Autumn in Hakata is not complete without a trip to Hakozakigu Shrine. Every year, more than one million people visit the shrine during the festival. The Hojoya festival originates from the teachings of the kami Hachiman, and has continued for more than 1,000 years as a festival to give thanks for the blessings of nature. As well as observing Shinto rituals such as offering gifts to the gods, the biggest draw for modern visitors is the 500 or so stalls lining the approach to the shrine. The variety of stalls goes beyond typical festival fare such as yakitori and takoyaki, to stalls with a pinball-like game, “smart ball”, and even more-funny-than-scary “haunted houses”. The festival is at its busiest between 18:00 and 20:00, and especially on weekends. Some stalls start to close up at around 21:00, but the area is often busy until 22:00 (with the latest stalls staying until around 23:00). Also, some stalls close much earlier on the last day, which is also expected to be extra busy this year, so we advise going early!). From solemn Shinto rituals to busy street stalls, Hojoya presents the entire Japanese festival experience, so put on your yukata and head out.
Hojoya Festival is celebrated at Hakozakigu Shrine every year between Sep. 12 and 18. For more info, photos and the schedule of what’s on, read on!
The Hojoya Festival is said to have originated in the year 720 at the Usa Hachiman-gu Shinto Shrine in Oita, and was originally held to commemorate the war dead. Since then, the festival has become an event for honoring all living things, particularly the lives that allow us to live. The first Hojoya Festival at Hakozakigu Shrine was held in 919 AD. It is also said that the festival began after an oracle from a kami, which went, “Since so much life is taken during war, a festival to celebrate the freeing of life should be held.” An alternative tale comes from Buddhism: Rusui-choja, a previous life of Buddha, helped fish that had been dying in a dried up pond; they expressed their gratitude to him and incarnated in thirty three heavens. Whichever origin story you believe, it is clear that Hojoya celebrates life and freedom; after all, the first two kanji of “Hojoya” are “放” (release) and “生” (live). Don’t miss the last day of the festival, when birds and fish are “freed” in accordance with the will of the kami.
Until the Taisho period (about a century ago), the Hakata merchants would close their shops, celebrate with their families and neighbors, and hold large parties. The women had new kimono made for the occasion and brought local food and dinnerware to the parties, turning them into large picnics. These were called makudashi, and since 1975, groups have been trying to keep alive the Hakatakko spirit by recreating these makudashi.
A scene from the makudashi on Sep. 16.
At almost any time you can catch a live performance on the Kaminigiwai Stage, located not too far from the main shrine. Entertainment ranges from local stand-up comedy known as Hakata Niwaka, to traditional-style Japanese music, to dance, to Japanese drumming, to trained monkey performances! Here is this year’s schedule (subject to change):
19:00 Live acoustic performance by Kyushu Visual Arts Student Band
11:00 Street performance by Kyushu Street Performance Troupe
18:00 Dedication performance
13:00 Dedication performance
14:00 Dedication performance
13:00 Southern style folk group
15:00 Dedication performance (Hakata Koyo Hozonkai, Society for the Preservation of Traditional Hakata Songs)
16:00 Singing and piano performance by Seiko Nakashima
19:00 Buzen Kagura – Shinto music and dance (Yamauchi Kagurako)
12:00 Koto performance ※
13:00 Dedication performance
15:00 Makudashi by Hakata Chonin Bunka Renmei ※
15:00 Martial arts performance
16:00 Hakata Niwaka (traditional comedy) by Hakata Niwaka Dojo
19:00 Hakata koma (spinning top) performance by Hakata Koma Hozonkai
20:00 Wadaiko (Japanese drum) performance by Hakata Kinshiji Taiko
9:00 Martial arts (karate) performance by Goshinjutsu Karatedo Ryusuikai
10:30 Brass band performance by Hakozaki Elementary School Brass Band Society
11:15 Dedication performance
13:00 Hakata Niwaka (Society for the Preservation of Hakozaki Traditional Culture)
14:00 Raspberry Dream (band)
17:00 Orio Kagura (Shinto music and dance)
18:00 Hakozaki Kyoshitsu (classroom) presentation (how to experience Noh) ※
11:00 Martial arts (Mugai Ryu) performance by Hougyokukai Mugai Ryu Iai
12:00 Wadaiko (Japanese drum) performance by Hakata Bishin Taiko
15:30 Hakofes 2017 dance performance by Ryohei Kondo (Fish are released into the pond, and birds are released on stage)
17:00 The Ventures cover band
18:00 Hula dance
19:00 Karaoke performance
※ Items with this mark will be held at the haiden (front shrine).
*Location: Main shrine hall
Every year the shrine holds public ceremonies to pray for a bountiful harvest and to show appreciation for life itself. Most of the events are small prayers or rituals, but there are two that stand out: Hojoya Taisai and Hojo Shinji. These events are a bit more animated, with more to see. Here is this year’s schedule:
18:00 Omikoshi Kiyome (御神輿清め): Purification of portable shrines
24:00 Shonichi-sai (初日祭): Prayer to open the first day’s festivities.
Shinrei-igyosai (神霊移御祭): Moving of the holy spirits
15:00 Hongu Yumikesai (本宮夕御饌祭): morning offerings
18:00 Omikoshi Gyoretsu (Goshinko) (御神輿行列、お下り): Parade of portable shrines (descent)
10:00 Tongu Asamikesai (頓宮朝御饌祭): Morning offerings
13:00 Kenka-sai (献菓祭): Well-known companies belonging to the Japan Sweets Association donate sweets to the shrine.
15:00 Tongu Yumikesai (頓宮夕御饌祭): Evening offerings
10:00 Tongu Asamikesai (頓宮朝御饌祭): Morning offerings
13:00 Tongu Yumikesai (頓宮夕御饌祭): Evening offerings
19:00 Omikoshi Gyoretsu (Goshinko) (御神輿行列) (お上り): Parade of portable shrines (ascent)
10:00 Hojoya Taisai (放生会大祭): Prayer to open the fourth day’s festivities (on a bigger scale than the opening ritual on all other days). 100 to 200 special guests are invited, and some wear shrine costumes.
15:00 Kenka-sai (献菓祭): A representative of Fukuoka brings ikebana (traditional Japanese floral arrangements), which are ceremonially placed in the main building as decoration.
9:00 Itsuka-sai (五日祭): Prayer to open the fifth day’s festivities.
11:00 Kencha-shiki: Prepared matcha tea is ceremonially handed over to shrine officials, who offer it to the gods.
10:00 Muika-sai (六日祭): Prayer to open the sixth day’s festivities.
11:00 Fukuya Kuyo Kigan-sai (ふくや供養祈願祭): Prayers for the deceased
10:00 Nousai (納祭): Prayer to open the final day’s festivities
Shanichi-sai 社日祭: Purification ritual that takes place on the day that falls closest to the autumnal equinox
14:00 Hojo Shinji (放生神事): Perhaps the most famous Hojoya ritual! Fish are released into the pond, and birds are released on stage. Children’s procession too.
Goshinko (Portable Shrine Procession)
Every two years, the goshinko ritual is performed at Hakozakigu Shrine. Three portable shrines carrying the gods of Hakozakigu Shrine are paraded through the streets by around 500 shrine parishioners dressed in white robes. The parishioners begin preparing for the sacred ritual in spring to practice the parade formation that has been handed down over generations.
The portable shrines depart from Hakozakigu Shrine at 18:00 on the evening of the 12th. The sound of bells and taiko drums reverberates throughout the grounds as the departure time approaches. The procession is led by a priest riding a white horse, and every time someone throws a coin in the coin box, the parishioners shake it as a sign of gratitude. The jangling of coins mixes with the sound of classical imperial court music, and the whole scene is akin to something from an ancient scroll painting.
The initial procession on the 12th passes Yoshizuka Station at 19:30 and Hakozaki Elementary School at 21:20 before arriving at a temporary shrine near Higashi Ward Office at 21:45. All told, it takes nearly four hours to complete.
During the return procession on the 14th, the shrines are carried back to Hakozakigu Shrine in about one hour, from 19:00. With the shrines still held aloft, the parishioners run the final several hundred meters into the shrine as fast as they can, making for a spectacle that wows the crowd.
Since it doesn’t happen every year, the goshinko is a must-see event.
Orio kagura is the forerunner of a dragon dance called iwami kagura, which wowed the audience at the Osaka World Expo 1970. This year at Hojoya, witness orio kagura on 9/17 (Sun.) at 17:00. With its beautiful costumes and intense movements this dance will surely liven up the festival!
The squeamish should perhaps give these stalls a miss. Otherwise, grab a fishing rod, catch an eel, and then hand it over to the cook, who will turn it into dinner. If eel isn’t your meal of choice, you can also fish for crayfish and crabs. But if you’d rather hunt for new friendships than dinner, you can fish for turtles and goldfish and then take them home with you.
A staple of Japanese teen romance stories, these haunted houses provide a great excuse for couples to cosy up, and for friends to bond over the hammer horror-esque scares. Afterwards, you can reward yourself for your bravery with a sprinkle-covered chocolate banana, some takoyaki, or any of the other delicious festival treats on offer.
500 street stalls, stretching all the way to the bay
No Japanese festival is complete without street stalls! As many as 500 street stalls line the road approaching Hakozakigu Shrine. Have your fill of traditional festival food such as fried squid, cotton candy, sweets, and Instagram-worthy curly fried potatoes. The stalls will be lit up at sundown, adding to the festive atmosphere.
From the pinball-like game “smart ball” to mini shooting ranges, there’s so much to do. Many stalls have prizes up for grabs, so bring your A game!
A must-see during Hojoya are the chanpon. These glass toys make a gentle popping sound when you blow into them (hence the onomatopoeic name: the popping sounds like “chanpon chanpon”). The glass is handmade by designated craftsmen and are then painstakingly hand painted by the miko (shrine maidens) and are limited in number (1,400 in total). The chanpon range in size (from 15 cm high to 33 cm) and in design, with a limited number of special chanpon (those with unusual stems or with a tassel attached; 100 in total). Be warned that people begin to line up early in the morning; but if you are an early bird, then a chanpon will set you back ¥3,000 ~ ¥9,000.
There were once many ginger fields near to Hakozaki Shrine before the war, and bundles of ginger made popular presents for merchants to bring home to their wives back in Hakata. Upholding the traditions of the festival, many stalls still sell fresh whole ginger – stalk and all!
This annual event aims to spread the Hojoya festival atmosphere from Hakozaki Shrine to the entire Hakozaki neighbourhood. Events include musical performances, stand-up comedy shows and a film festival. More info here.
3 min. walk from Fukuoka Subway Hakozakimiya-mae station, 8 min. walk from JR Hakozaki Station, 3 min. walk from Nishitetsu bus Hakozaki stop.