Laughter rouses me from my curbside stupor. Three young women, wrapped in dazzling yukatas and wearing updo hairstyles that seem to have been sculpted rather than styled, let me know they’re amused by my appearance. With my backwards baseball cap, a camera bag slung over my shoulder, and an entire grilled fish clamped in my mouth—my hands busy tinkering with my DSLR—there’s no way I could look less like a peculiar tourist.
I set down my skewer of ayu, a small river fish prepared with a heavy coating of salt, eaten head, intestines and all, and wash down the embarrassment with a swig of Asahi. Yet my ignominy is short lived, for what distraction could be better than half-a-million happy parade-goers? The small town of Shinjō, in Tohoku’s (northeastern Japan) Yamagata prefecture, swells from the humble size of 40,000 inhabitants to 5,00,000 from August 24-26, the tail end of Japan’s summer festival season known as matsuri. It is arguably the most popular celebration of the region.
The 20 neighbourhoods that make up the town compete against one another by erecting intricate, colourful floats depicting vignettes from kabuki theatre, a tradition that is over 260 years old. Shinjō’s feudal lord Tozawa Masanobu began this festival centuries ago after a bad harvest, using the festivities to both appease the gods and distract his people. Today, there are no hard times to be seen as thousands of people gorge themselves at concession stands and small children run up and down the streets with ice cream cones in their hands.
After I dust off a bit of fish skin stuck to my jeans, one of the guides in charge of me and my fellow travellers from India ushers us away from the festivities. I look back at food stalls serving up regional specialities, such as ramen with chicken chitterlings, like a dog being dragged away from the park. We’re cryptically told we will somehow be participating in the parade, but it seems like we’re being banished to the outskirts of the town. That is until we stop at a small lane overflowing with townspeople clad in white haori (traditional Japanese tops) decorated with designs of a pine forest, surrounding a towering float.
Heavy drums thump and flutes trill as an ensemble of around 40 townspeople practice their marching song at the back of the 15-foot-tall by 23-foot-long structure, known as a yatai in this region. The float is built on a linear platform, designed to be only seen from one side, like a theatre stage. I stop hankering for yakisoba and ramen momentarily, and walk around the towering float to get a look at the festival’s main draw: A ship full of canons curling over a wave, festooned with a giant fanged serpent, the spectacle framed by life-size kabuki figures armed with muskets and naginata (traditional Japanese polearms).
I did not expect the float to be so elaborate, it was previously explained to us that they are constructed from top to bottom by the residents of the community—nothing is bought readymade. The yatai is made from basic tools like paper, cloth, and wood but the end product is so utterly complex and embellished on such a grand scale that the civilians responsible for this workmanship can rightfully be called master craftsmen; realising that the people who worked on this kabuki scene did so after clocking out from work or putting their child to bed made the feat even more impressive.
In the shadow of the yatai a red haori is thrust into my hands and I’m instructed to quickly put it on. I later learned that in Japan there’s a word solely dedicated to the act of putting on a haori. As soon as I fasten the waist belt of the short robe a thick rope attached to the front of the float is handed to me. It turns out ‘participating’ in the Shinjō festival means pulling the leading float through a crowd of half-a-million people.
Now the drums thunder and flutes sing in full force, the band signalling that practice time is over. Everyone else grabs onto the ropes extending from the helm of the float and heaves it forward. As we set off, the young men closest to the float break into song; their fervour grows as we pass through busier streets, the chorus turning into more of an enthusiastic hollering than a steadfast melody. A stocky man in a Panama hat, pulling the yatai beside me, explains that these chaps get ready for the workout by hitting the sake early on in the day. It is a tradition I would have gladly partaken in if I had only known beforehand. Still I take pleasure in lip synching the chants they happily bellow.
The procession stops at Shinjō’s main road, leading up to the town centre. Our float is taken over by a vanguard helmed by notable figures of the township, carrying lanterns and donning traditional kasa headgear (jingasa, which is lacquered, and amigasa, made of straw), followed by mock guards bearing katanas. We continue in their footsteps up the to the train station as dusk wanes, surrounded by onlookers eagerly applauding the arrival of the yatai in a semi-circle amphitheatre. I feel like Spartacus rolling into the coliseum on his chariot, allowing my chest to puff out a bit as I bathe in the applause, my pride resting on the laurels of the hard working men, women, and children of Shinjō.
At this point it is time for us non-resident revellers to abandon the rope and scurry to our seats in the amphitheatre, from where we will view ‘our’ float as well as the 19 others following behind. This is the first time I get to see the entire float we had been lugging along in its intended grandeur: from a distance in the black of night. When I saw the float earlier it was still daylight, now all its lights had been turned on, casting ominous shadows and highlighting the near-realistic faces of its mythical kabuki cast. A warm sense of pride rushes through my chest like a swig of fine single malt; the fact that these people have come together for over two centuries to create such incredible yatai without any sponsors makes it clear why this festival is a certified as UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.
As our float turns away from us, I feel confident it will be selected as one of the top three yatai by the town’s bench of judges. Only the top three floats survive after the three-day festival; the rest have to be destroyed by the people who built them. I understand that perhaps this competitive approach guarantees a high level of craftsmanship, however, my outsider eyes struggle to conceive destroying something so immensely beautiful. I push the thought out of my mind, sure that the other floats could not compete with the artisanship of the neighbourhood I had pledged my loyalty to, for all it was worth.
Much to my initial chagrin, Shinjō is brimming with talent. Float after float leaves me more slackjawed than the last. I stare at twisting dragons, giant fish, a wild boar stuck with a katana, assassins hurling ninja stars and warriors seeking revenge with bows—an arrow piercing a man’s chest while he writhes in anguish. I do not envy the judges; in my plebeian eyes they are all works worthy of artistic worship.
Eventually I leave my seat and walk to the exit of the amphitheatre where I can see the floats from only a metre away. A group of children have the same idea, and stand a short distance from me, pretending to beat the drums that rumble around us. They stop as the floats pass, and seem transfixed by the snarling dragons and tusked wild boars, their eyes happily glazing over like they’re listening to their favourite bedtime story. Watching the children drift off into their own imagination, enchantment sparkling in their eyes, the summer festival took on new meaning for me. The yatai symbolise the legacy of how Shinjō’s people have kept the spirit of their creativity alive; and it suddenly made sense why the floats had to disappear, just like the passing of springtime’s cherry blossoms or fall’s auburn leaves.
Julian Manning can usually be found eating a crisp ghee roast with extra podi. The rare times his hands aren’t busy with food, they are wrapped around a mystery novel or the handlebars of a motorcycle. He is Senior Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.