Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Hakata Gion Yamakasa (butts galore)

Slowly but steadily, I'm catching up... Rewind to July 15, 3:20am. Yes, you read that right. 3:20am! An ungodly hour. But that day I had to drag myself out of bed at that time to catch a special bus (special in that buses do not run in the 3 o'clock hour, except on this day) to Hataka Ward, to witness the last event of the Hakata Gion Yamakasa Festival. This is perhaps Fukuoka's best known festival, and is one of the city's three great festivals (along with Hojoya in October and Hakata Dontaku Minato Festival in May). Seeing a pattern here? There's a "three great~" for pretty much everything imaginable in Japan, including scenic views (Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima in Hiroshima Pref., Amanohashidate in Kyoto Pref., and Matsushima in Miyagi Pref.), ramen (Sapporo ramen from Hokkaido Pref., Kitakata ramen from Fukushima Pref., and of course Hakata ramen from Fukuoka Pref.), and beautiful women, or bijin (Akita bijin, Kyoto bijin, and Hakata bijin- hence the title of this blog, in case you didn't already know ^_~) .

In fact, Yamakasa is one of the three great Gion festivals. When I lived in Kyoto for the summer two years ago I saw the Gion Matsuri (matsuri means festival, just so you know, in case I use the two interchangeably) in Kyoto, which i the most famous Gion festival, since it is that which all the others in the country are based on. The history of the Kyoto Gion Matsuri goes as such: sometime around 900 A.D., Kyoto (then the capital and by far the biggest city in Japan) was struck with a terrible plague, earthquakes, and various other disasters. To appease the god who had supposedly caused the big ruckus, the emperor ordered a fantastic purification ritual to take place at Yasaka Shrine (where my family celebrated the New Year two years ago!). This included the creation and parading around of huge floats, carried by the men of the city. Kyoto's Gion festival has been a tradition since, and Hakata's own Gion festival began in the mid-13th century. It begins on July 1st and continues to the biggest event on the morning of the 15th. I didn't really take note of the goings on prior to that morning, although we first got to see the men carrying the floats a few days before when they ran from Hakata Ward to City Hall to greet the mayor (a couple hundred years ago, they would be greeting the local ruling lord).

So anyways. This grand finale of the festival is called Oiyama ("float run") and starts at the stroke of 4:59am on the morning of the 15th. The old merchant town of Hakata was divided into 7 areas known as nagare (this word means stream or flow, which makes sense in the context of the festival, at least, to me...), and each nagare builds a new float every year for its local men to haul around. The seven areas are Ebisu, Daikoku, Higashi, Doi, Nishi, Nakasu, and Chiyo. I forget the order they run in... Ok, so at 4:59, the first one departs Kushida Shrine (the sacred shrine of Hakata, like Yasaka is to Gion in Kyoto) and they come a-runnin' with their butts hanging out of their loincloths. Yep, there are a lot of naked butts in this festival! Most are not pleasing to see, but I spied a handful that looked like they could belong to swimmers or rugby players. From quite a distance, though, so it was impossible to tell. The next group follows five minutes later, etc. etc., and boy, did we have to fight to maintain our good viewing location!

Enough history and rambling. Here are the photos. Please be warned that they are largely VERY blurry, as my camera doesn't behave very well in low-light and around lots of movement. But at least you will get an idea of my Yamakasa experience!

Right when we got on the bus, it began POURING rain. I mean, monsoon-level. We were prepared with crappy clothes, rain coats from the 100 yen store, and umbrellas, though it was still pretty miserable for the first half hour of waiting.
Thankfully, by the time the first nagare came running, the rain had largely stopped. You can't see it very well in this photo, but in the distance (to the left of the float) there is a big pole. The floats are carried from the street running left to right in front of us, up the boulevard a bit, AROUND the pole (it's sacred or something, I dunno), then back towards us, and to the right.
This picture seems crappy, but the guys carrying the float are eerily clear if you enlarge it.
That's the Ebisu float. Ebisu is one of the seven gods of good fortune (as is Daikoku, after whom one of the other nagare is named). I guess he is the god of fishermen, hence the big decorative fish.
Run, boys, run!
The Doi nagare was my favorite because they have those rad indigo-dyed happi coats. Much cooler, in my opinion, than the less-patterned white ones of the other groups.
At the front of each nagare comes a group of young boys carrying the name of the group on these wooden plaques. I'm sure they have some further meaning too. My pictures got better as it got lighter out.
I think this one is the Chiyo nagare?
It's said that Yamakasa marks the end of the rainy season in Fukuoka. YEAH RIGHT.
The Higashi nagare, on whose float is Fudo Myo-o, the "Immovable Wisdom King" in Japanese Buddhism. He's always pictured sitting, grasping an upright sword. No, he's not going anywhere!
Oh, I guess he is. Ciao, Immovable Wisdom King!
They re-roped off the area for the running of the last float, a kazariyama, or decorative float that doesn't belong to any one area, really. It took a different path, so we couldn't see it very well. Also, our friend, a fellow American, was running in that group and we really wanted to see him (so we could tell him we'd seen his butt), but alas, we couldn't pick him out. That group had a lot of really tall people in it!
Cool angle, blurry picture.
The float actually spouted smoke and the figures moved at times. I've got a video I will try to upload of it.
Hahaha S taking a picture of sleeping J on the bus ride back. "I'm a terrible girlfriend, aren't I?" "No. As much as you tease him, I know you love him."


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