Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (18): Floats of unparalleled beauty

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, April 22, 2007

THOSE IN THE KNOW say it’s one of the three most beautiful festivals in Japan, and it was held last weekend on the 14th and 15th in Takayama, Gifu Prefecture. That’s the spring version of the Takayama Festival, the name used for both the Sanno Matsuri in April and the Hachiman Matsuri at Sakurayama Hachiman-gu Shrine in October. The main event is a large parade featuring about a thousand people in period costumes and 12 of the most elaborate floats you’ll see anywhere.

This is a joyous celebration of spring’s arrival, so the brilliant colors, sounds, and costumes are no surprise. The parade is a panorama of people wearing hats with bird feathers playing gongs and drums, or others performing the shishimai, or lion dance, wearing headgear that resembles a lion’s head. This is followed by the 12 floats, photographs of which often appear in newspapers around the country over the next few days, and two of which you can see here. These floats are exquisitely decorated, both on the exterior for public display, and on the interior as well, concealed under the roof or behind the doors.

They are indeed elaborate. The story goes that years ago, the local artisans and tradesmen who had accumulated great wealth were prohibited from using that wealth to enhance their rank, so they applied it for more material pursuits, one of which was the festivals. As a result, these events became more extravagant as the years passed.

The decorations include carvings, thick woven curtains, lacquerware, and bamboo blinds. The floats also have various devices, such as moving marionettes. Nightfall does not signal the festival’s end; rather, each float is decorated with some 100 traditional lanterns to create yet another stunning effect.

The origin of the Takayama Festival is not definitely known, but there’s a letter dating from 1692 stating the festival had been held for the last 40 years. Some historians think it may date back more than 100 years before that.

These floats were built through a scheme seen in other festivals throughout Japan. Several households joined together to form a community, with each household making a financial contribution. Human vanity being a universal trait, the communities started to vie with each other to produce the most beautiful or elaborate float. Some floats in festivals in other cities are built specifically for competition to break up the others. You won’t see that here–the Japanese government designated Takayama’s floats as an important cultural treasure in June 1969.

For more Takayama Festival photos, take the time to visit the sites here and here.

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