The Yamakasa Festival is a man’s festival. That’s not to say that women can’t do what men can do - they certainly can. But this festival is all about the men. If the idea of scantily clad men groaning and gasping under the weight of decorated floats early on a hot summer morning appeals to you, then this is the festival for you.
With a history of over 700 years, the Yamakasa festival is rich in tradition. Teams of 30 men or less carry and push enormous decorated floats through a designated course in Hakata. It is a timed race against other groups who all run the same approximately 5 kilometer course.
The event is actually held over a 15 day period. Decorated floats, Kazariyama, are put on display around the city, starting July 1. Kakiyama, the floats used during the race, are shorter, but still weigh about one ton each!
The Hakata district is divided into 7 nagare, (municipality) with men from each zone making and racing their own floats. These nagare are primarily for the organization and management of the Yamakasa festival.
The festival is thought to have its origins in the mid 13th century when a monk was carried through Hakata on a shelf, sprinkling holy water on citizens. It was his attempt to cure people of a terrible epidemic that afflicted people at the time.
That water-splashing tradition has carried over to present day. Water is thrown out on the race course. It has the effect of not only cooling the men carrying the floats, but also helping to tighten the coarse hemp ropes holding the floats together.
The race begins in the morning at 4:59 a.m. The extra minute before 5 a.m. is to take into account the singing of the Hakata iwaiuta, the celebratory song.
Spectators begin lining the race course much earlier so that they can get the best view possible.
Even though it’s early, the mercury has usually already risen to close to 30 degrees Celsius. With all the onlookers, and the inevitable swell of excitement, the atmosphere can get rather sticky.
The festival occurs over a 15 day duration so that various ceremonies and traditions can be carried out.
On the 10th of July, each team carries its float through its own district as a kind of warming up exercise
On the 11th, from 5-6 in the morning, a race is performed so that revered elderly residents and children can climb on the floats. They are referred to as daiagari. The daiagari shout encouragement and direction to the float carriers.
To ensure a smooth race, the teams practice on a shorter race course on July 12.
On the 13th, the floats are paraded though a 1.2 kilometer course, when traditionally, the mayor and other well-known individuals play the role of daiagari.
The 14th is the final day for adjustments as again the floats are paraded through the separate districts.
Finally, on the 15th of July, the race begins!
Young boys, and elderly men run alongside the men carrying the floats, shouting support. They carry flags and chant. They are (barely) dressed in their shimekomi (a loincloth), and their mizu happi coats.
Fathers carry their baby boys. One day they will grow up and perhaps carry the floats.
Each nagare has its own design.
As the light of day begins to shine, the race draws closer to its finish. Thousands of people now line the streets, watching with anticipation to see which nagare will prevail.
If you want to dress as the otokoshu do – the men who participate in the Yamakasa – then you can purchase your own special festival garbs from many different shops.
Perhaps getting up before the light of dawn, and jostling for a tight spot among the onlookers doesn’t sound appealing. Well then, you can simply opt for a picture of the floats displayed around Hakata. They are quite the sight to behold in themselves.
The Hakata Gion Yamakasa Festival is more than just a festival. It is truly a unique experience for both those watching and participating. And it is made even better if you enjoy a frenetic race between men displaying their strength and…underwear.