Hakata Gion Yamakasa 博多祇園山笠
Delusions of Grandeur
From July 1st, a frenzy grips the Hakata area of Fukuoka. The seven districts clash in huge chariot races in memory of a priest: this is the Hakata Gion Yamakasa.
Each year, the Hakata Gion Yamakasa attracts more than a million spectators. For 750 years, the men of the seven districts of Hakata clash in this unmistakable show of force.
Two Intense Weeks
During the first two days of the festival, each district takes its kazariyama, a kind of richly decorated chariot, to Kushida shrine. Until July 14th, each team trains for the grand finale: the Oiyama race. The next day, July 15th, at 3am, these traditional floats align in the first district and at exactly 4:49, race in a 5km sprint.
How do you recognise the carriers of the kazariyama? It's simple: by their costume. These men wear a kind of jacket (mizu-happi), a band around their stomach (haramaki) and a loincloth (shimekomi). Depending on their role, their tenugui, or headband, will have different colors. With these traditional folk clothes, everyone knows what to do in this athletic choreographed display for the glory of the gods and teamwork.
In the past, the kazariyama were ten meters tall! The installation of power lines and metro systems has since limited their size. These impressive floats are now displayed all over the city and proudly watch over their smaller successors.
A History of Plague
According to legend, a plague was poisoning the city about 750 years ago. Shoichi Kokushi, the priest who founded the Buddhist Shotenji temple, walked around the city on a platform while praying and throwing holy water. After this was performed, the platform was thrown into the water and the epidemic disappeared. It is because of this and the benevolent deities that the races have carried on year after year.