Views Matsuri Days (3): A Guide to Hakata and the Yamakasa Festival
The Oiyama Race: A Rite of Passage for Men in Fukuoka
[2012.10.25] Read in: 日本語 | 简体字 | 繁體字 |

Held on July 15 every year, the Oiyama race is the climax of Fukuoka’s two-week Hakata Gion Yamakasa festival. For participants and spectators alike the event kindles a community spirit.

Team members pitch in to carry the “kakiyama” float.

It’s 4:59 a.m. but the city streets of Fukuoka are packed—as they are every July 15 at this time. It is the moment when the sound the crowd has been waiting for can finally be heard. The beat of a taiko drum struck at Kushida Shrine resounds through the early-morning streets. The drum is the signal for the start of the Oiyama race—the showcase event that marks the climax of the Hakata Gion Yamakasa festival.

Competing in the race are seven teams, representing different boroughs (nagare) of the Hakata district of Fukuoka. The members of each team are clad in nothing more than a simple loin cloth (fundoshi) and a short happi coat. The teams compete to carry a portable shrine along a five-kilometer course lined with cheering spectators who douse them with water. It takes around 30 men to shoulder the one-ton float, which is weighed down further by the team members sitting on top of it and shouting out directions and encouragement. 

Adults and children alike participate in the Oiyama race.

Each year a different nagare is designated the leader of the race. The leading team gets things underway with a ceremonial entry into the grounds of Kushida Shrine. After setting down the heavy float and removing their bandanas, the team members perform a special celebratory song. Then it is time to shoulder the load again and head back out down the festive city streets to the finish line.

Chiyo “nagare” member Naitō Kenta.

For the 2012 race, the leading nagare is Chiyo, one of the largest of the seven. The team leader, Ayabe Naoki, explains that the priority for his team this year is good form: “We want people to enjoy the spectacle. Removing our bandanas and setting down the float before we sing will slow us down, but I think it is worth doing things right.”

Thirty-one-year-old Naitō Kenta has participated in the Oiyama race since he was a newborn, carried in the arms of his father and grandfather. This year Naitō participated with his younger brother Jun.  

A Send-Off with the “Hakata Celebratory Song”

The Hakata Gion Yamakasa has always been a family affair for Naitō, pictured here with his father and younger brother back in July 1993.

Naitō has been taking part in the festival all his life, but he says his understanding of the importance of the event to the local community has changed dramatically in the five years since the death of his grandfather, who was chairman of the Chiyo nagare

It was at the funeral reception for his grandfather that Naitō first felt that he had become a full-fledged member of Chiyo nagare.  

“At the reception, the leader of our nagare, Ayabe, said to me: ‘Be sure to make it to the race this time around.’ It was as though he were telling me that, even though my grandfather was gone, I was an important part of the team. Till then I had felt like I was just tagging along with my grandfather and my dad, but when he said that to me, it was as though I had become a member in my own right at last.

“Lots of people attended my grandfather’s funeral. It brought home to me just how much support we get from the local community. When the coffin was carried out, everyone was singing the “Hakata Iwai Uta” to send him off. It was very moving, and made me feel happy to see him sent off in that way. I realized that now it was my turn to play my part in keeping alive the traditions that meant so much to my grandfather and the rest of our community.” 

  • [2012.10.25]
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