Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (38): Chasing the dragon eye in northern Kyushu

Posted by ampontan on Monday, July 30, 2007

THE MOST IMPRESSIVE festival action this weekend occurred in Kyushu for the second week in a row. In fact, the two festivals profiled here were held in Fukuoka Prefecture at the northern end of the island. Those were Daijayama in Omuta the Tobata Gion Festival in Kitakyushu.

The Omuta Daijayama

Omuta is a former coal-mining town in southern Fukuoka Prefecture. The festival in its current form is a combination of several local festivals, the oldest of which is the Daijayama Festival, thought to have originated sometime between 1640 and 1791. This event is known for its floats of sea serpents, said to be the symbol of the water god. In later years it was combined with the elements of a Gion festival conducted for the gods of agriculture and as protection against illness.

The big attraction is the sea serpents, however. Each of the six floats is six meters high, 10 meters long, and they require the efforts of 200-300 people to pull through the city. The first part of the festival features townspeople performing bon odori, the traditional summer festival dances, but the highlight comes after it gets dark. The floats are assembled in a single location after their parade through the city. The float carriers start shaking them wildly, and then the serpents’ mouths open to emit multicolored fireworks and smoke. Legend has it that any children bitten by a serpent’s tooth will be guaranteed a healthy, accident-free year.

Years ago, the floats were torn apart at the end of the festival and there was a mad scramble for the serpents’ eyeballs, which were said to bring good luck. The Japanese traditionally don’t fool around during activities such as these; people used to get killed. (I once attended a ceremony for the opening of a new martial arts dojo. The owner stood on the roof throwing gifts down to the people who came for the celebration. I made the mistake of casually walking over to pick one up. Before I could bend over, I was roughly elbowed out of the way by a grandmother whom I knew well.)

Nowadays, however, a smaller ceremony for snatching the eyeballs is held only for children. The floats themselves are still destroyed, and the eyeballs are offered to the divinities at the local shrine. People hang scraps from the destroyed floats on the eaves of their homes to ward off illness and protect the household for the coming year.

The Tobata Gion Festival

The Tobata festival in Kitakyushu, also in Fukuoka Prefecture, dates from 1803. It was held to pray for good health after a plague struck the area the year before. It has a unique aspect that is shared by few, if any, festivals in Japan.

During the daytime, the four festival floats are paraded around the city decorated with pennants. This is what they look like:

At 7:30 p.m., the floats are returned to a predetermined spot. On a signal, the men responsible for each float swiftly remove the banners and other decorations and strip the floats down to their frames. After columns and crossbars are installed, the floats are decorated with 12 rows of 309 lanterns to form a pyramid. The entire process takes only about 20 minutes from start to finish. The parade starts again, this time with the floats being carried by 50 or 60 men each, accompanied by the hayashi festival music and shouts of “Yoitosa, yoitosa!”

And here’s what the floats look like then:

4 Responses to “Matsuri da! (38): Chasing the dragon eye in northern Kyushu”

  1. Edith Cavell said

    Let me see if I understand this.

    On the morning of one of the Japan’s biggest election upsets, that has all the political pundit wannabes abuzz, that shows the Japanese people’s displeasure for the conservative nationalist agenda of PM Abe and friends, and our dear blogger reports, if not gushes, on about a matsuri complete with government provided photos? A matsuri?

    Yes, life in ancient Japan goes on.

  2. ampontan said

    Edith: Congratulations. This may be the single most clueless post anyone has ever made to this site.

    “…shows the Japanese people’s displeasure for the conservative nationalist agenda of PM Abe and friends…”

    You should have read the post with the rather lengthy summary of the election that I uploaded on Saturday. But you didn’t, did you? Read it and get back to us.

    First, as an independent businessman, I often work on Sundays. I worked yesterday. Second, I wanted to read the morning papers first and see if there were any developments in the afternoon. In fact, I already started a post on the election that I’ll post later tonight.

    You won’t like it.

    FYI: Election comments go with election posts (such as the one Saturday), matsuri comments go with matsuri posts. The next time you do something like this, I’ll instruct the software to view your posts as spam. It only takes about 10 seconds.

  3. Aceface said

    Voters didn’t support Abe mostly for pension and non-stopping scandals in the cabinet.How about take some break from your People’s Daily style of viewing things for a while.

    and start your own blog,for christ sake.

  4. Aceface said

    I can’t understand these internet trolls….
    “on about a matsuri complete with government provided photos?”
    So if I use any local tourist agency provided photos for any introductory post on local folk festivals,I’ll be an agent of government media manupilation or something?

    Seriously,you better think about blocking this individual,Bill.
    At first I thought Edith was bringing usual leftwing politics into the discussion,of which is lacking here a bit.And that it self is welcomed,for some of us could be wrong and personally I would welcome getting enlighted with new knowledge.(and have some debate on it)But Edith is not doing that.She(I presume)is just doing usual hit and run and it gets nastier as the time goes by.
    I don’t know about rest of you,but I’m getting very irritated with that.

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