It’s 3am and you’re walking down the street. In front of you are crowds of men bearing headbands, white shirts, and…. loincloths?! What is this?!
Welcome to Fukuoka’s famous Gion Yamakasa Festival!
Hakata Gion Yamakasa Festival
The Hakata Gion Yamakasa festival (博多祇園山笠) is said to be over 770 years old and is one of the main festivals that takes place in Fukuoka. The festival runs from the 1st to the 15th of July and is based around the city’s central shrine, Kushida Jinja.
One of the most notable parts of this festival are the floats called kakiyama. These decorated structures weigh about 1-ton and on the last day of the festival, are raced around the city in an energetic bustle of shouting and running.
In addition to kakiyama are taller, more decorative floats called kazariyama. During the festival, kazariyama are displayed in various locations around the city and depict scenes related to Japanese culture.
Before the introduction of power lines, kazariyama were the floats that were used during the race instead of kakiyama.
Take your time during the two weeks of the Yamakasa Festival to view the different kazariyama. They are quite stunning to see, and oh so tall!
July 15th marks the last day of the festival and is the day of the most anticipated event: Oiyama. At the crack of dawn, more specifically 4:59 am, hundreds of men from seven districts gather to race their float around the city.
Because the floats are so heavy and only 30 members can carry them at a time, members have to switch in and out every few minutes.
This exhausting task requires extreme amounts of coordination and teamwork. Because of this, before the big day, teams conduct practice runs to iron out all the details.
At 3:00 am, teams begin to line up at Kushida Jinja. As a spectator, you’ll want to arrive early as well as it gets packed. Before the race begins, there are food and drink stalls to enjoy inside the shrine. (If you happen to be hungry at 3:00 am in the morning that is).
Outside of the shrine, two red arrows on opposite sides of the street designate the starting line. At exactly 4:59, the race begins. At 5-minute intervals, each team picks up its float, runs into the shrine, circles a pole, exits, and then continues the course on the city streets.
The first team gets to stops mid-way during the shrine run to sing “Iwaimedeta”, the traditional song of Hakata.
After each team leaves the shrine, their time is announced to the crowd, then the wait for the next team begins.
As the participants run through the streets, buckets of water are splashed on them. Why?
It is said that long ago, a Buddhist priest named Shoichi Kokushi sprinkled holy water as he was carried on a platform throughout the city in order to eradicate a pandemic. This religious ceremony continued and slowly evolved into the festival it has become today.
Pro tip: If you are visiting the festival with your camera, bring a plastic bag to protect it from unwanted splashes.
Running Around the City
It takes about half an hour for the teams to complete the course. This gives spectators a bit of time to travel to different locations around the city to see the teams running in different locations.
The entire event ends right around 6 am, just as cars start to busy the streets and the sun brightens the sky. Even though it’s early, many spectators and participants continue the festivities with food and drink at restaurants that are specially open just for the event.
Waking up so early and standing in the pouring rain was not my favorite, but the experience I had made it more than worth it.
The energy of the crowd, chanting of the runners, and craze of it all were just unlike anything I had seen before.
Watching this event has definitely been one of my highlights of living in Fukuoka!
Mark your calendars and set your alarms as this is something you won’t want to miss!
Interested in learning more about Japan’s festivals and cultural events? Check out these posts!