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Shrine-Carrying Competition Marks Season in Fukuoka (June 27, 2003)

Hakata Gion Yamakasa
A kakiyama is carried through the streets of Hakata. (Fukuoka City)
The sky in the east becomes light at 4:59 AM on July 15, and the sound of a taiko drum can be heard coming from Kushida Shrine in Fukuoka City's Hakata Ward. The ground trembles as massive portable shrines called kakiyama are carried through the streets by dozens of men dressed in happi coats. After going halfway around a flag in the middle of the shrine precincts, the men carrying the kakiyama come to a halt. They sing a celebratory song and then rush out into the streets of Hakata. The course they will follow is about 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) long, and each kakiyama weighs about 1 ton. While racing to the goal as fast as they can, the men yell the traditional chant of "Oissa! Oissa!" and call out to each other.

Festival Has Roots in the Thirteenth Century

Hakata Gion Yamakasa is a traditional festival marking the beginning of summer that is held from July 1 to 15 in Fukuoka City on the island of Kyushu. The festival comes to an end with the dramatic spectacle of oiyama - the race described above - on the final day. After the first kakiyama team departs from Kushida Shrine, subsequent teams follow every five minutes. There are seven teams in total. After they run at full speed to the flag in the center of the shrine grounds, the teams go out into the city following a brief pause. For longtime residents of Hakata, Yamakasa is both a sacred festival and a race that tests willpower and strength.

Kazariyama (Fukuoka City)

Yamakasa has a long history. It is said that the festival began in the Kamakura period (1192-1333) when a high-ranking priest was carried around the city to ward off the plague in 1241. The parent organizations of the seven kakiyama are called nagare, which are composed of neighborhood associations. They take this name from the seven subdivisions of the old city of Hakata. For the townspeople that belong to nagare, it is considered an honor to carry the kakiyama, and the competition in the 5-kilometer race is intense. Last year the Chiyo Nagare team won, and they hope to repeat as champions this year. The other six teams are training and working on strategies to bring Chiyo Nagare's reign to an end.

More Than 3 Million Come to Watch
On July 1 when Gion Yamakasa begins, the city is decorated with floats called kazariyama that are adorned with dolls made in the likenesses of warriors from the period of civil war in the sixteenth century, anime (cartoon) characters, and sometimes even professional athletes. During the 15 days of the festival, more than 3 million people come to watch, and about 900,000 spectators take in the oiyama race on the final day. Interestingly, the oiyama race starts at the odd time of 4:59 AM. One theory for the starting time is that the race used to begin at 5:00 AM sharp but that one year people started early when they mistook a clap of thunder for the taiko drum.

Fukuoka City, the home of Gion Yamakasa, has a population of 1.34 million and is the largest city on the island of Kyushu. Hakata, which occupies a central location in the city, was an important port in the Nara (710-794) and Heian (794-1192) periods, and it prospered as the gateway to the Asian mainland. It is the port that Japanese emissaries used when they traveled abroad on journeys to bring back Buddhism, culture, and antiquities. In 664 the city of Dazaifu was built there by the government on a one-third scale of the capital city at the time, Heijokyo (now Nara). In addition to managing Kyushu, the government officials at Dazaifu were responsible for the nation's defense and diplomacy. Later, Hakata was designated a free market by Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598), who had succeeded in unifying Japan. Hakata merchants enjoyed autonomy and prospered as they conducted trade with China, the Korean Peninsula, the Ryukyu Islands (now Okinawa), and the South Pacific. Hakata came to rival Sakai (located in present-day Osaka Prefecture), which was Japan's largest port of international trade at the time. Even today, Fukuoka is a stopping-off point for many tourists coming to Japan from other Asian countries and is continuing its development as an international city.

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