Our purpose for coming to Takayama was to attend the Spring Matsuri, one of two festivals held each year: the Spring Festival, every April 14-15, and the Autumn Festival, every October 9-10. Dale had read that there could be as many as 200,000 visitors for this event which is why we booked everything in advance. But as the date approached, there was no noticeable increase in the number of tourists walking the streets or in the shops or restaurants. Perhaps, we thought, attendance might be down due to the forecast for a rainy weekend.
But when we walked into town on Saturday morning, it was clear that the attendance projections were likely accurate. Way down the street, the place was packed.
Still, the weather forecast called for early afternoon rain and as we approached the street where the festival floats were supposed to be lined up for the afternoon parade, we were concerned that the festival might yet get rained out.
At the Festival Float Exhibition Hall the other day, we saw a mini-float that was said to be a stand-in for the real McCoy in inclement weather and as we passed the storage barn for the Kaguratai float, a mini-float was being prepared. Still, we wondered, where is the Kaguratai float itself? The barn was empty.
Our fears were dispelled a few minutes later when we found the floats – called yatai – all lined up right where they were supposed to be, with hundreds of townspeople dressed up in traditional costume and thousands of tourists milling about. We stopped at the Seiryutai float, the first in the line-up, for a photo op:
Still concerned, I climbed the adjacent hill to look down the road, just to make sure all the floats were there (I later learned that one was out for maintenance, the rest were in place).
The next yatai in the line-up was the Gotaisan float, exhibiting beautiful tapestries, front, side and back.
These festivals were initiated in Takayama in the late 16th or early 17th century during the reign of the Kanamori Clan. The purpose of the Spring Festival is to ask the Shinto deities for a good harvest; the Autumn Festival is a thanksgiving for a bountiful one. The yatai are named for the various districts of Takayama.
The next one was the Kinkotai float (more on this one later).
The yatai are pulled around town by about 10 to 20 men tugging on ropes, but the next float in the line-up, the Eisutai float, looks like it also had a little help on the inside, as well.
After walking the line-up (there were six yatai here, but I didn’t photograph them all), we went over to the Takayama Jinya, the old government building, to see the marionette yatai.
Four of the floats have puppet stages and they participate in a puppet show called the Karakuri that takes place before the parades (we missed it). Here’s one of them, the Ryujintai float:
Recall that we passed the empty storage building for the Kaguratai float as we walked into town. Here’s the missing Kaguratai yatai:
The Spring Festival begins with the Goshinko Procession, a parade of local townspeople dressed in kimono and other traditional costume. The parade is led by two guys pulling a sapling in a cart (photo below, top left), followed closely by a group of youngsters performing the Dragon Dance (top right and bottom left). There seemed to constantly be old men dressed in samurai garb with discs on their heads and switches in their hands wandering around, randomly swatting the younger boys. The Dragon Dancers were followed by a fife and drum band (bottom right) – notice that the flautists on the left hold their flutes to the left and those on the right, to the right.
This band was followed by a bunch of switch swatting samurai (photo below, top left) and then a gong-banging band (top right), then the little princesses (bottom left) and, finally, by the mikoshi portable shrine, steered by an aged Ninja Turtle, in which the local deity rides (bottom right), or so they say.
Off to one side of the procession were some Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles in training.
As forecast, the clouds darkened as the afternoon progressed and soon the yatai were rolled back to their storage barns. These floats are very ingeniously engineered to be capable of collapsing down in order to go under the power-lines and to more economically fit into their barns. Compare the photo of the Kinkotai float above (6th photo in this post) to the photo of the same float, below.
Better yet, you can see the difference in the Ho’otai float in this before and after collage:
Another innovation is the way that the rear axle can be raised by lowering a jack containing a single swiveling wheel, thereby allowing the yatai to turn completely around in its own footprint:
We hustled back to our room right after I took these photos as it started to drizzle. The main event, the procession of the lighted yatai, had to be canceled on account of rain. Too bad, it’s supposed to be the best part of the festival. But we didn’t mind so much. We had to pack for our trip to Kyoto in the morning.