Seventy-seven lantern-adorned boats floating down four kilometers of canals; a whole community coming together with song, dance and festival spirit to honor a homegrown literary legend. The Hakushu-sai boat parade is as unique a cultural experience as you’re likely to find in Japan. Dedicated to Yanagawa-born tanka poet, Hakushu Kitahara, the festival runs for three days commemorating the anniversary of his death on November 2nd, 1942.
Residents of Yanagawa pull out all the stops to pay tribute to Hakushu, whose poetic sensibility was informed by his life there. As Hakushu loved his hometown, so his hometown loves him back (more than 70 years since his passing).
“Yanagawa. Your children
Have aged, left for distant places.
What draws this childlike heart of mine to you?”
To take a seat on one of the gondola-like “donko” boats feels like winning a lottery: seats for the event are largely reserved by various Fukuoka-based organizations, and some lucky pre-selected groups of general guests.
Even for those who have ridden the Yanagawa boats during the daytime, this event steps things up to a completely new level. The hours aboard are full of bewitching night views of Yanagawa illuminated by lanterns and non-stop local entertainment at the many temporary stages along the canals.
Performances include high school bands, Japanese drummers, groups playing koto harps and other traditional instruments, choirs and theatrical dances.
Guests riding the boats, along with those watching from the shore, clap along to the lively entertainment. It’s a lot of fun and a good crash course in the various forms of Japanese song and dance.
In the contrastingly peaceful moments between these stages, attention shifts towards your river guide who skilfully leads the boat under multiple low bridges and past houses in the riverside district lined with local children and families.
They welcome your passing boat with handheld fireworks, enthusiastic waves and happy shouts of “konbanwa“! Receiving such special attention from the townspeople is at first unexpected, but soon you become accustomed to waving, smiling, and shouting greetings back as if you’re part of a victorious sporting team’s homecoming parade. This sense of community spirit is one of the highlights of the Hakushu-sai event: it feels as if every single resident of Yanagawa has come out to participate.
Along the course there are multiple opportunities to stretch your legs and use the bathroom, including a picturesque stop off near a riverside shop and local shrine.
Lanterns play a big role in Hakushu-sai; hanging from each boat, lining the canal, and with a very special lantern tunnel mid-way through the journey.
After two and a half hours of floating down the canals eating, drinking, waving, laughing and watching performances, your boat reaches the last stage.
Here, the festival comes to a close with a dramatic display of fireworks over the water, bringing an extraordinary night to its final crescendo.
If you ever have the opportunity to partake in the Hakushu-sai festival, take it without looking back. I cannot recall a more memorable or worthwhile festival I’ve seen in Japan, and images of our one night aboard Yanagawa’s lantern-lit canal boat will stay with me always.
Photos and text by Ellery Spychalski for Fukuoka Now.
JTB are offering a special deal on tours to Yanagawa! Click here for more information. Need more convincing? Check out our report on a day trip to Yanagawa – the “Venice of Japan” makes for a fabulous weekend getaway!