Each year in May, the Hakata Dontaku Port Festival fills Fukuoka with excitement and attracts more than two million people, making it the highest attended festival in Japan during Golden Week. What? You’ve never been? Surely you must be curious as to what draws such huge crowds to the streets. Here’s Fukuoka Now’s guide to set you on your way! Hakata Dontaku is one of Golden Week’s biggest events, but there are lots of other things going on – check out our Golden Week 2016 Event Guide!
2012 Dontaku video by Dennis Medvevchikov for Fukuoka Now
Dontaku Hiroba includes Meiji Dori from Gofukumachi Intersection to Fukuoka City Hall. The main parade passage from start point, Gofukumachi Intersection, to end point, Fukuoka City Hall, is 30 mins. See the map and schedule below for programme details.
Hakataekimae Dontaku Street
“Hakataekimae-dori Hiroba” is located on Hakataekimae-dori: this is where the Hakata versions of the Dontaku parades take place. There are also stages nearby, including one outside JR Hakata Station. See the schedule below for programme details.
Dontaku 2016 Schedule
• In total there are 36 stages in Fukuoka City (incl. Main Stage)
• Ex. Fukuoka Airport, Chuo Port,Kushida Shrine, Hakataekimae-dori, Canal City, Momochihama, Kashii, and more!
16th Dontaku Flower Marching Festival
• May 4 (Wed.) 16:30~18:30
• Main Stage (Fureai Hiroba, Fukuoka City Hall)
• 16 marching bands
Many locals and foreigners are surprised to find out that the Dontaku Festival has a history that reaches back more than 830 years. It dates all the way back to 1179, when the merchants of Hakata organized a New Year’s parade, Matsubayashi, in honor of their feudal lord. These traditional origins can still be seen every year in the Dontaku Matsubayashi Parade (see below).
In the Edo Period (1603-1868), decorative floats and platforms showcasing dolls were added to the Matsubayashi parade. The festival was first referred to as ‘Dontaku’ in the Meiji period (1868-1912) – it is believed to stem from the Dutch word zondag (Sunday), which was taken to mean “holiday”. The Meiji Government banned the parade for several years because of its extravagance, but the citizens preserved their traditions until it was restarted in 1880.
The Dontaku Festival was also suspended during World War II, but was revived soon after the war ended to help rejuvenate Fukuoka. In 1949 the date was changed from January to May to commemorate the new post-war constitution. Today it’s officially known as the Hakata Dontaku Port Festival, with a number of events held around Hakata Port.
A True Citizen’s Festival
On May 3 and 4 this area buzzes with activity when about 753 groups of paraders and performers, totalling more than 38,000 people, participate in Dontaku. Groups and individuals from all over Kyushu descend on Fukuoka to join these parades: local citizens’ associations, schools, private companies, small businesses, marching bands and drum majorettes – all dancing freely in the street while showcasing their unique costumes and talents. Several international groups will share their own cultures whilst marching in the parades. This inclusion of overseas visitors fits very well with Dontaku’s current theme – celebrating Japan’s diversity – and is an occasion for people from all walks of life to meet and wish each other well.
While the highlight of the festival may be the two parades, Dontaku includes a variety of other entertainment, including floats, nighttime illuminations, food stalls and stage shows. Around 30 stages are erected throughout the city, an opportunity for thousands of people to take turns performing traditional dances, folk songs and contemporary music. Closing the two-day festival are rousing renditions of the Dontaku dance that spectators are invited to participate in. The intriguing mix of ancient traditions and modern exuberance make Dontaku a festival unlike any other in Kyushu – a unique blend of past and present, much like Japan itself!
This parade is the origin of the festival – it hasn’t changed much in 837 years! It departs at 8:50 from Kushida Jinja Shrine on May 3 (Tue.) and May 4 (Wed.). This colorful procession is led by three gods of fortune riding on horseback: Fukurokuju (god of long life), Ebisu (god of business) and Daikoku (god of wealth). They’re accompanied by a group of dancing children, who, in case the gods get above themselves, sing the special festival chant ‘iitate.’ In their wake follow thousands of local people in traditional dress, all performing the Matsubayashi custom of greeting each other through song and dance. This procession has remained unchanged since the Middle Ages and has been designated an Intangible Cultural Property by Fukuoka Prefecture. This group also leads the main Dontaku Parade on May 4.
The Dontaku Festival might not conjure up images as iconic as July’s Yamakasa Festival (no loincloths here!), yet some images are closely associated with it. The following three items in particular can be found on many Dontaku tourist brochures, magazine covers and souvenirs, making them unofficial Dontaku symbols.
Shamoji: All throughout the parade participants can be seen clapping these spoons to the beat of traditional music. But how exactly did an ordinary Japanese kitchen utensil, used to stir and serve rice, end up in this festival? The explanation goes that the shamoji evokes the image of a housewife busy preparing a meal, rushing out to join the passing parade!
Niwaka Mask: This mask is used in Hakata Niwaka, a style of traditional improvisational comedy performed at festivals. The term niwaka itself is said to stem from a local rice cracker brand called Niwaka Senbei, which contained a half mask in its box to be put on during niwaka performances. This way the comedian, who poked fun at established social conventions in witty Hakata dialect, could cleverly hide his identity from those he satirized!
Flower Hat: While the festival sports a huge variety of groups, each with their favorite costumes, one outfit choice that recurs often is the hanakasa, or flower hat. The origin of the flower hat is unknown – but what fashionable girl wouldn’t want to crown her cap with roses?
The Dontaku theme song “Bonchikawaiya” has seven verses but we’ve limited ourselves to including just the first one. Sing along as the parade passes and stun the locals with your knowledge of all things Dontaku!
“Bonchi Kawaiya Nenneshiya
Shinagawajoroshu wa Jumonme
Jumonme no Teppodama
Tamaya ga kawa e Supponpon”
If you’re interested, read about the history of the Dontaku song here!
The parades of gorgeously decorated Flower Cars, hana jidosha, form an integral part of the Dontaku festivities. Two teams of three vehicles, each decorated with 10,000 artificial flowers, approx. 1,200 LED and original designs that change every year, animate the festival atmosphere. Originally, tramways were used, but they were replaced by automobiles when tram service was suspended in 1977. At night the cars, illuminated by so many bulbs, are a splendid sight.
Flower Car Team A:
– Yokatoko Fukuoka
– Yo-kai Watch
– Urashima Taro
Flower Car Team B:
– Maho Girls PreCure!
– Kashiikaen 60th Anniversary: Doubutsu Sentai Zyuohger
– Hawks & Avispa
2016 Flower Car routes & schedule
May 2 (Mon.): 16:20~21:10
May 3 (Tue., Hol.): 10:22~21:10
May 4 (Wed., Hol.): 10:17~20:35
On May 5 (Thu., Hol.), the cars will be on display all day at Kashiikaen Sylvania Garden (Higashi-ku).
You can check the locations of the Flower Cars using this site, which features the cars’ current locations and the running schedule (including delay information). The cars drive through Fukuoka’s busiest areas, including Meinohama, Fukushige, Nishijin, Ohori Park, Tenjin, Nakasu and Hakata Station (see below).
Seasoned foreigners who’ve visited many matsuri have doubtlessly already acquainted themselves with Japanese festival fare. For those less familiar with these culinary delights, here are three local favorites
• Ringo-ame: Visitors with a sweet tooth won’t be able to resist the promised sugar high of these candied apples on a stick, coated with a hot red syrup that dries hard. The result is a translucent, bright red glaze, a feast to the eyes as well as the tastebuds! Other versions such as ichigo-ame (glazed strawberries) are on offer in season. Don’t break your teeth!
• Ikayaki: This grilled squid snack, marinated in a sugary soy sauce, is great for munching on as you walk through the streets. Don’t take too much time chewing though – its texture becomes rubbery as it cools, making it hard work for your jaw!
• Hashimaki: A type of okonomiyaki (savory pancake) popular at festivals is hashimaki – literally translated as “chopstick roll”. The okonomiyaki is served rolled (maki) around a pair of chopsticks (hashi) and topped with mayonnaise, seaweed flakes (nori) and fish flakes (katsuo). It’s eaten much like a corndog and is easy to enjoy on the go.
How to Join In!
So Odori: The climax of two days of revelry features energetic performances of the Dontaku dance, which spectators are wholeheartedly invited to join. Head to Dontaku Street on May 4 from 18:40 and bond with other visitors in this communal dancing event!
150,000 copies of the official Dontaku Festival brochure, printed by Fukuoka City, will be available at all Dontaku information counters on May 3 and 4 (in Japanese only). For more information, visit the official Dontaku website here: http://www.dontaku.fukunet.or.jp/
Go forth and enjoy Dontaku 2016!
* Spending Golden Week in Fukuoka with no plans? NOW staff have selected the best events and activities for 2016 Golden Week. See our Golden Week 2016 Event Guide!
Originally written in Apr. 2016.
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NOTE: The information presented here was gathered and summarized by the Fukuoka Now staff. While we have done our best to check for accuracy, there might be errors and details may have changed. If you notice any errors or changes, please contact us. This report was originally written in Apr. 2016.