pants and jikatabi footwear, while those groups carrying around the portable shrines wear fundoshi loin clothes. Guests will often wear yukata summer kimono, cool jimbei wear and geta or zori sandals, and carry round or folding paper fans stored in one's kimono sash when not used for cooling down.

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Entertainment at festivals is a major part of the fun. You can snag a handful of goldfish like those pictured above using a tricky, quickly melting net, try the challenging fried octopus balls, funky fried noodles, Japanese pancakes and kakigori shaved ice, which many people assume to have originated in Hawaii. Ring tossing, toy stands and cork guns combine with bouncy, traditional dancing in the summer to enliven the carefree, unstudied exuberance.

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At the Tenjin Festival in Osaka, festivities commence on the first day at the Tenmangu Shrine with prayers for prosperity for Osakans followed by drumming by men in tall red hats, shown above, meant to inform everyone that preparations for the festival have been completed, and afterwards the red hatted drummers lead a procession through the streets of Osaka featuring costumed characters such as a long nosed goblin on a horse, lion dancers, umbrella dancers and other surreal attractions.

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Umbrel lla dancers, above, add a dash of vibrant color to the celebrations at the Tenjin Festival. Endless rows of festival food stalls along the Okawa River add to the convivial mood. A gilt portable shrine with a gold phoenix at the top - mikoshi in Japanese - temporarily holds the spirit of the deity honored at the Tenmangu Shrine. The procession and several portable shrines are loaded onto boats to be paraded up and down the river until fireworks begin in the evening.

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Partic ipants at the Sanja Matsuri Festival in Asakusa, Tokyo, hoist a heavy portable shrine under the gate to the Sensoji Temple. The mikoshi portable shrine is one of several used to transport the deities housed in the main shrine through the adjacent neighborhoods to bless and protect the inhabitants. Residents of Asakusa take turns carrying the shrines, and often fight each other for the chance to carry them, hoping to exude a sensual element of 'iki', a uniquely Japanese aesthetic embodying a clear, stylish manner and blunt, unwavering directness, an expression of simplicity, sophistication, spontaneity and originality. Also in view are groups of shirtless, heavily tattooed men in loin cloths intending to add extra flavor to the festivities.

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