Saturday, November 3, 2012

Karatsu Kunchi

Karatsu Kunchi (Karatsu Festival) is held the first weekend in November each year for the past 400 years. Massive wooden floats (hikiyama), lacquered with layers of washi weighing 2-5 tons, are paraded down the streets of Karatsu in wooden carts with wooden wheels 2-3 feet in diameter. Additionally, there may be 6-10 people who ride on a float, playing fifes or taiko (drums).

The display of helmets, palanquins, and figures from history and folklore are pulled by 50+ people consisting of mostly men, then boys, and an occasional girl. At certain points along the parade route, the wooden wheels roar down the street amidst the cadence chants, "En-ya! En-ya!." It's an incredible visual and auditory experience mixed with the gustatory and olfactory beckoning of festival treats everywhere.

The float of Shuten douji (oni leader) biting Minamoto Yorimitsu's kabuto (helmet) is derived from a legend where Minamoto and a group of men were dispatched by the emperor to kill Shuten douji for kidnapping daughters of noble families and eating people. The men were given gifts from the gods - special sake, cord, and a helmet.

Karatsu Kabuto Shuten Douji Raikou Minamoto
Shuten douji and Minamoto no Raiko

When Shuten douji was incapacitated from the sake, he was bound with the cord, then decapitated. As the oni's head flew up, it landed upon Minamoto's magical helmet trying unsuccessfully to bite his head.

Kinjishi means golden dragon.

Karatsu Kinjishi

Shichihomaru represents takarabune, the treasure boat of the 7 gods of fortune (shichifukujin)  -- Bishamonten, Benzaiten, Daikokuten, Ebisu, Fukurokuju, Hotei, and Juroujin. At the front of the ship, not easily seen below, is a dragon.

Outside of Japan, those who play video games are probably familiar with Bishamonten, god of warriors, in Onimusha. Hotei's statue is popular - people rub his belly for good luck.

Karatsu Shichihomaru

Shachi is a killer whale with a tiger's head. They are often seen on the rooftops of samurai homes, castles, and gates as protection from fire by spitting water to extinguish the flame.

Karatsu Shachi

Aojishi is green lion.

Karatsu Aojishi

Uesugi Kenshin's helmet and mask are paraded as he was a great warlord during the Sengoku period. He is known for being a keen military tactician and administrator and a follower of Bishamonten, the Buddhist god of war.

Karatsu Kabuto Uesugi Kenshin
Uesugi Kenshin kabuto and mempo

Uesugi Kenshin's rival was Takeda Shingen, represented by his helmet and mask.

Karatsu Kabuto Takeda Shingen
Takeda Shingen kabuto and mempo

Tai, sea bream, symbolizes good fortune and is often seen during celebratory occasions like weddings. One of the 7 gods of fortune, Ebisu, is often pictured with tai. Its pectoral (side) fins are movable. As the float is pushed up and down and the fins flap, it gives the appearance of swimming.

Karatsu Tai

He was a slippery fellow to photograph. My father really wanted a picture of this float. As we roved around the parade route, we would catch a glimpse of it racing before us between buildings. We ran after it several times, each time it would slip around a corner until we finally caught him.

Festivals bring vendors. There were vendors of all sorts -- fishing, shooting games, cutesy trinkets, scary shows, fortunes, festival gifts, grilled foods of all types, takoyaki, desserts, candies, was quite intense.

Karatsu Bears
Cute bear vendor

The scent of grilled and deep fried foods was unbearable. We only have two stomachs, so little space and time, so many choices. We happened upon two women quietly working within their tent and ordered beef yakitori, which was a bit tough but tasty. Grilled meat. How could it not be tasty?

Karatsu Beef Yakitori
Beef yakitori

[Chicken] yakitori was tender. Of course, it was salty...and oh, so good. My father also bought fried chicken pieces called kara-age. It is similar to popcorn chicken.

Karatsu Yakitori

I also bought a whole grilled squid slathered in a salty sweet brown sauce. It looked and smelled so delicious, but was a bit difficult to eat without napkins. Ah well, I licked my fingers clean. Sauce was probably smeared all over my mouth.

Karatsu Choco Banana
Chocolate bananas

I was tempted to buy one of these happy looking bananas. I probably should have, since it was the first time I had ever seen these. Who knows if I'll ever see them again.

- Cassaendra

Karatsu Kunchi
1st weekend in November
Karatsu, Saga Prefecture

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