Every year from 1st to the 15th of July it’s time for one of Japan’s most traditional and holy festivals taking place in Hakata/Fukuoka: Yamakasa (山笠)! UNESCO has recognized it as an intangible cultural world heritage for its ever-growing history. For more than 770 years a mystical race is taking place across the whole city, where large groups of exclusively men carrying massive Kakiyama (柿山), more than one ton heavy sacred floats with impressive decorations. There are seven Nagare (流れ) in total, which are the traditional teams competing in this race.
The teams are divided by the traditional neighborhoods of Hakata and each of the areas have different uniforms that they wear. In addition, men are wearing a traditional underwear called Fundoshi (ふんどし), which sticks out by the large visibility of their backside. While screaming “Oisa! Oisa!”, and being splashed with water by the audience , the teams dragging the colorful festival floats along a five kilometer long course through the city.
It is a time trial race which starts exactly at 4:59am in the morning before the sun rises, so you either wake up early or like the locals spend the night in one of the thousand bars and clubs in Tenjin or Hakata before the festival starts. Only on this day buses and subway lines have special departure times after midnight, to make sure everybody can get there on time. Anyway its the only time in the year you will see hundreds of less dressed up men running through the city.
Due to its old age, the roots of this festival are not completely sure. There are similarities with the Buddhist Segaki-Ritual, which is conducted in some parts of Kyushu. According to the legend, the buddhist monk Enni Ben’en saved the people of Hakata by splashing them with holy water, while being carried on a shelf. Both are substantial elements of todays Yamakasa festival.
The theme of this year’s floats is outstandingly creative. They are designed with depictions of ancient Japanese gods, famous manga characters like Doraemon, and … STAR WARS!
In that sense, Let the force be with you!