Most people rave about Japan’s summer festivals (and admittedly, there are some spectacular ones) but being rather partial to the cooler weather, I am a fan of the nation’s autumn festivals. Both Kumamoto and Okinawa had some exciting ones (massive tug of war, anyone?) but my favorite will always be the Karatsu Kunchi in Karatsu, a small city in Saga prefecture.
The festival takes place every year on November 2nd-4th and has been running since at least the early 1800s. The festival is unique in that the first day’s events take place at night, the second day takes place on the local beach and the third day features a parade through the city streets, culminating at the shrine for whom the festival is held.
The highlight of the event are the fourteen huge hikiyama, or floats. Weighing in at between two to five tons and standing about six meters high, these massive floats range from samurai helmets to carp to lion’s heads. Drawn by teams of at least two dozen members, the floats are practically raced through the streets (you should see how these guys can corner) on the final day before being housed back in their purpose-built exhibition hall until the next year. With shouts of “enya, enya” by the float pullers and offers of lots of free sake by the parade viewers, this was an incredibly welcoming and spirited festival.
If you go, plan on arriving either by train or using the satellite parking WAY over past the castle (a shuttle bus will bring you into the city center). In the middle of the third day’s festivities, the floats all “break for lunch” in the plaza right outside the train station, which is a great time to examine them up close and mingle with the locals.
If you miss the festival, you can always catch the floats in the Hikiyama Exhibition Hall, where you can see the huge structures up close (though behind glass) and with excellent English descriptions of each one. There is a video that runs on loop, showing the various parts of the festival.