The Hakata Gion Yamakasa festival is held between the 1st and 15th of July in the district around Hakata station and culminates in seven teams of men carrying one ton floats (the “yama” of Yamakasa) in what is described as being, and not being, a race.The seven teams represent the traditional seven districts of Hakata, though more symbolically than actually as the original districts have changed names and boundaries several times over the festival’s seven hundred fifty, or so, year history.
From the 1st to the 15th there are events related to Yamakasa including the installation of a decorative version of the floats carried in the race that’s not a race. The decorative versions are huge (or yuuuuuuuge ! as America’s most popular politician would say) and consist of the same platform used in the racing version but with assorted statuettes and traditional symbols literally piled on. The “Kazariyama,” as these decorative yama are called, are near ten meters tall and weigh a few tons. Since the festival was designated an Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property by the Agency of Cultural Affairs in 1979, traditional Hakata doll makers are employed to craft the statuettes and symbols that get piled on. These include the likes of Doraemon and Pikachu, possibly expressing the hope that these will some day be considered traditional. Other events of note include the practice runs the teams make through the city before the race – not race that is the real main event on the 15th. For a really detailed English description of all the events and their attendant Japanese terms, in a much less cynical style than this, I recommend the website Yamakasa Navi.
Descriptions of the events surrounding Yamakasa include the terms exciting, gallant, resplendent, and captivating, among many others of this type, and of course the obligatory traditional. Because the men all wear loincloths as part of the traditional costume, it’s impossible to read about Yamakasa without also reading descriptions of butts. While I don’t dispute any of these descriptors, I would add testosterone filled, steeped in contradiction, likely cash cow for the already wealthy, muggy, sweaty, and smelly. It is the testosterone I object to most. Having lived in Fukuoka city (which Hakata is a part of) for about thirty years, I’ve had a number of unpleasant encounters with men clad in the traditional Yamakasa costume. Even the nicest of people seem to want to be treated, during Yamakasa, with the kind of cowering obeisance their samurai ancestors once received from peasants. Truth be told, very few Japanese men are actually descendants of samurai, there just weren’t that many samurai. If you are a man, or obviously not Japanese, I recommend keeping your eyes open so as not to accidentally cross paths with a man in the throes of Yamakasa ecstasy. You’re likely to get knocked down otherwise.
Just as one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor, one man’s history is another man’s legend. The legend, or history if you must, behind Yamakasa begins in 1242 when the priest Shoichi Kokushi returned from China and built the temple known as Joten-ji (hint for tourists: ji is a suffix that denotes a temple and jinja is a suffix that denotes a shrine. Yamakasa is centered on Kushida jinja, a shrine.) Jotenji is the legendary birthplace of soba, udon and manju. There’s a sign at the temple attesting to that so it must be true. I am, however, reminded that the cheeseburger was born in Pasadena, Denver and Louisville to what must have been a very busy father. Joten-ji is also the legendary birthplace of Yamakasa and as such the kakiyama floats are carried by it during the main race (which isn’t really a race) on July 15th. Interestingly, the event that is supposed to have inspired Yamakasa occurred the year before the temple was built (unless Fukuoka Now, Fukuoka’s English information newsletter since 1998, is mistaken – perish the thought.) In order to end a plague and alleviate the suffering of its victims, Shoichi Kokushi was carried on a palanquin around the Hakata district offering prayers and sprinkling water. While the water is certainly a big part of modern day Yamakasa, I don’t know that any of the legendary priest’s prayers were recorded, or are used by the teams that are not really racing during the race.
The discrepancy between the date of the founding of the temple and the ending of the plague is just one of many contradictions regarding Yamakasa. A festival that ostensibly commemorates the altruistic act of a Buddhist priest is now centered around a Shinto shrine where people go to pray for success in business. Designated an Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property, Yamakasa nevertheless occurs in the Hakata district, traditionally the district of the elite merchants who were so wealthy that the samurai from Fukuoka went there to borrow money. My guess is that the main beneficaries of Yamakasa are the rich descendants of those merchants and the businesses they founded. Though much is made of the symbolism of the festival, I think the commercial aspect is best symbolized by the limited edition Yamakasa sneakers Nike made in 2008. Though promoted as a point of pride for Fukuoka city, it is marketed to tourists. Either because of a sense of integrity or because the editors don’t understand English, the Yamakasa Navi site contains an account of Yamakasa by a young Australian woman who reports a surprising lack of interest by residents of the city. Despite being described as particularly macho in nature and certainly all male under the floats, the events would be impossible without the diligent labor of thousands of women. The Ministry of the Environment has designated Yamakasa one of Japan’s 100 Soundscapes which is a designation intended to “combat noise pollution and to protect and promote the environment,” though a festival which last two weeks, reportedly draws a million tourists and culminates in a race through the city which begins at 4:59 a.m. is inherently noisy and probably not a boost to any environment except the business environment.
And then there’s the business of the race, or not.” This is a contest in which men compete on the time taken to race along a 5 km course, over more or less 30 minutes; although speed is important, they are also required to maintain a graceful and heroic style as they run carrying the floats on their shoulders.” -Japan National Tourism Organization
“Although the teams are timed, the event is not considered a race. The most successful team must exhibit cooperation and solidarity.” -Fukuoka Now
All in all, I agree with the Hakata resident who told the young Australian woman diligently covering Yamakasa that it’s best to watch it on TV. The large decorative floats are on display year round at the airport and various shopping malls around the city so you can view them at your leisure.