Float Festival

Trip Start May 28, 2006
Trip End May 17, 2007

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Friday, November 3, 2006

If our time in Beppu was spent mainly relaxing and enjoying the tranquility, our day trip to the small coastal city of Karatsu couldn't have been more different. Jim had been keen to visit the city, not to visit any particular sights, but to see one of Kyushu's, if not Japan's, most fun festivals.
The Karatsu Kunchi Festival is held every year from 2nd to 4th November - Jim had read that day two was the most exciting time to visit as the colourful festival floats are paraded through the streets so we made our way there along with half of Kyushu's population.

The streets were packed, although the atmosphere was great as most of the crowds were made up of families with small children. The three day extravaganza is the autumn festival of the Karatsu shrine. The shrine was established in 715 BC and has been worshipped by the people ever since, although during the 200 year long feudal period (17th and 18th centuries), it was closed to commoners except for the time of the Kunchi festival.

The tradition of the Hikiyama floats started when the residents of the Katanamachi district of the city made Akajishi (the red lion float) in 1819 and dedicated it to the God and the shrine. Over the next 50 years the other 13 areas of the city each set about making their own floats - they've been passed down from generation to generation, and with a few repairs along the way have survived mainly intact.

The floats are paraded through in the order they were built - they're pulled along by teams of children and men from the different districts who all wear cotton kimono of different colours and patterns to symbolise their "team". Each procession is accompanied by lots of chanting, shouting and pipes, whistles and drums from the musicians who are carried along sat on the underside of the float. These things are really quite big, with some of them bearly clearing the overhead cables strung across the road.

To highlight the different nature of the 14 districts of the city each float's design is unique - there's a giant Tai or Sea Bream to represent the Uoyamachi or fish market area of town, a Warrior Helmet of Minamote Yoshitsune built by the people of Gofukumachi - there was a famous armoury in this part of the city so they built the float accordingly. Some designs lend more to folklore or religion than regional identity - The Hoomaru or Phoenix Boat echoes the many pictures of Phoenixes visible in Shinto and Buddhist shrines in Japan. They're really well looked after and quite elaborate - many have Himalyan Yak hair on them, which isn't easy to come by in Japan. Others have travelled to different festivals around the world - as far a field as Honolulu, Disneyland, Rotterdam and Nice.

After watching the parade we marched down to a giant sand pit on the other side of town to wait for the floats to arrive. Each one took it in turns to hurry down the street, passed the thousands of spectators, and dash onto the sand. The wheels invariably got stuck and it took near Herculean efforts to get them moving again. The crowds loved it - clapping each one in, until all 14 of them were neatly arranged and the float bearers over 18 cracked open the sake to celebrate a job well done.
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