Every year from July first through the fifteenth, the Hakata Gion Yamakasa Festival livens up summer in Hakata. This summer festival is a 773 year tradition in Hakata, city of trade and gateway to Asia. Throughout the festival season, as many as 30 million visitors may attend. The festival has been nationally designated an Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property, and can be counted as one of the festivals that best represent Japan.
There are several explanations for the origin of the Yamakasa Festival, but the Society for the Promotion of the Hakata Gion Yamakasa Festival supports the 1241 theory. The theory has it that festival originated in 1241, when Hakata was suffering from a plague. Townspeople carried the founder of the Jotenji Temple, Enni Ben’en, around the town on a Buddhist altar while he splashed prayer water to drive out the plague.
Considering that even today it is the custom to receive the title of Yamakasa from Jotenji Temple, and that Jotenji Temple is along the route of the Yamakasa float, this theory seems highly convincing.
During the Yamakasa Festival, Yamakasa floats add color to summer in Hakata and Fukuoka.
Locals as well as visitors from all over the country get to enjoy the sight of seven floats to be carried, and 14 stationary floats set up around Fukuoka centering on Hakata. The stationary floats are actually meant to be carried as well, but today their height prevents this.
These floats, which may be tens of meters tall, are set up at shopping and commercial areas like the Kamikawabata shopping arcade, Fukuoka Dome, Canal City Hakata, Solaria Plaza, Shintencho, and Hakata Riverain. Lots of enthusiastic fans love to go around seeing all the floats every year.
The master Hakata doll makers are at the center of it all, crafting the float decorations.
The photograph middle, said to be from the early Meiji period, may be the earliest photo of a Yamakasa float in existence. This float is not just for decoration. Astoundingly you can see men actually carrying this roughly 15 meter tall float. Until they started to get caught on power lines in the middle Meiji period, the floats carried were much taller.Photo said to be Japan’s oldest photo of a Yamakasa float (Early Meiji Period)
In 2014 at the age of 41 I had my first ever chance to actually participate in the Yamakasa festival. A friend I had met through work and good fortune invited me to participate in that year’s festival. I joined the procession down Doi street in front of the Kushida Shrine.