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

Part 3: 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 third and last part of this article. This time, we'll report on Machi-mawari, which took place on November 4th!

Part 3:More Than Just a Festival: Karatsu Kunchi Part 2 – Otabisho Shinkou

What is Machi-mawari?

Here we go, it's the final day of Karatsu Kunchi.

On November 4th, the final day, an event called Machi-mawari occurs. The hikiyama floats are pulled on a very similar route to the previous day’s Otabisho Shinkou, but this time, the mikoshi are not present. When the evening falls, the hikiyama make the journey back to their home until next year, the Hikiyama Exhibition Hall. This marks the end of the festival. The Exhibition Hall is located right next to Karatsu Shrine.

The view of the children, unable to hide their sadness at the festival's end, yet still singing at the top of their lungs as they walked, somehow gave me a wistful, refreshing feeling.

Morning Departure from Each District

The final day's festivities begin at 10:00 am, a slightly later start time.

The hikiyama, which were stationed their own districts the previous evening, are all brought together in front of Karatsu Civic Hall, just like yesterday. The festival commences after they all arrive.

Here we see hikiko affiliated with the fourth hikiyama, Minamoto no Yoshitsune no Kabuto (Helmet of Minamoto no Yoshitsune), on their way to the festival. They are walking through the Gofukumachi Shopping Street in their district.

The hikiyama have finished their "overnight stay", and now moving to start their final patrol of the city.

Assembly at Karatsu Station

By noon, more and more hikiyama assemble in front of the Karatsu JR train station. It's a repeat of yesterday's amazing scenery, a complete line up of the hikiyama for all to see.

It's awfully crowded, but as this is the last part of the festival when all of the hikiyama will be lined up together, we encourage you to head over and take any photos you might have missed.

Here we break for intermission, before starting up again at 2:30 pm.

Laughing or crying, this is the last push. Leave no regrets here, they take an even deeper breath and keep yelling "enya"!

Even in the afternoon sun, you can't deny the incredible intensity of Shuten Douji to Minamoto no Raikou no Kabuto.

Children affiliated with the tenth hikiyama, Uesugi Kenshin no Kabuto (Uesugi Kenshin's Helmet), guide the other hikiko with flags. Just around the corner you'll find their district, Hirano-machi.

Somewhere, you can see an expression of delight on the helmet's face.

It is customary that children still too small to participate in pulling the hikiyama sit in the center of the platform instead. These children, now listening to the roar of the musical accompaniment just behind them, will someday be old enough to grip and pull the hikiyama’s rope... isn't it moving?

Then hikiyama make their way through the city streets, to eventually arrive to their "home", the Hikiyama Exhibition Hall.

Front Row Seats for the Grand Finale

All too soon, the evening fell. All too soon, the Karatsu Kunchi festival is ending. To say that the entire city of Karatsu revolves around this yearly festival is no exaggeration. Tonight, this city can't help but feel a bit lonely.

Truth be told, the grand finale has a series of moving moments.

This is a photo taken in front of the Hikiyama Exhibition Hall. The crowds of onlookers are relocated, creating a path in front of the large, open doors.

This door is where the first hikiyama, Akajishi (The Red Lion) enters. All 14 hikiyama are normally stored here. The sightseers wait anxiously for Akajishi's arrival.

The guiding hikiko appear, each of them handling these final moments in their own way. Then, Akajishi arrives.

Slowly, the hikiyama enters the exhibition hall.

Some of the hikiko were crying. Starting with Akajishi, the rest of the hikiyama return to their resting place in order.

The performers won't stop playing. The hikiko give themselves to the music. The final calls of "enya" echo throughout the hall.

Here we see Houhoumaru, passing through the tunnel between the Karatsu Civic Hall and the Karatsu Exhibition Hall. Exiting the tunnel, hikiyama now enter the exhibition hall from the rear.

Hiryuu flies forward, swimming through the sky for the last time today.

Now the twelfth hikiyama, Tama-Tori Jishi (Lion Grabbing a Ball), appears. Hikiyama again begin entering the exhibition hall from the front. In the hall, the hikiyama are lined up in the order they were made, so the door they enter through depends on the hikiyama itself.

Next to arrive is the thirteenth hikiyama, Shachi. By this time, the previously open doors for Akajishi (Red Lion) and Kame to Urashima Taro (Turtle and Urashima Taro) have been completely closed.

Every year, a Kunchi festival themed DVD is released for sale. We saw a cameraman on the roof of the civic auditorium, trying to get close enough to capture these last moments.

Here we go, the fourteenth and last hikiyama has arrived, Shichihoumaru!

Bathed in camera flashes and cheers from the crowd, Shichihoumaru enters the exhibition hall. After prolonged and boisterous chanting of "yo-ee-sa" from both the hikiko and the surrounding crowd, with a smattering of applause, the curtain falls on the 2015 Karatsu Kunchi festival.

Every year, these front row seats in front of the Hikiyama Exhibition Hall are hotly contested. As the finale begins around 4:30 in the evening, claiming a spot before 3:00 PM is an ironclad rule.

Already Looking Towards Next Year's Festival

Earlier, we mentioned that the entire city of Karatsu revolves around the yearly Karatsu Kunchi festival. In Japan, New Years Day typically marks the end of one year and the beginning of the next, but for the city of Karatsu, they say the Kunchi Festival plays this role. As night begins near the torii gates, many people are already looking towards next year's Karatsu Kunchi.

This feeling envelops not only the hikiko, but also those who make the journey to Karatsu every year. Whether you're a tourist or a local is unimportant. That night, feeling thankful towards all who participated in the festival, the people of Karatsu fall fast asleep.

Words, photos... not even videos can express the true charm of Karatsu Kunchi. It's a bit far from Tokyo or Osaka, but we invite you to make the journey at least once. We bet you'll make some amazing memories.

Bathing in the Festival Afterglow, a Karatsu Stroll

The next morning, it is November 5th.

The city of Karatsu has instantly returned to its normal routine. It is as if the previous three days were just a dream. However, on the road to the shrine, marks made by the hikiyama's wheels remain. We can still feel faint hints of the festival's energy. Let's finish with a stroll down the streets of Karatsu as we enjoy the afterglow.

This is Takeya, a famous unagi (Japanese eel) restaurant in the Naka-machi District of Karatsu. We had lunch here.

The sunlight filtered through the trees, shining through the window of our private dining room. We have one word about the unagi meal we had here: perfection. The atmosphere was calm and peaceful. We thoroughly recommend that you visit Takeya on your trip here.

After lunch, we visited Arupino, a souvenir shop near the JR Karatsu train station. There were many Kunchi related gifts.

This is “Kunchi Soy Sauce", a special edition from Karatsu's time honored soy sauce producer "Miyajima Soy Sauce." Soy sauce from the island of Kyushu is slightly sweeter than standard soy sauce. If you interested in trying, this smaller size might be perfect.

Behind the Arupino building, there are not one or two, but fourteen yatai (food stands) in a row! Each has a hikiyama painting displayed on their shutter doors. The passion for Kunchi sometimes appears where you least expect it.

On the way home, we find a statue of a hikiko.

We walked until we reached the "Nishi no Hama", passed through the pine trees, and took a moment to enjoy the sound of the ocean waves. This "Nishi no Hama" continues on to another beach, the "Higashi no Hama", and finally arrives at the Nijinomatsubara, which is considered one of the three great pine forests of Japan.

It must have been a 15 minute walk from the beach. We arrived at Kikouan, a tea shop that also sells a variety of goods, and enjoyed a zenzai (sweet red bean soup with rice cake) with Houjicha (roasted green tea). This shop is very close to the Japanese inn Yoyokaku, which was mentioned in the second part of this article, Otabisho Shinkou.

Karatsu has many more famous locations and businesses. After Karatsu Kunchi, it might be a good idea to visit some of these places before you leave, and get to know the peaceful, everyday side of Karatsu.

A cultured, quality life: that is the city of Karatsu. We encourage you to make the journey, and see with your own eyes everything this city has to offer.

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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.