As regular readers of this blog may know, I love a good festival. And the more eccentric it is, the better. From watching people marching through the streets with fire in Lewes, to throwing water at strangers in Thailand, I love to get involved in weird and wonderful traditions.
One of the things which really fascinated me about Japan is that it is a country of such contrasts. On one hand it’s very regimented and everyone follows set rules. But on the other hand it has a real quirky side and nothing shows this more than its festivals. Having already experienced a hanami (cherry blossom picnic) and the cherry blossom illuminations at Matsumoto Castle, we had the chance to learn more about a different kind of festival in Takayama.
The picturesque town, in the Central Honshu region, is filled with museums, temples and a pretty river. It’s a big-draw for tourists, particularly Japanese visitors, and it’s the Sammachi-suji district which is its main attraction. The area is made up of narrow streets which are filled with preserved old private houses called ‘furui machinami’ and is also home to shops selling traditional crafts and its famous sake breweries.
During the day the streets are packed with visitors, squeezing past one another and ducking in and out of low doorways, but at night they look very different a strict 5pm closing time is enforced to ensure Takayama retains its traditional look.
But what the town is most famous for is its annual Takayama Matsuri festival, which takes place on April 14 and 15. The event see 12 huge decorated floats, called yatai, pushed and pulled through the crowded streets. Many of the floats, some of which date from the 17th century, contain moving parts, secret curtains and special effects. At night they are lit up by lanterns and I can imagine they must provide a pretty spectacular sight.
Unfortunately for us, we were not there at the right time for the festival (and if you are planning to go, make sure you book well in advance as accommodation books up months before) but visitors can still visit the Takayama Festival Floats Exhibition Hall all year round. The exhibition hall features a rotating selection of four of the 23 yatai.
The floats are absolutely huge and can be viewed from a number of levels in the hall. Each float is made up of a number of colourful tiers, which feature tapestries and mosaics of well-known characters. Each one is intricately calved and every single motif and design has a special meaning, from representing the seasons to signifying leaders of certain time periods.
The museum is well-geared up for tourists of different nationals and we were handed some little tape recorders which described each of the ornate floats in English. This was so useful as we would have missed all of the important meaning and stories behind the different decorations without it.
We were also able to watch a short film about what the town is like during the festival, which seems a bit bonkers and reminded me of our time in Lewes. Each neighbourhood has its own float, which is paraded during the festival and then cared for the rest of the year by members of the community. When they are not being exhibited in the museum, the floats are kept in tall, thin, storehouses in the narrow streets. One day as we were strolling along, we saw a team carrying out some maintenance work on one of the floats in storage and we were amazed at how they managed to fit such a huge structure into such a tight space. But, like many things in Japan, it’s always surprising.