Festivals are very important in Japan, keeping ancient traditions alive and passing them on to younger generations. They occur all through the year, and more specifically in the summer. Some are extremely popular making it hard to travel and stay in the hosting cities during these days. As such, the Hakata Gion Yamakasa festival is said to be one of the most impressive ones of Japan.
The festival dates back to the 13th century when it was started to exorcize the plague. Giant floats or yamakasa measuring up to 10 metres and weighing about 2 tons were built by local puppet makers with symbols of myths and historical characters. Teams of hundreds of men would drag the floats through the city along a 5-kilometre trail in a crazy race. It was out of a question to let the tradition down, even with the installation of the first hanging power cables. Today, the big floats are displayed throughout the city and 7 teams drag 5-metre-high-1-ton-heavy floats to the Kushida shrine in the early hours of July 15th. Such a challenge requires intense training.
It is precisely one of these trainings we were lucky enough to witness. On July 11th, just a few days before the race, walking towards the shrine, we notice a grand-father, with his son and his young grand-sons wearing an unusual outfit: a kimono shirt with a Japanese sign on its back, a loincloth letting their buttocks visible which holds a strong rope, and bare legs. A bit puzzled at first, we realise quickly that this may be related to the festival. Indeed, at the next street corner, we see a wave of about 500 men all dressed in the same fashion running into our direction topped up by one of these yamakasa! From the sidewalks, people are throwing buckets of water on the participants to cool them down and on the asphalt to reduce the drag of the float. The men of all ages are repeatedly shouting “oisa, oisa” in one voice and to the rhythm of the beating drum to keep up the pace. In a wink of an eye, the unexpected show disappears around the next street corner.
While Fukuoka / Hakata doesn’t leave us with the impression of a beautiful city, witnessing such an event and taking in the atmosphere at night while having food at a yatai and trying to chat with curious locals makes it a very enjoyable experience.
Claire & Marcella
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