Oct 072014


Today is the first day of Kunchi in Nagasaki which lasts for three days. Kunchi the most famous festival in Nagasaki. It began as a celebration of autumn harvests in the late 16th century and became a shrine festival when Suwa Shrine was founded in 1642. It was originally set according to a lunar calendar (like the Chinese New Year), but now it is fixed on 7-9 October according to the solar calendar.

Another purpose was to check for hidden Christians after the ban on Christianity. This is still evident today in the custom of “garden showing,” when the presenting neighborhoods open up their homes to public scrutiny. One of the most famous performances of the festival is the “Dragon Dance” which was originally performed on New Year’s Eve by the Chinese residents of Nagasaki. Neighborhoods also create elaborate floats in the shape of boats. Rehearsals for the festival begin on June 1.

The word kunchi is probably derived from the word kyunichi, or “shrine day,” although some scholars trace the origin to ku’nichi or “ninth day,” referring to the auspicious ninth day of the ninth month in the lunar calendar. Originally the main event of the festival was Noh drama as was common at festivals throughout Japan at the time. However, after a major fire at the shrine in 1857 the festival became more diverse, with participating neighborhoods competing with one another with their magnificent displays, as well as the introduction of foreign elements including those imported from the Dutch who were there because of the Dutch East India Company.


The Dutch were a significant presence in Nagasaki from the 17th century onwards, but they were originally simply observers of kunchi.  Reinier Hesselink in “The Dutch and the Kunchi festival of Nagasaki in the Seventeenth Century” describes the relationship of the Dutch with the Kunchi festival.

The Kunchi festival of Nagasaki was first celebrated in 1634. As this date indicates, the festival was originally part of the bakufu policy to forge a Yamato spirit for Nagasaki, which up to 1614 had been Japan’s only Christian town. In other words, the Kunchi festival started out as an anti-Christian festival, in which the anti-Christian forces in Nagasaki: the bakufu, Shinto, Buddhism and the brothel wards all joined hands to provide an alternative to the famous Easter processions, which had been performed throughout the city during the Christian period (1570-1614).

By the time Kaempfer arrived in Japan in 1690, it had become an “established tradition” for the Dutch to attend the festival. On most representations of the festival we see, therefore, a place in the viewing stands reserved for the Dutch.

The following are some of the neighborhoods which make presentations (varies from year to year):

The main features here are the iwaibune (“celebration ship”) and kenmai (“sword dance”) which, unusually features female dancers with samurai swords.
This area is built on reclaimed land and was in the late 17th century onwards an important unloading and mercantile district. The main feature is the jabune (“dragon ship”), which includes a Chinese-style dance telling the story of the Vietnamese princess Anio who arrived in Nagasaki in 1619 to marry the wealthy Nagasaki trader Araki Sotaro.
Goto-machi was named thus because Christians from the Goto Islands took refuge there during a rebellion in the islands in 1576. During the Edo Period it was the site of the yashiki or headquarters of several Kyushu clans. It is a relative newcomer to the festival. Their specialty is jaodori (“dragon dance”).

The name Kojiya-machi (“Malt Shop Quarter”) indicates that the district was traditionally a center for the production of koji, the malted grain used in miso. The Kunchi specialty is the kawabune (“river boat”), which symbolizes the neighborhood’s location along Nakashima River with its historical tradition of using the river as an avenue for transportation
Ginya-machi (“Silver Shop Quarter”) indicates the district’s historical roots. The festival feature presentation is the shachi-daiko, is a float embellished with a shachi, a legendary golden fish often used as a motif on castle roof tiles. This float is carried after the style of the kokkodesho and rocked about. It is accompanied by a drum band.

Here’s a small gallery:

nag6 nag3 nag2 nag1


Nagasaki has many distinctive dishes some of which show a strong Chinese influence. There is, for example, champon, a dish made by frying pork, seafood and vegetables with lard and then adding them to a soup made with chicken and pork bones. Ramen noodles made especially for champon are added and then boiled. Unlike other ramen dishes, only one pan is needed as the noodles are boiled in the soup. Depending on the season and the situation, the ingredients differ.


There is sara udon consisting of a base of noodles, and a topping of fried cabbage, bean sprouts and other vegetables, as well as squid, prawns, pork, kamaboko (processed fish cake) etc. There are two main varieties of noodles, thinner crispy noodles fried in oil (called pari pari, bari bari, or bari men); as a result this variation is reminiscent of Cantonese-style Chow Mein.

Japanese cooking does take some practice to get it right, but miso soup is not hard to make, so that is my recipe of the day. You’ll need a good Asian market for some of the ingredients. I’ll just give you an informal recipe.


Miso Soup

The base of many Japanese soups and sauces is dashi, a broth made from bonito flakes and seaweed. It is easy enough to make but you can also buy dashi powder which you simmer quickly in water to reconstitute it. Make about a liter of dashi following the instructions on the pack. Bring to a gentle simmer and add what ingredients you wish. Classic ones are cubes of tofu and wakame seaweed. But you can also add mushrooms, shrimp, fish, potatoes, daikon and so forth. You should aim to have an ingredient that floats and one that sinks, and combine strong flavors with delicate ones. Add the uncooked ingredients first and simmer them until done. Then add the cooked ones and heat them through. Take the pot off the stove and add about 4 tablespoons of miso paste (red or white as you wish). Stir well to distribute the paste. It is important not to cook it as this changes the flavor and destroys some of the beneficial nutrients. Serve in bowls with chopsticks. It is customary to drink the broth directly from the bowl.