More Than Just a Festival: Karatsu Kunchi Part 1 - Yoiyama

Part 1: We went to Karatsu Kunchi, an autumn festival in Karatsu, Saga. As this festival is a three-day event, we will divide this article into three parts and talk about the charm of Karatsu Kunchi. This is the part 1 of this article, and we report on Yoiyama on November 2nd!

Karatsu Kunchi, an annual three-day festival of November 2nd, 3rd, and 4th, is a shrine rite of Karatsu Shrine located in Karatsu, Saga. How the 14 floats called hikiyama walk around Karatsu City accompanied by stirring festival music and the voices of “enya” and “yoisa” is stunningly gorgeous. Some festival fans say, "If you are lucky enough to see Karatsu Kunchi this year, you will definitely come back next year." Enough said, right?

The hikiyama are lined up in the order of the year they were made. The first hikiyama, Akajishi (Red Lion), was made about 200 years ago, and the 14th and last hikiyama, Shichihomaru, was made in 1876. It took an impressive 57 years for the floats to all be completed. As the third hikiyama, Kame to Urashima Taro (Turtle and Urashima Taro), and the 9th hikiyama, Takeda Shingen no Kabuto (Takeda Shingen’s Helmet), show, the floats were created based on old Japanese fairy tales or historical motifs. It is also interesting how a special technique called ikkanbari was used for the floats, where a number of washi (Japanese paper) were layered on one another and then lacquered on top.

The people who move these hikiyama (some of them weigh over 4 tons) are called hikiko. First of all, we have to remember that each float was created and has been preserved by a different district in Karatsu. There are 14 selected districts, each in charge of one float, although Karatsu city has more than just 14 districts. The ones who take good care of the hikiyama throughout the year are the hikiko. Hikiko is consisted of three different types of people: people who are born and raised in the district, people who live in the district, or people who have some kind of connection with the district. Even if you want to participate in this festival, just being local is not enough. This extremely exclusive system might be a part of the reason Karatsu Kunchi has such great dignity.

The Quiet Karatsu Town Has Gone Wild

Now taking a little break from the festival, let’s talk about the town of Karatsu itself.

Saga prefecture, where Karatsu is located, is famous for being, well, pretty much the opposite of Tokyo, and I think that’s pretty accurate. It’s a calm beach town where time slowly passes by.

Although we don't have many “gorgeous” or “splendid” things here, we enjoy surfing and hiking on weekends (or even every morning). In the evenings, we eat the blessings of the Sea of Genkai served on inviting Karatsu ceramics. The ability to live such a "quality life" is one characteristic of the town of Karatsu, and many people are living that life today.

But we have three days in autumn, where the quiet town of Karatsu gets wild…and that is the Karatsu Kunchi festival.

This is the picture of Karatsu Shrine early in the morning. There are not many people during the day time either.

And this is another picture of the shrine during Karatsu Kunchi, taken at exactly the same angle.

It’s crazy packed with people. It’s almost impossible to believe that it is the same place. We have about 50 million visitors for this festival every year. Now, the biggest event of the year in Karatsu starts with Yoiyama. Let’s take a look!

What is Yoiyama?

The first day of the festival, November 2nd, is called Yoiyama (Night Floats). As the name suggests, it starts at night. The way hikiyama walk around the town as the lanterns paint the sky with lights is fantastic and almost sensual. I felt like I was dreaming.

The Light Up Ceremony of the 2nd Hikiyama, Aojishi

Let’s experience the light up ceremony of the 2nd hikiyama, Aojishi (Blue Lion). It goes like this. The band plays stirring festival music called Hayashi. The lanterns are still dark at this point. And when the music hits the best part, the lights illuminate all at once! This ceremony became explosively popular on the Internet in recent years. You can’t forget this when you talk about recent Karatsu Kunchi festivals.

This is the Nakamachi Shopping Street, which is the District for Aojishi. It was around 7:30 pm, and completely dark. The ceremony started with a solo flute. The carefully-honed sound was proudly played. The performers are mainly teenage hikiko, and they spent a month practicing before the festival.

And this is the moment when the drum and bell joined in!

This beautiful, stylish moment gave me goose bumps. I can’t really put this feeling into words. Please witness it with your own eyes. You won’t regret it. After the ceremony, Aojishi starts patrolling the area.

The Hikiyama Started Moving

Every district has waited for this day all year. Each of them finish their own ceremony, and now it’s officially the start of Yoiyama.

The 3rd hikiyama, Kame to Urashima Taro, departed from Docomo Shop Karatsu.

This is the 6th hikiyama, Hououmaru. It is 22.05 meters wide and 4.4 meters high. It is said that it weighs about 4 tons.

Sometimes hikiyama are pulled at great speeds through town. This is the 8th hikiyama, Kinjishi (Golden Lion), one of the four lions.

The Powerful Curve at a Kyomachi Corner

Although you will enjoy Yoiyama from wherever you're standing, my favorite spot is definitely the Kyomachi corner. When I go there, the curve is so sharp and sudden that I can’t help but think, “Can it really go through such a narrow space?”. But they really do!

The picture below shows the moment Takeda Shingen no Kabuto of Kiwatamachi, which is next to Kyomachi, is making the curve. Shuddering as you watch it is one of the fun parts of this spot.

This is Hiryu (Flying Dragon) of Shinmachi. The float and hikiko of Shinmachi were once invited to a holiday music show called NHK Kohaku Uta Gassen and were cheering in the back while Saburo Kitajima, an Enka Legend (a style of Japanese music), played his popular song, “Matsuri”.

Although every hikiyama is beautiful, the 11th hikiyama, Shuten Douji to Raikou Minamoto no Kabuto, shines the brightest during the night of Yoiyama. Shuten Douji refers to the leader of a famous bandit group near Kyoto. A legend states that when Commander Minamoto no Yorimitsu cut off Shuten Douji's head, it flew into the air and landed onto Yorimitsu's hemet, where it clamped its teeth down and stayed. That legend is what this hikiyama represents. The bloodshot eyes are impressive.

This hikiyama also has piercing eyes: the 13th hikiyama, Shachi.

The 14th hikiyama, Shichihomaru, is the talk of Karatsu Kunchi fans recently because of the unique lights they put on the float. The modern combination of colors is what makes Shichihomaru different from others.

This thrilling Kyomachi corner is a popular viewing area. Please go there early and claim a spot!

After they finish their route, all the hikiyama assemble in front of Karatsu Civic Hall at around 10:30 pm. They’ll rest for the next day of festivities, Otabisho Shinkou.

It’s Still a Huge Party in Front of Karatsu Shrine

As we mentioned earlier, the area around Karatsu Shrine is usually very quiet. However, tonight is the night! The party is still going on.

The Karatsu Civic Hall and Karatsu Shrine are very close to each other. The area is crowded with lots of stands and tourists.

These stands are exciting for locals too. Not just food stands but games like shooting and water balloon fishing were also popular.

And you can’t miss this! It’s the haunted house, which appears every year. It’s a retro, old Japanese type of haunted house, which we don't really see anymore. This scary sign catches our eyes.

“Hey, come and check this out everybody. It’s not scary if you all come in together.” The voice of the barker is spooky but somehow makes me feel at home. For Karatsu locals, this is an important sign of autumn, which makes them feel, “the festival has begun.” It’s too scary, so I won’t go inside though.

This is the end of this Yoiyama article.

In the next article, we’ll focus on Otabisho Shinko on November 3rd, also known as the most exciting part of the festival. Stay tuned!

Part 2: More Than Just a Festival: Karatsu Kunchi Part 2 – Otabisho Shinkou

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Written by Mika

Hi everyone! I’m Mika, and I grew up in a small beach town in Saga. If I have the beach, books, and a really nice couch, my life is complete. I hope you’ll enjoy my articles as much as I enjoy writing them.