Yamakasa Festival

The ancient country of Japan has many traditional festivals. On the southern island of the Japanese archipelago lies Kyushu. Of all the prefectures on the island of Kyushu, Fukuoka prefecture is the most populated. And, of all the festivals in Fukuoka every year, the largest and most famous festival is known as Hakata Yamakasa. Today, the Hakata Yamakasa festival is considered one of the three greatest festivals in Japan. If you would like to learn more about the Yamakasa festival please read on.

The Hakata Yamakasa festival is a tradition that spans over 760 years. The origin of the Yamakasa festival is due to an epidemic that was running rampant in Fukuoka at that time. A Buddhist monk named Shoichi Kokushi was said to have been carried upon a platform in 1241 while he prayed for an end to the epidemic. Since then, the people of Hakata have been emulating this event every year from July 1st through July 15th.

Hakata is separated into seven boroughs, and each borough creates a unique float every year for the Yamakasa festival. Originally the seven teams would carry the floats along a five kilometer course starting and finishing at Kushida shrine. At first, the floats were carried at a relaxed pace along the course but in 1687, in order to make the event more exciting, a race was created. It has been said (though this writer cannot verify the statement) that the race first started because of a woman from one borough married a man from another borough. That year, both boroughs fiercely competed to take the lead along the festival’s course. After the “race” of 1687, it stuck with the festival and became a tradition as well. Now when the race commences on July 15th the first float starts at 4:59am and the other floats follow in five minute intervals. The floats are not to pass each other during the race. The race is to see who can finish the course in the least amount of time.

Yamakasa is an event in which only men and prepubescent girls are permitted to take part in. One may consider this sexist, but if you were to see the uniform that is required to be worn by the participants you would understand why women do not take part in this festival. You may also be deeply disappointed that they do not take part. The original uniform worn by the participants was nothing more than a loincloth. Honestly it covers less of a person’s shame than a pair of underwear. When the Meiji era came along with the westernization of Japan, the government forbade wearing the loincloth because it showed too much of a person’s buttocks. The Yamakasa organizers then declared that participants were to wear a small cloth jacket which partially covered up the buttocks. Apparently the government permitted this and thus the participants could wear loincloth so long as they also wore the jacket. Having seen the Yamakasa event in recent years, I can tell you that the jacket also hides next to nothing.

The floats for the Yamakasa festival are themselves a work of art. There are two different types of floats. One type is called kazariyama and the other type is called kakiyama. The kazariyama floats weigh about one ton and can be up to 15 meters tall. This type of float is highly decorative with many beautiful colors and some very recognizable to some very obscure characters. This type of float is displayed somewhere in Fukuoka city from July 1st through July 15th. The kakiyama floats are the floats that are raced along the course on July 15th. These floats weigh up to one ton but are not nearly as tall as the displayed floats. The reason the race floats are not very tall is because with the invention of electricity and electric wires it became impossible to run very tall floats though the streets. Well not impossible, but things would have gone shockingly wrong had they decided to race the tall floats.

Early in the morning on July 15th the Yamakasa teams gather near Kushida shrine in preparation for their race. People from all over Japan come to watch the event. As many as 800,000 spectators, with reports of up to 1,000,000 attend this event. 4:59am brings two types of spectators to the event. One type is the kind of person that catches a few hours of sleep the night before and is feeling fresh for the early morning festivities. The second type of person follows a more dubious path. This type of person decides not to sleep the night before and instead consumes copious amounts of alcohol to help keep them from sleeping. Needless to say, the two different types of people are easy to differentiate between.

The kakiyama is a heavy float. And it doesn’t get any lighter with the fact that up to six men are sitting on top of it. These six men are the leaders of their group. They have taken part in previous Yamakasa festivals for years and have finally earned the right to be lazy and to be carried during the race. Basically all they do during the race is shout “Oissa”, which is supposed to be a cheer for their team and a motivational tool. This writer however would hardly be motivated by the “leaders” who get to sit on their butts while I, and 29 other men, carry them and an extremely heavy float around downtown Fukuoka city for five kilometers. But, to each his own I suppose.

Yamakasa allows spectator participation! That’s right, spectators are allowed to throw water on the participants during this race. All along the five kilometer course there are people waiting to douse the passing half naked and exhausted men and children. Quite a few people go so far as to bring buckets to this event. Many local store and homeowners who have a water spigot and hose happily fill other people’s buckets. However, participants are not the only ones that are splashed with large amounts of water. As mentioned above there are two types of people that watch this Yamakasa event. The second, sleep deprived and inebriated, group of people tend to enjoy getting spectators wet as well as the participants. Girls, beware of standing next to someone who has a bucket and smells like a bar mat. You may soon find yourself in less need of a bath and more need of a towel. And it doesn’t end there. With such a massive amount of people attending this event there will of course be need for police to keep order. Female peace officers are a prized target indeed. This writer has witnessed firsthand the deliberate drenching of female police officers. And what did the individual officer do when she was soaked to the bone? Absolutely nothing. Yamakasa: where assaulting police with water doesn’t get you arrested. Good times. Good times.