Hakata Gion Yamakasa:
An Introduction of One Local Japanese Festivity
by Yasuhiro Okamoto
Have you experienced Japanese traditional festivals?? Even though Japan is not a big country, each region has unique traditions and cultures, and all those cultural elements are reflected in their local festivals. Today I would like to focus on my hometown’s festival, which is named “Hakata Gion Yamakasa”. (It was designated an Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property of Japan in 1979 and a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage in 2016.)
“Hakata Gion Yamakasa” is a unique festival in Japan. You will be so surprised when you see the attire of the participants. During the festival, the town of Hakata (one of the districts of Fukuoka city) is filled with men called “Shimekomi,” or another name for them is “Hundoshi”. Rikishi (Sumo wrestler) also put on the Shimekomi, so you might have seen this attire on TV or in a magazine before. While no longer prevalent, it was commonly worn as underclothes for Japanese men and broadly wore until 1940.
During the festival, the men wearing “Shimekomi” participate in float-racing by carrying and running with floats, called “Yamakasa,” which weigh around one ton around the city. Meanwhile, people splash water at the processions to cool down the men’s body temperatures and to reduce the floats’ friction with the ground. The history of Yamakasa goes back for more than 700 years, and the origin of the festival is said to be from a time when people tried to purify the land from disaster and disease by splashing water from a wooden stretcher.
Men dressed in traditional shimekomi attire carry a float through the streets of Hataka ward in Fukuoaka City, Japan.
The festival starts from July 9 th and goes for seven days. The climax of the festival is on July 15 th , and this is also the last day of “Hakata Gion Yamakasa”. The program of the last day consists of two races. One is “Kushidairi,” which is a short course (the distance is 112 meters (367 feet)), and the other one is “Oiyamakasa,” which is a long course (the distance is about five kilometers (3.1 miles)). Seven teams compete for the fastest time in the short and long courses.
If you have a chance to visit Fukuoka during this term, of course I strongly recommend that you see the last day of the festival. However, it starts 4:59 AM, so you might miss your chance to see it. Nonetheless, don’t worry, as during July 1 st to July 15 th , there are fourteen “Kazariyamakasa.” These decorative 13 meter (43 feet) high floats are not carried during the races, but are stationed around the town. These too are also very exciting to see, and you can compare the designs and decorations made by Japanese traditional artists which adorn the “Kazariyamakasa.”
Fukuoka is also especially known as a sacred place for Tonkotsu ramen (a famous type of ramen where pork bones form the base of its soup broth). So before or after seeing this very exciting festival, having the great taste of Tonkotsu ramen must be the perfect combo for visitors. For your next trip, please go a little further to the south part of Japan to explore another Japan that you still may not know.
Decorative floats, such as this one, showcase the skills of local artists.