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

Part 2: 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 2 of this article, where we report on Otabisho Shinkou on November 3rd!

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

Departing from Karatsu Civic Hall

It was around 9 am. What I’m seeing right in front of me are the 14 hikiyama. From the left, I see Akajishi (Red Lion), Aojishi (Blue Lion), Kame to Urashima Taro (Turtle and Urashima Taro) and more… They’re lined up in the order of the year they were made.

It was completely packed with people trying to take pictures and hikiko who are standing by. They depart at 9:30 am.

It’s 9:30 am. The second day starts with michibayashi music played by performers riding Akajishi (Red Lion), the 1st hikiyama. Michibayashi refers to a type of hayashi, Karatsu Kunchi’s festival music, and it is played only on the approach to the shrine. This hayashi has such a touching melody, which moves the audiences’ hearts, and it’s not just festival music but great music. When people used to choose their cellphone’s ringtone, many people enjoyed a hayashi ringtone. Although every district plays basically the same melody, the tempo is slightly different depending on the district. After the music starts, hikiyama start moving.

After Kame to Urashima Taro (Turtle and Urashima Taro), comes the mikoshi (portable shrine) with the priest of Karatsu Shrine. hikiyama were created to serve the gods, so by putting the mikoshi between the hikiyama, they fulfill their mission.

This is the 4th hikiyama, Minamoto no Yoshitsune no Kabuto (Helmet of Minamoto no Yoshitsune). Its brave profile is very impressive, isn’t it?

By the time the 12th hikiyama, Tamatorijishi (Tamatori Lion), departs, the spot where hikiyama were lined up is filled with stands.

After the last hikiyama, Shichihomaru, departs, you can either enjoy the stands or just follow the hikiyama as they go. Let’s prepare for the biggest event of the day, Otabisho Shinkou.

What is Otabisho Shinkou?

Otabisho of Otabisho Shinkou refers to the grounds of the old Taisei Elementary School, located near the Nishi no Hama beach. They gather sand from the beach, spread it over the ground and set up a platform for the gods in the center. hikiyama, which departed at 9:30, assemble together here in Otabisho around noon. This is called hikikomi.

After hikikomi, hikiyama will stay on the grounds and the hikiko take a break for a while. This lunch break is the best chance for taking pictures. The hikiyama lined up around the platform shine the brightest! Even though it might be difficult to capture all of them at once, you can get really close to the hikiyama and take pictures during this break, so please check it out.

However, I actually have no pictures of hikikomi. The way hikiko pay their respects to the gods and enter Otabisho is very dramatic. I did want to take pictures, but I have a legit reason that I had to give up that chance…

Is Karatsu Kunchi a “Hell” for Women?

While men are all wearing the same happi coat and having fun screaming “enya enya”, what are their wives and daughters doing?

Here’s the answer: all wearing the same aprons and cooking at home.

Well, maybe the aprons are not the same. But the point is that Karatsu Kunchi for women is “the three days where they keep cooking from morning to night for their guests and the hikiko.” The 2nd day is when we have the most guests, and that is why I, a daughter of a hikiko, had no time to watch hikikomi.

The Kunchi feast used to be called Mitsuki Daore, meaning “three month fall”, because people spent three months of salary for these three days. The most famous Kunchi feast is Ara no Sugatani, which is an expensive Ara fish, boiled whole. This fish is at least 5 kg and the bigger ones are 50 kg.

Although we usually invite hikiko and their friends, or people we interact with on a daily basis, there are many people who we see only during the festival. In Japan, it’s usually the Bon festival in August or New Year’s Day when kids come home, but in Karatsu, it is Karatsu Kunchi (they skip the New Year or Bon, but they come back for Kunchi). For Karatsu locals, the festival is also an important opportunity to communicate with each other.

The Inn with a Kunchi Feast

Don’t have friends in Karatsu? Don't worry. There are many inns and hotels in Karatsu, and some of them offer the Kunchi feast. It’s a great idea to pick such an inn.

Yoyokaku, the historical Japanese inn near Karatsu Castle, is famous for their Kunchi feast, which looks like a delicate piece of art. This place is also known as one of the best inns in the whole island of Kyushu, so make a reservation early even if it’s not during Kunchi. For more about the cuisine and prices, please call and check (English available).

Finally Otabisho Shinkou, “Hikidashi”

Now I leave the dishes to my mom and head to the biggest event of Otabisho Shinkou, “Hikidashi”.

I followed my uncle who feasted and now is fully charged. It was around 2:45 pm when we got to Otabisho. After 3pm, hikiyama start to depart from Otabisho, starting from the 1st hikiyama. This is what we call Hikidashi.

As we hear the announcement, “Make some room for the hikiyama”, Akajishi (Red Lion) finally started moving!

Next is the 2nd hikiyama, Aojishi (Blue Lion).

The 3rd hikiyama, Kame to Urashima Taro (Turtle and Urashima Taro), is famous for moving at high speed during both hikikomi and Hikidashi. They excite and entertain the audiences.

This is the 5th hikiyama, Tai (Sea Bream), which is popular for its lovely facial expression.

This is the 7th hikiyama, Hiryu (Flying Dragon). It’s swinging up and down like it’s swimming in the ocean.

What we would love for you to check out during Hikidashi is this festival coat called nikujuban. The long one is different and called a Happi. Each nikujuban has a unique design, based on the district’s and the hikiyama’s motif. The beautiful combination of colors, which is carefully designed to match with their hikiyama, is a must-see.

This is the 6th hikiyama, Hououmaru. The orange color of their nikujiban stands out in the blue sky.

This is Kiwatamachi’s Takeda Shingen no Kabuto (Takeda Shingen’s Helmet). The two men on the top of the hikiyama are selected as the most reliable people to support the future of their district. This rule applies to every district. They look so proud directing the other hikiko, don't they?

There’s a painting of a dragon on the nikujuban of Shichihomaru. The three colored obi belt on their waist looks so cool!

After all 14 hikiyama depart, Otabisho is empty. All the stands in this area move to a different area as Hikidashi comes to an end.

After they patrol the city, the hikiyama go back to their own district. And that’s when the party starts! Bam! People visit houses in the neighborhood one after another. And yes, women were doing an amazing job here!

About “Kunchi Magic”

This is the wife of a hikiko in the district of Aojishi (Blue Lion), Nakamachi. She was wearing this beautiful white obi belt featuring Aojishi, and of course I had to ask for a picture.

Wives entertaining the hikiko with their most elegant smiles and their delicious cooking… Ahh, these are truly the women of Karatsu. There is no doubt that Karatsu Kunchi would never be as successful without these amazing women.

Many of the wives of the hikiko actually found their husbands because of Karatsu Kunchi. I’m not surprised though, because Karatsu men in their festival clothing are super handsome!

Usually, he might not be the most handsome person in town, but for the three days of Kunchi, he looks stunning! And some girls fall in love and later decide to spend the rest of their lives with a hikiko. Karatsu people make fun of this phenomenon and call it “Kunchi Magic”.

Now the festival is almost done. We only have one more day, Machimawari. We’ll report on it in the next article.

Part 3:More Than Just a Festival: Karatsu Kunchi Part 3 - Machi-mawari

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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.