The best matsuri are the ones that bring together four key elements: 1)they are visually stunning; 2)they are stylistically unique or highly unusual; 3) involve great community participation; 4) are well attended, adding to the overall atmosphere. Well, the Fukuno Yotaka Matsuri certainly filled all those criteria and was the most fun of the five festivals I attended!
The 350-year old event derives from a story that people were building a new village in the Fukuno area. They were transferring their god from Ise Shrine, but when they reached the Kurikara valley, dusk fell and people from a newly-established local village lit their way with lanterns.
The event actually begins several months prior when the communities in the various districts of the town each build their own sumptuous float (‘andon’) made from wood and papier mache.
Meanwhile, all the shops and houses in the town display their own mini-andon or hang gorgeous lampshades with motifs from Japanese mythology on their doorways…
On the evenings of May 1 and 2 of every year, the andon are paraded around town to the sound of singing, drums and flutes.
There are always seven huge andon representing each of the main districts,
As you can imagine trying to move something that weighs up to a couple of tonnes is not easy and requires considerable skill and careful coordination, with at least one guy standing precariously on the frame clapping out the beat with his sticks
as well as several guys who sit on the back to provide balast and allow the front of the andon to be lifted off the ground when being manoeuvred round corners…
But what makes the festival really great is that there are also 13 smaller floats of varying sizes also made, some of which have to be small enough to be pushed around by kids as young as four or five years old! In other words, everybody actively participates in the event from toddlers to adults!
For two nights, the andon are paraded around the centre of Fukuno. But the highlight of the festival is late on the night of the 2nd (now around 11.30pm, but originally this part was held at 3am!), when the floats are parked for a couple of hours and the bearers all get seriously tanked up on sake to a lot of chanting, dancing and general revelry on the street
before proceeding to try and rip each other’s floats to pieces!
This is done by four of the andon lining up on one side of the narrow street and the other three andon have to run the gauntlet from the top end of the street to the bottom, clashing with each of the four parked andon as they pass, kicking, trampling, smashing and generally doing as much damage to each other as possible.
As you can imagine, it gets pretty wild and the din is unbelievable, with everybody screaming and yelling at each other! And you can tell which of the districts are particularly fierce rivals, as getting them to finally peel apart is a real challenge!
By the time the beautiful andon has reached the end of the street, he’s a sorry sight to behold.
But he is still then pushed around his individual district in a victory parade before everybody finally calls it quits at around 2.30am…
And the total number of foreign tourists at this amazing event apart from me? One group of four Americans…
Here are a couple of youtube videos I dug out to give a better feel: