The Hakata Gion Yamakasa is held annually in the Hakata district of Fukuoka. The 15-day festival is organised by Kushida Shrine. The climax of the festival happens during the early morning of 15 July when the seven neighborhoods in Fukuoka, carrying beautifully decorated floats, race to finish a 5-km route in the city.
On the race day, the first team will begin their journey just before the sunrise, about 5am. The other six teams will then follow in intervals of 5 minutes. It will take each team an approximate 30 minutes to finish the course.
Yamakasa can be traced back some 750 years ago to a Buddhist priest named Shoichi Kokushi. In order to eradicate an epidemic, Kokushi was carried on a platform while he prayed and sprinkled holy water. The religious ceremony was held annually to keep the epidemic away, slowly evolving into the festival it is today.
There are basically two types of Yamakasa used during the festival – the Kazariyamakasa (decorated floats) and Kakiyamakasa (carried floats).
Kazariyamakasa are big floats that stand at about 16 m high, while Kakiyamakasa are the smaller floats that stand between 5 and 6 m.
Kazariyamakasa are decorated with magnificent dolls that illustrate various historical or legendary tales. During the festival they are displayed in different parts of the city, where people can enjoy looking at them.
For the race, smaller sized kakiyama floats, about five meters tall and one ton heavy, are used today. There are seven of them, one for each of the neighborhoods participating in the race. The floats do not have wheels and are dragged through the streets, while water is spread in front of the float in order to reduce friction between the float and the road surface (and cool down the participants).
The frenzy of activity as a race float passes in front of you is what makes the festival so exhilarating. At any one time, only about 30 runners carry the float, while other run in front, back, or along the sides. By watching carefully the different roles being played and how the runners change positions, one can appreciate the teamwork involved.
The four people riding on the float, called dai-agari, have the responsibility of directing the runners to change positions. Using a red baton (teppou) they point out individual runners who should make room for the fresh runners. If the runner doesn’t see the baton, he may get a rap on the head or shoulder. Carrying the float takes such an enormous effort that even the strongest runners do not last for more than three of four minutes at a time. Typically they will rotate in three or four times during the course of the race.
Colored tenugui or headbands distinguish the ranks of the runners.The following three colors are standardized throughout the seven nagare: red designates strong, young runners with responsibility for carrying the float; red and white designates elders responsible for planning and logistics; blue and white designates elders responsible for health and safety.
There are also four other types of runners who wear woven colored cloth ropes around their chests to indicate their special roles: red designates the right to ride on the float; blue designates hanadori (steerers), who control the float using ropes tied to each of the four corners; green designates runners who direct traffic; yellow designates runners who clear a path for their float. They also watch out for the children, some of whom carry itamanekibata, banners with the nagare‘s name.