The gently rising tone of the alarm let us know it was 4:30am on 15th July. Oh yes, time to get out and see the Oiyama, the big race that is the culmination of the Hakata Gion Yamakasa.
The Yamakasa festival can be traced back about 750 years ago to a Buddhist priest who was requested to eradicate a spreading epidemic. The priest was carried around on a platform while he prayed and sprinkled holy water to quell the disease. Subsequently the religious ceremony was held annually to keep the epidemic away, and over time it evolved into the festival that it is today.
With the race starting at 4:59am we had just enough time to hurriedly get dressed and go out to the nearby big intersection at Gion, just a few minutes from the start at the Kushida Shrine. Gion was also our local metro station and in Fukuoka each station has a unique symbol to represent it; in the case of Gion the symbol is a Yamakasa runner.
It was a little strange to step outside at around 4:40am and find the streets dark but very busy with people all headed in the same direction. It was predominantly locals who obviously knew about the festival, but we saw a few foreigners too, and more so here than at any of the previous events of the Yamakasa.
We reached the big junction at Gion and took up our spot at the roadside to wait for the arrival of the teams. Everyone was very expectant and a TV camera crew were prowling up and down close by waiting to get some good footage.
We decided that what with the crowds and the fact this was the last time we would see the teams and their extravagant floats that pictures we not the priority; we have plenty of pictures from the previous events of the festival. It was time to concentrate a little more on enjoying the moment and watch the efforts of the participants as they went by and struggled their way along the course of the Oiyama.
As the sun rose to lighten the skies each the teams went by all chanting “Oisa! Oisa!” The crowd enthusiastically cheered and applauded each float and its team as they ran passed.
The Yamakasa was a great cultural festival that we thoroughly enjoyed during our two weeks in Fukuoka.
So who won? Well, we don’t know. There aren’t published statistics on the teams, their placings in previous years, etc. We learned that this is deemed not to be important. What is important in the Yamakasa is for everyone to participate in a cooperative, team-spirited fashion and show this effort to the gods at the Kushida Shrine.
Fans of Japanese sci-fi and other related craziness that we are, it was with great excitement that we discovered that there was a Godzilla exhibition opening in the Fukuoka Art Museum to coincide with the imminent release of the latest Toho Godzilla film Godzilla Resurgence (シン・ゴジラ, Shin-Gojira). With just a couple of days before our time in the city was due to end we promptly hurried along on the opening day of the exhibition to see some monster madness.
The Fukuoka Art Museum is situated in the picturesque Ohori Park, which has a large lake with a land-bridge across the centre of it, as well as many Japanese garden style features. There is also quite an abundance of wildlife in the park and we saw lots of ducks, terrapins, herons, carp, dragonflies, and other little creatures, all during a very pleasant walk around the park.
The Fukuoka Art Museum is located on the west side of the park and hosts both a permanent collection and special exhibitions. However, as we discovered this was to be the final special exhibition before the museum closes on 1st September 2016 for renovation, which is due to be completed in March 2019. So we counted ourselves doubly lucky to catch visiting this museum while we were in Fukuoka.
The exhibition was quite a treat for fans of Godzilla as it featured a full history of all the Toho Godzilla films (not the crappy Hollywood ones), as well as lots of original drawings, storyboards, monster-suits, and models of spaceships, military vehicles, and of course monsters.
Despite crossed fingers our hopes of being able to take photographs of the Godzilla exhibition were not to be fulfilled. There were only a couple of places in the exhibit where you could take pictures and the only one really of interest was of the SpaceGodzilla monster-suit from the 1994 film Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla.
This was a shame as there were other original monster-suits including Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah (not “Kinky Dora” as Philip misheard it said), Gigan, and MechaGodzilla, as well as some great models that we would have loved to photograph.
However, there was to be some picture-taking of a different kind. While we were enjoying a diorama of Godzilla and MechaGodzilla from 2003’s Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. a film crew from a local TV station arrived and were setting up to take some footage. We said “konnichi-wa” and they said “hello”, Philip joked with them that could we have their pictures as we were not allowed any, and there was a brief bit of chit-chat with questions such as “where are you from?” etc. before they got on with their work and dealt with one of the museum curators. We moved on.
A few minutes later one of the crew caught up with us and said that they wanted us – actually mainly Philip for some reason; we think it’s the hair! – to be in some of their shots. So we went back and revisited a portion of the exhibit they were keen to film, and took our starring roles. They thanked us for cooperating and we asked about our fee – why did they laugh? 😛
Then our moment of stardom was over; the chap with the camera did actually say “cut” with a grin. We exchanged thanks and smiles and then continued on to enjoy the rest of the exhibition, which was fab.
So we had a really great visit to the Fukuoka Art Museum, monsters, cameras, and all. It was a thoroughly enjoyable monster-sized slice of Godzilla heaven.
from “The Dark Side of the Moon”, Pink Floyd, 1973.
The events of this year’s Hakata Gion Yamakasa moved on apace and we attended several of these over recent days as they gave us some good opportunities to see the actual Yamakasa floats close up and in action as they were carried around by the teams.
The Asayamakasa – or morning Yamakasa – takes place on 11th July. In this event each team, operating on its own schedule, does an early morning practice run through their own territory. We did not see any of these as the routes are only known to those “in the know”; all very hush-hush.
However, the day of the Asayamakasa is also the only time the teams run twice in one day, and in the afternoon the teams practise running into and out of the Kushida Shrine, which is the starting point of the race. With the shrine just a few minutes walk away we headed out to hopefully get our first look at some of the floats. As the running times were not set we missed some of these – including one that went by the restaurant as we had dinner – but did manage to get a good look at one of the teams and their float – team Higashi.
Carrying the floats looks like incredibly hard work, you can really see the men straining hard. The teams comprise many people and the runners and carriers switch places as they go, under the direction of the men sat atop the floats. With a 4km course to cover in the Oiyama final race they’re going to need plenty of strength, stamina and people!
The Oiyama Narashi takes place on 12th July starting at 3:59pm. This is a rehearsal for the actual Oiyama race, and the teams run a slightly shortened 4km course through the streets of Hakata, so this is similar to the main race but at a more sensible hour of the day! With the event starting at a fixed time, and the participants setting off at five minute intervals, we were able to get ready a good place to watch and see all of the floats go by.
The order of the teams this year is:
There is also a special ceremonial float, Kami Kawabata (上川端通), which is carried on particular events (including this one) and it follows behind the other participants.
The special ceremonial float, Kami Kawabata, is more like the Yamakasa floats traditionally were; not only extravagent but also very tall. However, this had to change over time as the floats were too tall to safely navigate Fukuoka’s streets with the addition of its overhead power lines. The Kami Kawabata it seems has solved this problem by becoming something of a Transformer, much to the crowd’s delight.
It turned out that we had picked a rather good spot to watch this event, located on a long approach with a corner to navigate, and also a point where the floats pass on two occasions. We’re thinking this might be where we should stand on the morning of the big race.
The Shudanyamamise occurs on 13th July at 3:30pm. During this event the floats are carried on a 2.6km course from the Gofukumachi intersection to the Fukuoka City Hall, where they are greeted by dignitaries. We went along on a very humid afternoon to see the ceremony.
Each of the teams arrived in turn, announced by a commentator, and set their float before the dignitaries and bows were exchanged. There was then a chant accompanied by a clapped sequence before the team moved away and the next team was presented.
We got quite a few pictures as we stood opposite the dignitaries’ platform, and here are each of the teams as they turned around after their presentation to the officials before moving away.
We also took some videos of the floats as they departed at the closing section of the ceremony, and it seemed that team Chiyo were showing off their prowess. Instead of just turning at a corner like their predecessors had, they did a 360 degree turn to take the corner, much to the appreciation of the crowd – and Philip who you can hear with his own commentary.
If you are wondering about the water being thrown around, this is done to both cool the participants off and (apparently) lubricate the road to make moving the float easier.
Despite the very humid heat during the Shudanyamamise it was great fun to see the teams in action and get a chance to look at the floats a little more closely. They are certainly quite a remarkable sight.
And that is now it for the Hakata Gion Yamakasa until the big race, the Oiyama, on 15th July starting at 4:59am. We had best make sure an early alarm is set if we don’t want to miss the action!
from “Jyu Oh Sei” soundtrack, Hajime Mizoguchi, 2006.
One of the special days during the Hakata Gion Yamakasa festival is the Oshioitori, which occurs on the 9th July. The Oshioitori or “Fetching the Sea Salt” ritual is to pray for safety during the festival’s many gruelling events. The participating teams run from Hakata to the beach at Hakozaki, resplendent in their Yamakasa clothing, to fetch purifying sand when the tide is out.
The illustration on the right shows the traditional clothing worn by the participants during the events of the Yamakasa.
On the way back from the sea the teams visit two of Fukuoka’s shrines: Hakozaki-gu (筥崎宮), which is near the beach where the sand is collected, and Kushida (櫛田神社), which is the starting point of the festival’s big race.
At the shrines they receive sacred sake, which we’re pretty sure translates as a bit of a piss-up after the long hike to get the purifying sand 🙂
Then in a ceremony later the sand is thrown on the runners’ feet as a blessing for their safety during the Yamakasa.
The Oshioitori event was the first in the festival’s schedule since our arrival in Fukuoka where we would get a chance to see the teams, and so we went to visit the Hakozaki-gu shrine and hang around by the sea to catch some of the action.
We arrived at the Hakozaki-gu shrine around 4pm to find things fairly quiet: there were a few members of the teams around though they were waiting for the arrival of their fellows and armed with water to quench the thirst of the approaching runners.
We had a little tour of the shrine; all very nice though we have seen more interesting ones during our time in Japan. Still it was all rather quiet, other than a wedding party having some pictures taken.
We decided to head down to the beach and see if there was anything happening there and found that a crowd had started to build. Everyone seemed to have a camera, including a few with some pretty serious looking sound and video gear.
The beach itself was actually quite a short strip of sand in Fukuoka’s bay – the city has reclaimed quite a lot of land from the sea and it seemed this bit had been left just for the purposes of the Yamakasa as it is in a straight line from the Hakozaki-gu shrine just a few minutes walk away.
The tide had not yet receded to reveal the wet sands and it looked like there was a little while to go before the main event so we decided to get an early dinner at a nearby teishoku restaurant and return in a little while.
As we left the restaurant nearly an hour later we saw ahead a horde of people dressed in Yamakasa clothing crossing the road to chants of “Oisa! Oisa!” – which is used to set their running pace – and passing through the red torii gate to the beach. The game was afoot, so we stepped up the pace and discovered that at least one of the teams had arrived for their Oshioitori.
Not wanting to miss too much we decided to stop by the crossing near the end of the route to the beach rather than the beach itself, which due to its size would be soon overcrowded. As it turned out we got a great place where we could see the Yamakasa teams up close, both as they headed down to the sea and came back again with the vital purifying sand, and we saw at least five different teams go by.
And here they are in all their glory – bottoms and all!
We even have a little video clip of one of the teams as they noisily “Oisa! Oisa!” their way by.
Quite a few of the spectators were evidently family or friends of the participants and took the opportunity to get a quick picture with them and the all-important sacred sand.
It was great fun to watch the various teams trotting by and then coming back as they completed their Oshioitori, and at times we were literally in the midst of them. We are eagerly looking forward to the rest of the Hakata Gion Yamakasa.
Take a gorgeous sunny day and an observation tower and it’s pretty obvious how were are going to spend an hour of the afternoon as we explore Fukuoka.
Fukuoka Tower (福岡タワ) is a 234m tall tower located in the bay-side Momochihama area of Fukuoka and is the tallest seaside tower in Japan. The main observation deck is 123m above the ground and there is a a café/lounge on the deck below this. The tower has a triangular cross-section and is covered with 8,000 half-mirrors, which has given it the nickname “Mirror Sail”.
Fukuoka Tower was quite quiet on our midweek visit and so we were able to enjoy the tower in peace and really appreciate the views from the top.
Here is a series of pictures taken from the top of the tower of sunny seaside Fukuoka.
Down below, projecting from one of the artificial beaches, we saw a colonial style development, which were discovered was the Marizon. The Marizon has several seafood restaurants, is also home to the high-speed ferry dock that serves the islands in the bay, and has – obviously – a wedding chapel.
At one point, as we stood chatting and looking at the view, something black hurtled downwards pass the window. As we leaned forwards to look down another black blur went by. We saw they were crows, literally in free-fall with their wings backs, before opening them out to glide and then land on a nearby building. We’re not sure quite what they were up to; probably just having a good time indulging in some crow extreme sports.
So with another great city view under our belts and now just two weeks left of our time in Japan, there’s still one tower more to go, back in Tokyo.
Yes Michael, but not until the 15th July, hang on a bit. The Hakata Gion Yamakasa (博多祇園山笠) festival is unique in Japan, lasting over two weeks and culminating in the Oiyama, which is a race over a 4km course where teams each carry a one tonne float.
All races need somewhere to start and the Oiyama begins at the Kushida Shrine (櫛田神社) in Hakata. The Kushida Shrine is a Shinto shrine, dedicated to Amaterasu (天照) the goddess of the sun and Susanoo (須佐之男) the god of sea and storms, and is said to date from the year 757.
The shrine is located about ten minutes from our accommodation and so on a somewhat wet afternoon we decided to go a take a look and see how the preparations for the festival were coming along.
When we arrived at the shrine we found the entry courtyard was already turned over to the setup for the beginning of the race including the addition of seating for spectators lucky – or privileged – enough to get a place at the start of one of Fukuoka’s most special events.
Some other areas of the shrine were cordoned off and covered over, presumably all as part of getting ready for the big event, although much of the shrine is still accessible as it remains open for use by worshippers and other visitors.
The actual race – the Oiyama – starts at 4:59am on 15th July and is set over a 4km course of roads and streets in the Hakata area of the city. 4:59am?! Philip doesn’t believe such a time exists! Hey ho, it looks like we are in for an early start to the morning of 15th July if we want to see the big race action.
The participating teams – which are various districts in the city – set off at five minute intervals and carry their one tonne floats along the course all to the delight and encouragement of the crowds that line the route. This year’s order of starting for the teams is:
Well quite, we are definitely not East End Boys as our arrival in Fukuoka marks the most western point in our travels across Japan. Once again the trusty Shinkansen was our preferred way to get between cities, this time as we went from Hiroshima to Fukuoka and its main station of Hakata.
The Shinkansen whisked us to Fukuoka in 62 minutes and we were soon navigating Hakata station in an effort to find the right exit to head to our next Airbnb apartment. In the station we did inadvertently stumble across the Evangelion café so we sneaked a quick picture even though we didn’t go in. Perhaps we will on the return journey?
First impressions of Fukuoka are it looks like a nice cosmopolitan city, modern and clean, plenty of shops and restaurants, lots of signs of greenery; all the things we like to find in a new place. And our latest Airbnb apartment was located just five minutes from the station so it wasn’t too difficult to find it and get settled in.
It didn’t take long to discover that our arrival has coincided with the Hakata Gion Yamakasa (博多祇園山笠), which is a Japanese festival celebrated from the 1st to the 15th of July in Fukuoka. The festival is famous for the kakiyama floats that weigh around one tonne each and are carried around the city by hordes of bare-buttocked men (matron!) in a race starting at 4:59am on the 15th July. The Hakata Gion Yamakasa is believed to be over 770 years old and is a huge tourist attraction.
Looks like things are going to be busy around here for the next week or so. We will be in Fukuoka for the remainder of the festival so no doubt there will be more to come on the Hakata Gion Yamakasa – probably including lots of Japanese botties! 😮