Hakata Gion Yamakasa (博多祇園山笠)
Hakata Gion Yamakasa is a Japanese summer festival located in Fukuoka, Japan. During the festival, large floats are carried by men in the community and then raced through the streets of Fukuoka in the early morning hours of July 15 just before sunrise. This annual festival is full of excitement, hard work, and historical significance!
How to Get to Fukuoka
Fukuoka City is located in the Fukuoka Prefecture in Japan’s southern Kyushu region. The easiest ways to get to Fukuoka are by plane or bullet train. If traveling by plane you’ll most likely fly from Tokyo or Osaka in order to get to Fukuoka.
If traveling by train you’ll take the Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen to Fukuoka City. Fukuoka is roughly 2.5 hours from Osaka by train and 5 hours from Tokyo.
Where to Stay in Fukuoka
During our time in Fukuoka, we stayed at Hotel Il Palazzo which is in a convenient location for both driving in Fukuoka or taking public transit.
What we loved most about Hotel Il Palazzo other than having the ideal location, were the spacious rooms that contained many unique features. The rooms had numerous romantic touches for those traveling as a couple and had plenty of space to be family-friendly as well.
The History Behind Hakata Gion Yamakasa
Hakata Gion Yamakasa is by far one of the most intriguing summer festivals in Japan that brings in nearly 1 million tourists each year and dates back almost 800 years. It was started by Shoichi Kokushi, a Buddhist priest that, during a time of widespread illness, was carried around on a makeshift platform sprinkling holy water all over the city to cleanse the area from the epidemic.
Attending Hakata Gion Yamakasa
At this festival, there are two kinds of elaborately decorated floats. One of which is raced through the streets of Hakata by men dressed in traditional costumes. The smaller floats are called kakiyama floats which stand at 16 feet (5 meters) tall and weigh one ton – these are the ones that are raced which we will discuss in a minute.
The larger floats are called kazariyama floats which stand at 33 feet (10 meters) tall and weigh over two tons! The kazariyama floats used to be raced through the streets like the kakiyama floats but the power lines in the city became problematic so they now serve as decorative pieces on display around the city.
The floats are built in the months prior to the festival, one for each neighborhood that participates. Each of these floats are built completely by hand and have no wheels or nails used!
Instead, wooden dowels are carefully shaped to construct the base of each kakiyama float, and water is splashed in front of them to reduce friction as they are dragged through the streets by participants of the festival. There are usually 30 participants dragging the float at a time but they are switched out every 3-5 minutes to reduce fatigue. There are also a few that ride on top to help assist those carrying the float with directions.
One thing you might notice is that the participants wear different colored headbands called tenugui – these signal what the participant’s role is. The red tenugui is for younger participants who are responsible for carrying or moving the float, red and white tenugui are for those that partake in the planning and logistics of the festival – usually, elders and the blue and white tenugui are for those responsible for the safety of the participants and guests, also elders of the festival.
Starting on July 10 the teams have practice runs to prepare for the main race that takes place on July 15. On that day at 1am the teams begin to line up for the race by Kushida Shrine, the host shrine for the festival. The whole city is awake and waiting too so they can see the events take place along the 3-mile (5-kilometer) path that the race takes place on!
Then at 4:59am, drums signal the start of the race and the first team crosses the starting line with a burst of momentum to move the heavy float – it is exhilarating to watch, even on video! It is followed by the others in five-minute intervals. The race typically takes each team about 30 minutes to complete so it usually ends around 6am.
Hakata Machiya Folk Museum
If you can’t make it to Fukuoka for Hakata Gion Yamakasa then you can still experience part of the festival year-round at Hakata Machiya Folk Museum.
The museum has an informational video about the festival as well as models that show different parts of the festival. I highly recommend taking the time to watch the documentary that depicts aspects of the festival from the creation of the floats, religious blessings, and the day of events.
Address: 6-10, Reisen-machi, Hakata-ku, Fukuoka
Hours: May-October: 9:00pm-5:00pm (admission until 4:30pm), November-April: 10:00am-6:00pm (admission until 5:30pm) (Closed Mondays)
Basic Information About Hakata Gion Yamakasa
Where: Fukuoka, Japan
When: July 1-15
Time: July 15 at 4:59 am is the big race
Cost: Free to attend