The Karatsu Kunchi Hikiyama float parade is part of a 3-day festival (always 2-4 November) in which the shrine's deity is taken from there to Nishinohama Beach, its birth place. The parade can be seen during the day, as well as at night time. The first day kicks off with a night parade, from 19:30 to 22:00. The second and third days comprise various festivities and last from 9:30 to 16:30 and from 10:00 to 17:30, respectively. On the last day, the parade ends at the Hikiyama Exhibition Hall, which is home to the floats, and you can visit them there throughout the year when they are not out for the parade or being lent for special occasions around the country or sometimes even internationally. This festival has been designated a National Cultural Important Property. There are many food and handicraft stalls between the JR station and the shrine that you can visit and buy things from. The festival is about people showing gratitude for a good harvest and wishing for prosperity for the following year.
Karatsu can be easily accessed by train, from Saga or Fukuoka and the event is free to attend.
Fourteen Impressive Hikiyama Floats
The highlight of the festival are the huge floats, made using traditional materials and methods (like wood, washi paper, clay, lacquer and gilding) and each one has its own story. They range from colourful fish, to lions and dragons. At night they will have lanterns hanging from them and each float is always pulled by many people tirelessly chanting "Enya, Enya".
Three types of music are played by flutes and drums: Seriyama-Bayashi (when the floats are moving), Tateyama-Bayashi (when the floats are stopped) and Michi-Bayashi (when the floats are going to the shrine). There is a hierarchy, and only Katana-machi district is allowed to play this last type of music. The bigger floats have two axels to sustain their size and weight. The structures range from around 5 to 6.6 m tall and weigh between 1.5 to 3 tons. Let’s learn a bit about the history of each float:
1. Aka-Jishi (the red lion), Built in 1819 by Katana-machi District
2. Ao-Jishi (the green lion), 1824, by Naka-machi district
3. Kame to Urashima Taro (the turtle and Urashima Taro), 1841, by Zaimoku-machi
4. Minamoto no Yoshitsune no Kabuto (the warrior helmet of Yoshitune Minamoto), 1844, by Gofuku-machi district
5. Tai (the red snapper), 1845, by Uoya-machi
This district used to have many fish shops, so the red snapper was chosen to represent it.
6. Ho-oh-maru (the phoenix boat), 1846, by Oishi-machi district
7. Hiryu (the flying dragon), 1846, by the Shin-machi district
8. Kinjishi (the golden lion), 1847, by Hon-machi district
9. Takeda Shingen no Kabuto (the warrior helmet of Shingen Takeda), 1864, by Kiwata-machi district
10. Uesugi Kenshin no Kabuto (the warrior helmet of Kenshin Uesugi), 1869, by Hirano-machi district
11. Shutendoji to Minamoto no Raikoh no Kabuto (the drunken demon on the warrior helmet of Raikoh Minamoto), 1869, by Komeya-machi
12. Tamatori-Jishi (the lion on an orb), 1875, at Kyo-machi district
13. Shachi (the tiger-head orca), 1876, at Kako-machi district
14. Shichi-ho-maru (the boat of seven treasures), 1876, at Egawa-machi district
Although many people attend, the parade is long enough so that everyone can have a first-row view, if the crowd is equally spread along the designated path. At the train station you can grab a programme and map for the parades on the different days, which are slightly different. As soon as you exit the station, you will see the crowd on both sides of the road. Just walk along it until you find a good spot. Make sure you do not cross the barrier determined by the police force, as the very heavy floats can gain quite a lot of speed when making turns and can be dangerous if you are too close.
If you are coming for the weekend, why not enjoy the town, the castle and beaches and take an early bus from the train station to Yobuko morning market where you can buy and try delicious seafood? From this location, you can also take a boat to Nanatsugama, seven natural caves carved along the coast. If you are staying longer, I would also recommend a two-day trip to Iki Island (Nagasaki prefecture), which is just 2-hours away (from Nishi-Karatsu port). There, you can use the buses or rent an electrical bicycle to explore the island. You can watch what the night parade from last year looked like here.