It is shortly before 5am on Monday 15th July and I am stumbling, camera in sweaty hand, down a narrow street thronged with the bleary-eyed but visibly excited population of Fukuoka. A peculiar buzz fills the air – a mixture of the frenzied chirping of cicada, and the low, animated voices of spectators – and intensifies as I approach Kushida shrine. I am here for the climactic Oiyama event of Hakata’s annual Yamakasa festival, and this is the starting point.
Rather than the sedate parade of floats seen at other Japanese festivals, Oiyama is a race held between seven teams (or nagare), each composed of hundreds of mainly local men who compete to carry a portable shrine, or yama, around a five kilometer course. For two weeks prior to the final event, the nagare have been tweaking elements of their technique together, eating and drinking (a lot) together, getting dressed together, guarding the floats together, attending ceremonies and practice runs together, very often just waiting around together. This is unquestionably a team event, symbolised by the straw rope which each yama-bearer carries, its strength far more than the sum of each individual strand. And now, with the break of dawn, all of that shared experience is about to culminate in a final mad charge through the streets of Hakata.
I push through the crowds as far as they will let me go, and am able to glimpse the first waiting yama. This one belongs to the Ebisu nagare, and flanking it on every side are rows of its dedicated bearers, clad in their characteristic shimekomi loincloths. They have been gathered since around midnight to allow time for ritual cleaning of the float, its transport to this starting line, and the performing of ceremonies. They must be exhausted, I think to myself, but their faces show only a steely resilience. It almost brings to mind that scene in countless war films where the young and brave, waiting in their trench, must contemplate ‘going over the top’ – except that here, there is a violent joy which mingles with that trepidation, and of course the occasional smile.
‘5 minutes!’ announces the loudspeaker, and excitement ripples up and down the narrow street and through the crowds perched in the stands. Somewhere in the Ebisu melee is Chris Rees, who I spoke to less than 24 hours before the race and whose story gives an idea of the irresistible lure of Yamakasa. Having originally joined the festival in 1994, while working for the Australian consulate in Fukuoka, he left the city 3 years later in 1997 for work in Hong Kong, Adelaide, Osaka and now Singapore – but still flies back almost every year to take part. This will be his 19th year.
‘1 minute!’ An old man surprises me by suddenly rising to his feet on my right, climbing his portable stepladder and unslinging a camera that is almost bigger than him. A well-oiled maneuver – I wonder for how many decades he has been attending, while cursing his height advantage.
30 seconds. Somebody encourages the yama-bearers with a loud and drunken-sounding cry of ‘gambatte!’, and voices all around rise in response.
10 seconds. Now the crowd is silent, all eyes on the runners and their precious cargo.
5 seconds. I catch myself shivering despite the warm morning. Then somebody bellows a command and there is a pulse-quickening roar as the float leaps forward and into life.
Watching a well-drilled yamakasa team is like watching a master puppeteer working his creations – at times, the members become invisible, or at least irrelevant, in the presence of the yama, moving as it does in an astonishingly smooth glide. The movements required to carry this thing seem purely instinctive – when you are sharing a one ton load with thirty-odd other people, you probably don’t have much time or inclination to think about technique. Each runner must simply sacrifice his body’s strength to the safe carriage of the yama, and in turn the yama and its surrounding masses come to resemble a single unity. I am reminded of Chris’s observation that the whole thing operates like some kind of complex molecule, each individual’s action subsumed to a greater, more perfect form of motion.
Breathless, I watch it go charging into the shrine and come abruptly to a halt – thankfully not because there has been a mistake or an accident, but because it is time for the Iwaimedeta, a traditional Hakata song of celebration, and one which only the first nagare to enter Kushida has the honor of singing. So the race, which had barely started, is put on hold, and for an extraordinary minute we listen to the song, its minor key strangely suited to the pre-dawn dark, its curiously timed phrases somehow expressive of the mix of solemnity and playfulness which underpins this whole festival. I felt a similar mixture earlier in the week, when I watched each nagare run in formation to a small beach close to Hakozaki shrine and gather sand, prized for its supposed protective properties, in an event known as oshioitori. There was playfulness – after all, they were half-naked and splashing around on a beach – but also a striking intensity there, even with the race still a week away.
The song has scarcely finished when the massed numbers of Ebisu retie their headbands and ready themselves. Another roar, and the yama surges out of the shrine and off into the dark, leaving the shrine vacant for the waiting Doi team. There are plenty more starts to come, but I want to see how the race continues, so I cut across to Taihaku-dori, where Ebisu will soon reappear. This wide avenue, too, is awash with people blinking in the growing light, straining to see into adjacent streets where occasionally the fierce outline of Ebisu’s float goes barrelling past. There is no question of crossing from where I stand, so I settle in with a group of haggard-looking pensioners who gasp at the way I hold my camera aloft. While we wait for the float, one elderly lady tells me that she has been coming to watch Yamakasa since before she can remember, even if her old habit of pulling an all-nighter has been replaced by a good six hours sleep and an early start.
Our small talk is interrupted by a sudden rise in crowd noise – Ebisu has just come back into view, or into earshot rather, its arrival heralded by the endless chant of oisa! oisa! and the tramp of feet matched to that rhythm. The pensioners go into battle mode and suddenly it’s a free-for-all while we each struggle to get our own snaps. As the float passes right in front of us, we watch veins swell, jaws tighten, and eyeballs bulge, and I try to imagine the gargantuan effort required of each participant. According to Chris, a runner will usually carry the float for a minute at the most, and during that time is torn between two conflicting thoughts: on one hand the knowledge that you probably can’t go on much longer, and on the other a desire for the euphoria never to end.
This time, rather than cutting ahead of the yama I decide to simply follow in its wake, mainly to avoid another pavement scrum but also to try and see what the runners see, when they have time to see anything at all. A veritable cross-section of Fukuoka’s population lines the streets: the old veterans, the trendy, the nocturnal, the downright bewildered or exhausted. Occasionally I find myself jogging alongside a fellow enthusiast, and we exchange grins at the madness of this dawn escapade while dodging the occasional bucketload of water hurled in our direction.
After a while, I slow to a walk, ostensibly to witness the next team’s float arrive from behind, but really because it is the crack of dawn and I’m suddenly exhausted. But soon I find myself running again, this time away from the advancing yama, and imagine that this is what it might feel like to run from the bulls in Pamplona – a huge, snarling presence hot on my heels, and the knowledge that I will certainly run out of steam before it does.
Fortunately, it isn’t too far to the point on the course where my friends have been waiting, and I’m able to squeeze in beside them and avoid being trampled by a hundred men in loincloths. Together, we watch the remaining yama pass, and having previously gawped at them each as a single mass, I finally have time to focus on the runners as individuals. Here too, there are people from all walks of life: during Yamakasa, company executives and noodle shop owners will quite literally rub shoulders, and the only rank which matters is that which has been earned through long commitment to the festival. Yamakasa is a time when the shackles of everyday work – whatever that might be – are irrelevant and all that matters is the honest act of participation. For many, it appears a respite from lives spent slaving in offices, cramming for exams, or simply lived alone. Chris likened participants to talented musicians who might happily work a desk job but secretly live for their nighttime gig.
Because of this levelling effect, participation appears an enjoyable way for foreign residents to escape permanent ‘outsider’ status and connect with the local community on equal terms. As a long-standing member of Ebisu, Chris is seen by the others not as a foreign novelty but as a participant like any other. There is no surprise when he tells them he has flown back from Singapore for this year’s event – of course he has. It’s July, it’s Yamakasa, and everything else is irrelevant.
The last of the yama is almost here. We are too far from the finishing line to watch them cross, but that is hardly the point. Indeed, while it is precisely the competitive element of Yamakasa that sets it apart from most other Japanese festivals, the runners are really doing this for their own nagare more than anyone else. Details such as the time taken to complete the race are secondary, relevant only as markers of everyone’s joint commitment. Yamakasa has a long and fascinating history, and it is hard to imagine it ending anytime soon, but what matters more than that, and more than statistics, is the immediacy of the event. It is almost 6am, and with the break of day the festival will disappear entirely for another year, but Yamakasa is not about leaving traces to be admired.
In the west – in my native Britain, at least – we are sometimes embarrassed by notions of team spirit, civic pride, or sacrificing our own comfort for some greater undertaking. But, watching the final yama pass by, many of the exhausted runners arm in arm or clutching children to their chest, I can’t help but think that if we had a few more moments like Yamakasa in our lives, we might think differently about the meaning of that sacrifice. And we would get to wear loincloths in public.
Text and photos by Jesse Kirkwood (Lake District, UK, Student / teacher) for Fukuoka Now.
“I grew up in the Lake District in northern England, although my family hails from South Africa. After studying French and Polish at Oxford University, I received a Tsuzuki scholarship to study Japanese at the Japan University of Economics in Fukuoka. As well as languages, I enjoy travel writing, photography and music. This year I have been exploring Fukuoka and Japan through my camera lens and recording experiences on my blog.”