Takayama Festival, Japan

Takayama Spring Festival floats, Japan

Takayama Festival floats

Visiting the Takayama Festival

Takayama Matsuri or Spring Festival is a bi-annual event and thought to be one of the three most colourful and historically interesting events in Japan.
Takayama is located a train ride from Nagoya.

Celebrating spring on April 14 -15 (also known as the Sanno festival, originating in a shrine in the south of the town) and autumn on October 9-10 (also known as the Hachiman festival due to its northern town connection). The floats (yatai) do NOT move out and about if rain falls due to potential damage of the dozen or so spectacular, ancient artifacts, so if you’re going just to see the floats check the accurate local Japanese weather forecast a few days before jumping on a train, though Takayama does offer several other attractive tourist options.

Takayama Festival crowd, Japan

A monster crush at the opening mechanical doll-dancing ceremony, aka Karakuri.

This is the most crowded time at the Takayama Festival as people wait for performances by each of the three dolls topping the shrine (see below). Musicians or singers providing the voices or backing of the dolls lurk in the rectangular body of the float, with the puppet-master above them. Shows happen on both days of the festival at around midday.

In the event of precipitation performances still take place, but inside the yatai storage areas which are extremely small so chances of seeing the action are miniscule.

Takayama Festival puppet and puppeteer, Japan

A doll-master straightening out his aged mate after the dancethon.

How to see the Takayama Festival

After the initial show the yatai – along with others waiting nearby – are dragged around the old town. This is an excellent time to see the floats in action as the crowds disperse and dynamic close-up photos are easy to get. Wide-angle lenses are useful in this context!

Takayama Festival float pulling, Japan

One of several traditional Japanese costumes used by float draggers.

Takayama Festival portable shrines not only carry a Shinto deity around but often half a dozen musicians or kids too so they move slowly, often only a few yards at a time. Going around corners requires particular care.

Takayama Festival kids rides, Japan

Kids along for the ride

Like most towns in Japan Takayama has no shortage of dull, modern structures before a tourist gets anywhere near the few gems of ancient vernacular architecture – apart from temples and shrines of course, which are almost always well-preserved.

Needless to say, with many thousands of visitors packing into the town for these festivities, both Japanese and foreign tourists find accommodation hard to find so many get hotels in nearby towns. Trains run late and hotels often run shuttle buses to the station so evening events are still do-able. The Bugcrew stayed up the line in Furukawa while other foreigners were in Gero, a famous onsen (hot spring baths) town.

Takayama Festival Sights

Takayama Festival costume parade, Japan

Takayama Festival sights are not limited to portable shrines. Locals also process around in traditional Japanese costumes, representing all walks of life, from farmer to samurai to daimyo and even one lucky shogun figure who travels around in a rickshaw.

Takayama Festival musicians, Japan

Processional music is surprisingly attractive and haunting, though can become repetitive. The evening procession is especially melodic and inspiring so long as you don’t get trapped at a crush-point. Stay loose!

Takayama festival float, Japan

The Ebisutai float getting a check over during the second day of the Spring Festival.

Takayama festival float wood carving, Japan

These yatai floats symbolise the previous economic might of Takayama and the skill of their artisans, while the spring festival requests the gods to grant the people a good harvest and a peaceful year. The yatai are only seen during the two annual festivals and are loaded with intricate hardwood carvings, lacquer-work, silk drapes and gold ornaments.

Takayama gojunko procession boys, Japan

Some younger elements of the Gojunko procession.

Many of Takayama’s residents take part in the huge Gojunko procession that winds around the town centre on both festival days. Traditional garb ranges from lowly farmer outfits through all the social classes and up to the Shogun who has it easy in a highly polished rickshaw. Musicians wail flutes and bang drums, lion dancers leap and chase evil spirits off the streets while the massive yatai gleam and rumble on.

Takayama traditional shoes, Japan

Modern Japanese have a refreshing tolerance for ancient traditions to go with their modern habits.

Takayama night festival, Japan

From around 6. 30pm on April 14th (and October 9th) only – weather permitting, twelve floats are loaded with hundreds of lights and creak and groan around the streets while melancholy concert flute sounds waft around and huge kodo drums fill the background with subsonic booms and tourists try not to get trampled in the crush.

Cherry Blossom, Tokyo, Japan

The best float, Kaguratai, passes by one of Takayama’s old central streets.