Matsuri Days (3): A Guide to Hakata and the Yamakasa Festival

The Oiyama Race: A Rite of Passage for Men in Fukuoka

Society Culture Lifestyle

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.” 

Hard Work Pays Off

After completing Kushida-iri at the shrine, the members of the Chiyo nagare hoist the float onto their shoulders again and head out through a narrow passageway to a wide boulevard that leads out from Hakata Station.

Naitō climbs up on the float to take over the leading role. Sitting on the side facing Kushida Shrine, he cheers on the float-bearers and gives them directions. On the opposite end of the float sits Naitō’s younger brother, Jun, shouting out similar encouragement. That role of daiagari is one that every float-bearer dreams of perfoming some day. 

Naitō Kenta, in the role of “daiagari” for the first time.

Chiyo “nagare” members in their “mizu happi” coats head up Taihaku-dōri Avenue.

“We were only up there for 100 meters or so, Naitō recalls. “But I think we managed to accomplish what we needed to do. Ayabe, the head of our nagare, urged us to fulfill our task in the daiagari role—and that was the main focus for me during the Oiyama race.”

Ayabe, the head of the nagare, was pleased with Naitō’s effort as daiagari: “He makes sure to look after the younger members. And he does all sorts of work behind the scenes. I’ve known him since he was a kid. I was close to his grandfather, but I never gave Naitō special treatment. He’s managed to get to where he is today thanks to his own hard work.” 

The Race to Become a Man

Ayabe Naoki, the head of the Chiyo “nagare,” guiding the float to the finish line.

At 5:33 a.m., the Chiyo nagare gathers its forces for the final push before arriving at the finish line. The last person to ride on top of the float is nagare leader Ayabe. He bows deeply to acknowledge the spectators’ applause. Catching his breath after the race, he wraps up the event by leading the traditional rhythmic hand-clapping. His tense expression finally gives way to a look of relief. 

Naitō on the day after the Oiyama race. The “kakiyama” float of Chiyo “nagare” is on display at the JR Hakata Station. Already Naitō is looking forward to next year’s race.

The day after the Hakata Gion Yamakasa festival, we met up with Naitō again. He tells us what it is about the festival that appeals to him: “As you grow up, there are fewer and fewer opportunities to really throw yourself into something, without having to worry about things. The festival is one of those opportunities. And it’s made me realize how worthwhile it is to work hard to not let other people down. There is a lot of satisfaction that comes from shouldering your own responsibility. We had a big task to accomplish this year because Chiyo was the leading nagare. The pressure on Ayabe, as the leader of the group, must have been intense. There’s a real sense of accomplishment at having helped to make everything go smoothly for him.”

Takita Kiyozō wearing a tōban happi. “You could call this the the ‘formal dress’ of Hakata men. You’ll see men dressed like this at weddings, funerals, and all sorts of other occasions. Even when I went to Tokyo to meet Arnold Schwarzenegger, this is how I dressed.

Photo gallery: Chiyo nagare and the Oiyama race

(Originally written in Japanese by Kurasako Yuriko. Photographs by Kusano Sei’ichirō.)

tourism Kyūshū shrine festival Hakata Hakata Gion Yamakasa Hakata Iwai Uta daiagari Fukuoka