Hard to imagine it happened to me. But it did. I planned a trip to Japan in the fall near the beginning of November of 2009. I tried to find a destination that would have a matsuri (festival) during the time I would be in Japan. I found a Hikiyama Matsuri in the prefecture of Saga on the island of Kyushu, in the town of Karatsu. The Festival is called Karatsu Kunchi, a shinto based celebration of the areas Shinto Temples after the harvest season in in swing.
The origin of the festival started as each area within Karatsu had their own specific temple for the purpose of their needs or prayers. Each of the temples represented fishermen, farmers, rice producers, merchants, politicians and other community members. The members of each temple had a beautiful golden shrine made of wood and shiny lacquer with highly detailed wagons to pull through the streets around the whole town, intended to show off the success and prosperity of each community group. As the population increased so did the amount of people available to pull these sacred carts and shrines through the streets.
So each group began to build large floats called Hikiyama and increased the amounts of people and lengths of rope to pull them. The floats represent favored myths or objects of affection for each group; some are folk tales and others are fish that a make up the fishermen’s livelihoods, also dragons that pull ships under the water during storms.
The floats became more and more elaborate and larger still as each of the communities Hikiyama were pulled through the tight streets and past the rival hikiyama group’s host house, found in each of the areas that a temple exists.
The history seems to be a lot like our own Pasadena Tournament of Roses Parade, it started with small decorated carts and vehicles. The hikiyama are without the corporate sponsorship, but are definitely a show off event. At each of the host houses throughout the town you will find a very proud family inviting in the participants of the festival for food and drink, not to mention a massive family like atmosphere that the towns folk then included myself and my travel companions in.
The tables of food stretched the length of the houses main living space and had young to old, babies to ancient members of the community taking in the pride of their area as well as being humble enough to sit at the rivals table. It is really hard to find the words to describe the level of cheer and happiness that each of the houses we visited with our host/ self proclaimed tour guide Mune (his name means chest) provided us. I never felt like, the ever so obvious outsider, I was only shown the grace of the Japanese people and their culture in Saga. The tables were piled with giant platters,plates and bowls filled with a weeks worth of kitchen work for the local women. There were giant fish, mollusks of all types, shellfish, endless sandwiches, karage chicken, sushi, sashimi, pastas, potato salad (macaroni too), sauces, tea, water, beer, wine, you can name it it was available for eating. The host families were so generous it still causes me to tear up as I remember the day.
The people and faces I met that day will never fade, it is burned, ingrained even to my soul directly forever. Please enjoy the pictures I have posted, they mean the world to me for others to see. I am also going to try to link to some of the historical fact pages to help create a useful tool for others to travel to Karatsu for this remarkable festival. to be continued….
A festival more important than summer holidays and New Year’s! “Karatsu Kunchi” is when Karatsu’s people come together as one.