At the start of November, Karatsu City attracts thousands of people from all over the world to see the Karatsu Kunchi Festival.
Karatsu is a small city located in Saga Prefecture, in the northwest of Kyushu. The festival is Karatsu’s moment in the spotlight and one of its most famous staples, providing an opportunity to experience a seldom-seen part of Japan and witness a unique display of local culture.
Preparations for the festival start at the beginning of October when groups of musicians crowd into garages and parks to practice Seriyama-bayashi, a popular piece of music performed during the festival. Families and friends gather every evening to listen to the practise and siblings nag their older brothers and sisters for a chance to try the fast-paced tune on the flute or the intense rhythm on the taiko drum. The groups practice for at least two hours every night leading up to the opening night on November 2nd.
The Karatsu Kunchi festival is classified in Japan as an Important National Intangible Folk-Cultural Property. The purpose of the festival is to offer thanks to the patron god of Karatsu Shrine and to ask for the god’s protection for the coming year. The festival has been celebrated for hundreds of years but the present day chief attraction was not introduced until 1819 when a district of Karatsu, Katana-machi, made and dedicated a giant float to Karatsu Shrine. The float is a giant, red, lion’s head called Akajishi and it was the first float of fifteen that were to be made by the various districts of Karatsu.
Fourteen of the floats are still in existence today, carefully preserved and safeguarded by the people of Karatsu. But for three days at the beginning of November, these floats are hauled through the city, making for an impressive display of strength, beauty and tradition. The festival opens with an evening parade on November 2 known as Yoiyama. Crowds gather and wait for the approaching floats, hearing the distant bang of drums and the shouts of the teams. A member of the first float’s team will appear, dressed in traditional costume, waving a bamboo stick. Accompanied with policemen, he waves the crowd back from the road. Then the team will come into view, the youngest at the front, all pulling on two, thick pieces of rope and shouting, “Enya! Enya!” (or “Yoisa! Yoisa!” if the float has a male-only team). Depending on whereabouts in the crowd one ends up, the team may turn and give the ropes an extra hard pull and the float will suddenly appear in a rage of screaming flutes, grinding wooden wheels and blazing lanterns. The musicians are crammed onto the float and play furiously to motivate their team; the roads are scattered with salt for purification and to assist the floats’ wooden wheels; the air becomes thick with the smells of festival food, the wailing of flutes and shouts of, “Enya! Enya!” The chants of “i” and “Yoisa!” originally used to be parts of a song that has long since been forgotten.
Each float is made with a traditional technique called Ikkanbari which is the pasting of around two hundred layers of washi paper over bamboo frames to create the shape of the float. The surface is then coated with coloured lacquer. The floats are all significant characters from Japanese folklore and belief such as the famous Urashima Taro astride a giant turtle. Each float was carefully picked to represent the district in Karatsu that made it. For example, Taiyama is a giant-eyed, red snapper made by Uoya-machi. Uoya-machi means fish market and red snappers are typical offerings made to gods within Japan so Taiyama was the perfect choice to represent the district and to dedicate to Karatsu Shrine.
Each day, the floats are pulled along different routes through the city (with two long stops on November 3rd and 4th when the floats are lined up on display so visitors can take photos and the teams can rest and drink from gigantic bottles of sake before taking up the ropes again). On the 3rd, part of the parade involves dragging the floats through sand which is one of the most exciting displays of the festival. It can also be very dangerous. When the music starts up, the pullers through themselves against the ropes and heave, hoping their strength is enough to drag the float through the sand without the wheels sinking… this can lead to team members sat on top of the float to fly off from the force!
If you take the time to explore, there’s an abundance of similar thrilling moments throughout the festival. The crowds tend to be in the centre of town near the food stalls and amusements but there are areas on the outskirts of the parade’s route that are definitely worth the walk. For example, there are a few sharp corners in the road that the team has to drag its float around. The wooden wheels do not have pivots so managing a sharp corner all depends on teamwork and strength. The older team members are gathered around the float, some leaning against the front of the float with their sandals stuck out to act as brakes, others gathered around the back and sides to steer and shift the float into the correct position. They also rely on their speed so the teams usually take the corners at a run. This can sometimes lead to floats swinging wide around the corner, narrowly avoiding collision with nearby storefronts.
The city is teaming with life and excitement until the emotional finale on the 4th, when the floats are returned to the Hikiyama Exhibition Hall. The exhausted teams somehow manage to find the strength to through their team leader into the air to the cheers of the crowd. Recently, there has also been a frequently observed but unofficial tradition of students professing their love to their sweethearts during the height of emotion on the final day. They can be spotted around the city, sobbing and bashfully giving small gifts or love letters to each other.
The pride that the Karatsu people feel towards the festival is contagious. Many households become hosts to tourists and locals alike, inviting people in to eat with them around long tables laden with food. It is also often possible to watch the parade pass by the windows as they eat and celebrate. There are also plenty of great restaurants, bars and shops with beautiful views of the beaches and mountains as well as the iconic Karatsu castle. The Hikiyama Exhibition Hall is open to the public all year round so even if you miss the festival, there is still the opportunity to see the magnificent floats in their resting place.
Written by 4th year Karatsu City ALT Emily Atkinson.