Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Harvest festivals of Takayama and Hida-Furukawa

The 19th and 20th April are the highlight of the seasonal calendar in Hida-Furukawa. This is when ‘Naked’ Festival takes place. Despite the name, it’s no more ‘naked’ in fact than, say, Sumo wrestling, but I would like to witness it in the flesh, so to speak.

A little earlier, on 14th and 15th April, nearby Takayama celebrates its own Spring festival. For those like me who are visiting at other times, both towns have excellent, informative visitor centres, with models and - in Takayama’s case - actual festival floats on display, some dating back to the sixteenth century. In little Hida-Furukawa, one can even view the spectacle through 3-D glasses. (How Mark Kermode ( http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/markkermode/2009/12/come_in_number_3d_your_time_is.html ) would be pleased .)

At Takayama’s ‘Sanno Matsuri’ and Autumn ‘Hachiman Matsuri’ festivals, the locals say prayers and give thanks, respectively, for a good harvest. Over those two occasions, 21 large festival floats are paraded through the city.

In Hida-Furukawa, there are fewer floats but it’s wilder. On the evening of the first day, a tall wooden tower holding a big drum beaten by two young men in sarashi (a stomach band made from bleached cotton) is paraded around town. Young men from the same block wait in groups on street corners, holding long wooden beams with drums, before rushing out and charging the tower when it arrives. These groups then fight for their block’s honour. The fierce ‘battle’ to reach the main float which ensues is the highlight of the festival. Once they’re in the big scrum, there’s no escape from the crush. A world away from Ise but still Shinto.

At both festivals, there are artful puppet displays above the floats, so ingenious that they don’t even look like puppet displays, as the parts detach and are operated by as many as eight people. This one ('Shakkyotai'), for example, sounds a little like a scene from ‘Alien’: “Due to a question of morality the play was prohibited in 1892 because during the exotic woman’s dance, a lion comes out from her mid-section, and this action was thought too obscene to play in those days.” (Now that’s an impressive puppet.)

Outside festival time, most of the floats are held in distinctive storehouses with white garage-like doors, which can be seen around town.

Having watched the videos, the public faces of both festivals are predominantly male. I asked the very helpful female attendant at Hida-Furukawa’s visitor centre about the role of women on these occasions. “We prepare the food”, she said.

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