Karatsu Kunchi: Being Thankful For A Good Harvest and Wishing For Prosperity
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
This float was the first one to be built as an offering to the shrine and started the tradition of the float parade. Then, one by one, other districts have built the other thirteen. This is the only float that displays special white paper meant for purification called gohei on top of the lion’s head on November 3rd.
2. Ao-Jishi (the green lion), 1824, by Naka-machi district
Whilst the red lion looks friendly, the green lion looks fierce, with a defying expression, horns and fangs.
3. Kame to Urashima Taro (the turtle and Urashima Taro), 1841, by Zaimoku-machi
The offer to the shrine by this district is a turtle. These animals are said to have carried God on their backs to land. Urashima Taro is also part of Japanese stories, he was a fisherman who saved a turtle.
4. Minamoto no Yoshitsune no Kabuto (the warrior helmet of Yoshitune Minamoto), 1844, by Gofuku-machi district
In this district there was a famous armor shop with very skilled craftsmen, so the district decided to display that on its float, the warrior helmet of Yoshitune Minamoto.
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
Oishi-machi was home to many rich merchants, and a big donation was made towards the making of this float, so that it was the most ostentatious of all. Phoenixes, brought from China, are now a common sight in shrines and Buddhist temples in Japan.
7. Hiryu (the flying dragon), 1846, by the Shin-machi district
The inspiration for this float came from the wooden doors of Nanzenji Temple in Kyoto, which have a flying dragon painted on them. The dragon can sway in all directions when the float is in movement, so that it appears to be flying.
8. Kinjishi (the golden lion), 1847, by Hon-machi district
Some people say this is the biggest lion head in Japan. The float is covered with gold leaf and the hand-written Japanese character “hon” (本) on the back of the costumes of people pulling and pushing Kinjishi was a birthday gift for the last feudal lord of Karatsu.
9. Takeda Shingen no Kabuto (the warrior helmet of Shingen Takeda), 1864, by Kiwata-machi district
Shingen Takeda was a feudal lord based in the mountains, so access to goods like salt was difficult. During the parade participants from other districts throw salt ahead of the floats to purify the way, but Kiwata-machi district does not, to symbolize how precious it was for Shingen Takeda. The distinctive white hair on top of the helmet is tail hair from Himalayan yaks.
10. Uesugi Kenshin no Kabuto (the warrior helmet of Kenshin Uesugi), 1869, by Hirano-machi district
Kenshin Uesugi was another feudal lord from the 16th century and the float depicts a golden horned lion head on top of the helmet. The Uesugi crest can be seen at the back of the festival costumes.
11. Shutendoji to Minamoto no Raikoh no Kabuto (the drunken demon on the warrior helmet of Raikoh Minamoto), 1869, by Komeya-machi
This float depicts a famous legend. When samurai Minamoto cut a drunken demon’s head off, it came flying back and bit his helmet. In addition to Himalayan yak tail, this float also has horse hair making up the eyebrows of the demon.
12. Tamatori-Jishi (the lion on an orb), 1875, at Kyo-machi district
Kyo-machi was also a commercial area and the Shishi (spiritual lions) were believed to bring prosperity for the businesses (symbolized by the lion firmly holding on to the orb).
13. Shachi (the tiger-head orca), 1876, at Kako-machi district
The seemingly strange name of this float makes sense once you learn that this district was home to many people who served in the navy or had jobs related to sea affairs. Sachi is a magical creature that could put out fires by spouting out water.
14. Shichi-ho-maru (the boat of seven treasures), 1876, at Egawa-machi district
— あっちぇる (@68orit_b) 2017年10月24日
The first thing you’ll notice is a massive dragon head and flames around the boat. The boat is carefully adorned all around, with several treasures depicted on it.
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.