We were very excited to witness some of the festival known as Hakata Gion Yamakasa. This takes place every year in the first two weeks of July in the Hakata district of Fukuoka on the western island of Kyushu. The final event is a big race around town with teams of men carrying decorative floats. This is one event in Japan you have got to see!
From July 1st you can see about a dozen large floats, called kazariyama, all around town. These two ton floats used to be raced around the city but, standing over 10 meters high, they are too tall to get through the modern city without striking power lines and such so they are on display only for the festiaval. These things are massive! The floats are decorated by expert Hakata Doll craftsmen with samurai, anime, and characters from Japanese mythology.
Smaller floats, called kakiyama, are used for the race and are carried by groups of men around the city. The kakiyama still weigh around a ton and can be up to 5 meters high. It is very impressive to see 20 or so men hoist these things up on their shoulders and run with them. Its very hot in the summer and team members are on standby at every corner to splash them with buckets of water.
The tradition started over 750 years ago by a Buddhist monk from Jotenji temple, named Shoichi Kokushi. At the time, there was a large epidemic of the plague in Hakata. Legend has it that, as the people were carried around town in platforms carried on the shoulders of others, the priest splashed them with holy water in attempt to eradicate the disease.
The large floats are on display throughout the town from July 1-15th. The big race is early morning on the 15th but you can see nagaregaki, teams doing warm up excercises, a few days before.
If you venture to Fukuoka for the festival, be sure to also visit the largest reclining Buddha statue in the world at Nanzoin Temple.
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