Hakata Dontaku Port Festival

05/01/2007 00:00 No Comments

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 six-page guide to set you on your way!

Many locals and foreigners are surprised to find out that the Dontaku Festival has a history that reaches back more than 820 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 May 3 in the Dontaku Matsubayashi Parade, a colorful procession 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 120 groups of about 12,000 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.

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.

Following the pre-festival party on the night of May 2, a 1.2 km stretch of Meji-dori, one of Fukuoka’s busiest thoroughfares, will be closed to vehicles and transformed into “Dontaku Street.” On May 3 and 4 this area buzzes with activity when about 400 groups, totaling more than 28,000 people, participate in the two Dontaku parades. 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. The participation of two sister cities, Auckland (New Zealand) and Busan (Republic of Korea), and the International Dontaku Troupe (see p. 5) add an international flavor to the festivities. 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. More than 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 particpate 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!

The Dontaku Festival might not conjure up images as iconic as July’s Yamakasa Festival (no loin cloths 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.

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 a bed of roses?


Miss Fukuoka 2006: Mariko Watanabe, Masumi Fukagawa and Yuka Kurihara.

As part of the pre-Dontaku festivities, the 2007 Miss Fukuoka final selection will be held on May 2 at the Fukuoka Kokusai Center. Three Miss Fukouka will be selected from ten finalists, with the chosen ones representing and promoting Fukuoka City during their yearlong reign. So if youユre an unmarried female, over 18 years old and live, work or study in Fukuoka, why don’t you apply for the 2008 contest? Previous finals have included non-Japanese contestants so wouldnユt it be great to be the first foreign Miss Fukuoka?


“Bonchi Kawaiya Nenneshiya
Shinagawajoroshu wa Jumonme
Jumonme no Teppodama
Tamaya ga kawa e Supponpon”

The Dontaku theme song “Bonchikawaiya” has seven verses but we’ve limited ourselves to printing the first one. Sing along as the parade passes and stun the locals with your knowledge of all things Dontaku!


* On the day
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 18:45 to 19:30 and bond with other visitors in this communal dancing event!

* International Dontaku Troupe
Every year, the Fukuoka International Association (FIA) forms the International Dontaku Troupe, a gathering of hundreds of foreigners who march in the parade on May 3. People from all corners of the world show off their traditional outfits and national pride, making visitors aware of the presence of Fukuoka’s foreign community. Applications for 2007 unfortunately closed on April 27, but you can join in next year by contacting FIA (cir@fukuoka-sistercities.jp) or by signing up in person at Rainbow Plaza.

Flower Cars
The parades of gorgeously decorated flower cars, hana jidosha, form an integral part of the Dontaku festivities. Two teams of three cars, all decorated with 10,000 artificial flowers 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 3,000 electric light bulbs, are a splendid sight.


Wooden Dontaku Charms
The Fukuoka Convention Bureau produces several Dontaku goods such as paperhappi coats, Dontaku fans and decorated shamojis but only the wooden Hakata Kifuda are for sale to the public. Marked with the Dontaku logo, these typical Japanese charms can be used as ornaments or cellphone straps and cost エ500. Two different designs are on offer, but pieces are limited to 250 of each version. If you want an original Dontaku memento, head straight to the information desks in Hakata Station, ACROS or near the reserved seating area!

Festival Food
Seasoned foreigners who’ve visited many matsuri have undoubtedly acquainted themselves with Japanese festival fare. For those less familiar with these culinary delights, here are three local favorites:

This grilled squid snack, marinated in a sugary soy sauce, is great for munching on as you walk through the streets. Dont take too much time chewing though – its texture becomes rubbery as it cools, making it hard work for your jaw!

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.


Visitors with a sweet tooth wonユ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ユt break your teeth!

160,000 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).

Reserved Seating
If you’d rather avoid watching the parade in the crowd and prefer a more comfortable viewing spot, then consider buying kanko sajiki tickets for special seats on a stand near Mizukami Park on Meji-dori.

Originally published in Fukuoka Now magazine (fn101, May, 2007)  



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