Hakata Dontaku Port Festival is the largest festival held in Fukuoka every year on the 3rd and 4th of May. The origin of the festival can be traced back to 1179, about 835 years ago. It is also called the “citizens festival” where more than 500 local and international groups, about 30,000 old and young people are participate in the event. They dance and parade along the streets wearing traditional attire and various costumes, some beating drums while others clap the wooden spoons which are used for rice scooping.
A True Citizen’s Festival
On May 3 and 4 this area buzzes with activity when about 187 groups of parading and 351 groups of performance, totaling more than 37,000 people, participate in Dontaku. Groups and individuals from all over Kyushu descend on Fukuoka to join these parades: local citizens’ associations, schools, private companies, small businesses, marching bands and drum majorettes – all dancing freely in the street while showcasing their unique costumes and talents. The International Dontaku Troupe add an international flavor to the festivities. This inclusion of overseas visitors fits very well with Dontaku’s current theme – celebrating Japan’s diversity – and is an occasion for people from all walks of life to meet and wish each other well.
Local Japanese Female Group parading
On May 3, a 1.2-kilometer stretch of a major thoroughfare is converted into “Dontaku Square,” where a parade is held. Traditional matsubayashi is performed by over 12,000 people belonging to around 120 groups. Some of these groups use traditional Japanese instruments, while others perform the folk melody with brass instruments. A parade is also held on May 4. In addition, 16,000 dancers, singers, and other performers are featured on specially built stages in the city of Fukuoka. Closing out the two-day festival are rousing renditions of the Dontaku dance that spectators are invited to join and a gala display of fireworks.
Performers dancing with spoons used to scoop rice
The name Dontaku is derived from the Dutch word Zondag meaning “Sunday” or “a holiday.” It started in 1179 as a New Year performance known as matsubayashi. In the Edo Period, it evolved into a parade headed by people dressed up as auspicious gods when visits were paid to the Lord of Fukuoka Castle. This parade was called Torimon. Although the Meiji Government banned this parade because of its extravagance, the citizens preserved their traditions by changing the name of the parade to Dontaku. It was also suspended during World War II, but was revived soon after the war ended to bring back life to the town, and contributed to its rejuvenation. It is truly a citizens’ festival. Today, it has changed its name to the Hakata Dontaku Port Festival (Hakata Dontaku Port Festival), with a number of events also held around Hakata Port.
In the Edo Period (1603-1868), decorative floats and platforms showcasing dolls were added to the Matsubayashi parade. The festival was first referred to as ‘Dontaku’ in the Meiji period (1868-1912) – it is believed to stem from the Dutch word zondag (Sunday), which was taken to mean “holiday”. The Meiji Government banned the parade for several years because of its extravagance, but the citizens preserved their traditions until it was restarted in 1880.
Performers in traditional attire and mask
Niwaka Mask: This mask is used in Hakata Niwaka, a style of traditional improvisational comedy performed at festivals. The term niwaka itself is said to stem from a local rice cracker brand called niwaka senbei, which contained a half mask in its box to be put on during niwaka performances. This way the comedian, who poked fun at established social conventions in witty Hakata dialect, could cleverly hide his identity from those he satirized!
Parade in Niwaka Mask
The parades of gorgeously decorated flower cars, hana jidosha, form an integral part of the Dontaku festivities. Two teams of three cars, all decorated with 10,000 artificial flowers and original designs that change every year, animate the festival atmosphere. Originally tramways were used, but they were replaced by automobiles when tram service was suspended in 1977. At night the cars, illuminated by 3,000 electric light bulbs, are a splendid sight.
Shamoji: All throughout the parade participants can be seen clapping these spoons to the beat of traditional music. But how exactly did an ordinary Japanese kitchen utensil, used to stir and serve rice, end up in this festival? The explanation goes that the shamoji evokes the image of a housewife busy preparing a meal, rushing out to join the passing parade!
Dancing with Shamoji
Dontaku Hiroba includes Meiji Dori from Gofukumachi Intersection to Fukuoka City Hall. The main parade passage from start point, Gofukumachi Intersection, to end point, Fukuoka City Hall, is 30 mins.
Dontaku Hiroba (Downtown Dontaku)
The parade on Meiji Dori (street) is the highlight of the festival. People walk 1,230m from Gofukucho crossing to Tenjin crossing.
In addition to the annual parade which proceeds down Meijidori (Dontaku Hiroba), “Hakataekimaedori Dontaku Street” is located on Hakataekimaedori and includes multiple performance stages on the street, as well as a separate Dontaku parade in the morning.