Welcome to Yamakasa, welcome to Fukuoka!
You’ve probably already spotted some loincloth-clad men running around town. These men are participants in Fukuoka’s most anticipated annual festival, Hakata Gion Yamakasa. The highlight of the festival kicks off at exactly 4:59 am on July 15 when thousands of men from seven districts race through the streets carrying decorative one-ton floats. But there’s more to Yamakasa than just the main race – read our full guide to find out more, including this year’s schedule and special public transport timetable.
Yamakasa can be traced back 778 years ago to a Buddhist priest named Shoichi Kokushi. In order to eradicate an epidemic, Kokushi was carried on a platform while he prayed and sprinkled holy water. The religious ceremony was held annually to keep the epidemic away, slowly evolving into the festival it is today.
During the Edo era, the festival was held according to the lunar calendar during the first two weeks of June, later being changed to July. It has been held every year since except for a few brief years during the Meiji period and the world wars.
Originally, the tall kazariyama, floats now used only for display, were used as the race floats. With the introduction of power lines, the floats were shortened in 1883 and again in 1910 to accommodate the electric streetcar lines. The placing of dolls on the race floats is a relatively recent practice. Following WWII, there was a shortage of materials with which to decorate the floats. Instead of dolls, a large painted piece of wood was placed on the float. Old kimono sashes made from Hakata textiles were also draped on the floats.
Check out our illustrated route map with top tips on the best spots to view Oiyama, the main event!
Most Fukuokans are unaware of the enormous work required to prepare for the festival. Numerous meetings and ceremonies are held at Kushida Shrine throughout the year, with the major preparation starting from the first of June. Members from each nagare begin by selecting a theme and constructing their race float with the assistance of one of the famous doll makers. Others solicit donations from individuals and companies in their area. Towards the end of June, others help with erecting tents and setting up tables in each small district.
Each of the seven nagare covers a rather large area, which is then sub-divided into smaller ku or districts, thereby forming the base of an extensive hierarchy. The tents set up in each ku serve as the center of all activities for the length of the festival. Meetings and planning sessions, meals, socializing, drinking, and sometimes even sleeping take place in the close-knit, familial sphere of the tent.
Come July 1, things are in full swing (see event schedule below). On this day and again on July 9 is the Oshioitori, during which members of each nagare run from their home bases to the beginning of the pathway leading to Hakozaki Shrine. Here, the members purify themselves in seawater and gather sand in small baskets which they carry back and sprinkle around the entrance of their homes to purify them. Practice sessions continue until July 14, with the culmination on the morning of July 15. Each of the events serves as a warm-up to get the runners in shape and give the teams time to practice running smoothly and switching position while carrying the one-ton floats.
For the final Oiyama race, all teams carry their floats to the entrance of Kushida Shrine at 3:00 am. The first nagare begins the race at exactly 4:59 am, and has the honor of stopping mid-way through their swing through Kushida Shrine grounds to sing the song “Iwaimedeta”. Following that, the next six teams begin in five minute intervals.
This year’s race order is: Chiyo, Ebisu, Doi, Daikoku, Higashi, Nakasu, Nishi.
Watching the Festival
The frenzy of activity as a race float passes in front of you is what makes the festival so exhilarating. At any one time, only about 30 runners carry the float, while others run in front, back, or along the sides. By watching carefully the different roles being played and how the runners change positions, one can appreciate the teamwork involved. Those in the back also play an important role, acting as ato-oshi or “pushers” pushing the float from behind.
The four people riding on the float, called dai-agari, have the responsibility of directing the runners to change positions. Using a red baton (teppo), they point out individual runners who should make room for the fresh runners. If the runner doesn’t see the baton, he may get a rap on the head or shoulder. Carrying the float takes such an enormous effort that even the strongest runners do not last for more than three or four minutes at a time. Typically they will rotate in three or four times during the course of the race.
Colored tenugui or headbands distinguish the ranks of the runners.The following three colors are standardized throughout the seven nagare: red designates strong, young runners with responsibility for carrying the float; red and white designates elders responsible for planning and logistics; blue and white designates elders responsible for health and safety.
In addition, each nagare also has other colors to distinguish the ranks of other runners. There are also four other types of runners who wear woven-colored cloth ropes around their chests to indicate their special roles: red designates the right to ride on the float; blue designates hanadori (steerers), who control the float using ropes tied to each of the four corners; green designates runners who direct traffic; yellow designates runners who clear a path for their float. They also watch out for the children, some of whom carry itamanekibata, banners with the nagare‘s name.
One thing apparent throughout is the team effort required. The festival is conducted on such a massive scale that the local townspeople in each nagare must all come together for it to be successful.
The importance of team spirit also comes through in the record keeping (or lack of it). Nowhere will one find published statistics on the strongest teams, team placings in previous years, course records and so on. This is not important. What is important is to participate in a cooperative, neighborly fashion, work as a team, and above all, show this effort to the gods enshrined in Kushida.
2019 Yamakasa Schedule
View the Yamakasa Map 2019 in a larger map.
☛Jul. 1 (Early morning)
A ceremony held to purify each team’s district area. A small offering of decorated bamboo and purified rope is displayed on the corner of each team’s main street to pray for safety. Decorative kazariyama floats are displayed around the city.
☛Jul. 1 (Morning)
This event serves to welcome the God of Yamakasa. A priest visits each kazariyamakasa (decorated Yamakasa floats) to pray for safety. Portable kakiyama shrines are constructed and blessed. In the evening, this year’s team in charge goes to Hakozaki beach to get purifying sand (oshioi) wearing mizuhappi.
☛Jul. 9 (Evening)
Oshioitori (Fetching the Sea Salt)
Part of the ritual of praying for safety during the festival’s events, the participants from each team run from Hakata to the beach at Hakozaki to fetch purifying sand (oshioi). On the way back they visit Japan’s great Hachiman shrines: Hakozaki Shrine and Kushida Shrine, receiving sacred sake. Sand is later thrown on runners’ feet as a blessing. One of the highlights of the Yamakasa Festival.
☛Jul. 10 (Evening)
The first kakiyama practice run, where teams practice carrying floats in their own districts. Each team’s course changes yearly, so to find out the route you have to ask someone in the know.
☛Jul. 11 (Early morning 5:00~6:00 / Afternoon)
Each team, operating on its own schedule, does an early morning practice run through their own territory. At this event, children are allowed to ride on the Yamakasa. Jul. 11 is the only time the teams run twice in one day. In the afternoon some teams practice running into Kushida Shrine.
☛Jul. 12 (15:59~)
A rehearsal for the Oiyama race. Participants run a slightly shortened 4 km course through the streets of Hakata from Kushida Shrine. The atmosphere is similar to that of the main event, but at a more reasonable time.
☛Jul. 13 (15:30~)
The first float departs Gofuku-machi crossing at 3:30 pm. After passing through Meiji-dori, the seven floats line up in front of Fukuoka City Hall.
☛Jul. 14 (Evening)
Similar to the July 10th run, some teams complete a practice run through their own territory. An evening warm-up, this is the last chance to practice and fix technique before the Oiyama.
☛Jul. 15 (Early morning 4:59~)
The climax of the Hakata Yamakasa festival. Teams begin assembling at 1:30 am. The first team leaves the starting line at Kushida Shrine at 4:59 am. Thousands of men from the seven districts race through the streets carrying decorative, one-ton floats. Spectators line the streets cheering them on by shouting “Oisa, oisa” and splashing them with water to keep them cool. The course takes about 30 minutes to run. After the eighth team departs Kushida Shrine, a Noh farce is performed to calm the gods.
Photo provided by the City of Fukuoka
This year’s race order is:
4:59 Chiyo / 千代流
5:05 Ebisu / 恵比須流
5:10 Doi / 土居流
5:15 Daikoku / 大黒流
5:20 Higashi / 東流
5:25 Nakasu / 中洲流
5:30 Nishi / 西流
Hashiru Kazariyama: Kazariyama floats are for display only, but on July 12 (at 4:35 pm) and July 15 (at 5:35 am), the Kawabata Arcade kazariyama is carried from Kushida Shrine along the blue route. (Click here for our detailed kazariyama guide!)
Special Early Public Transportation on July 15
• Toward Kaizuka (from Meinohama)
Departs Meinohama 3:47
> Tenjin 4:01
> Nakasu-Kawabata 4:03
> Gofuku-machi 4:04
• Toward Fukuoka Airport (from Meinohama)
Departs Meinohama 3:55
> Tenjin 4:08
> Nakasu-Kawabata 4:10
> Gion 4:12
• Toward Nakasu-Kawabata (from Kaizuka)
Departs Kaizuka 4:19
> Gofuku-machi 4:27
> Nakasu-Kawabata 4:28
• Toward Meinohama (from Fukuoka Airport)
Departs Fukuoka Airport 4:25
> Hakata 4:30
> Gion 4:32
> Nakasu-Kawabata 4:34
> Tenjin 4:36
• Toward Tenjin-minami (from Hashimoto)
Departs Hashimoto 3:25
> Fukudaimae 3:33
> Ropponmatsu 3:41
> Yakuin 3:46
> Tenjin-minami 3:49
• Toward Hashimoto (from Tenjin-minami)
Departs Tenjin-minami 4:00
> Yakuin 4:03
> Ropponmatsu 4:08
> Fukudaimae 4:16
> Hashimoto 4:24
• Toward Nishitetsu Fukuoka Tenjin (Nishitetsu Omuta Line)
Departs Hanabatake 2:55 (local train)
> Nishitetsu Kurume 2:57
> Nishitetsu Ogori 3:10
> Chikushi 3:21
> Nishitetsu Futsukaichi 3:35
> Nishitetsu Hirao 3:56
> Yakuin 3:58
> Nishitetsu Fukuoka Tenjin 4:01
Departs Chikushi 3:27 (express train)
> Asakuragaido 3:29
> Nishitetsu Futsukaichi 3:33
> Ohashi 3:45
> Yakuin 3:48
> Nishitetsu Fukuoka Tenjin 3:51
• Toward Kaizuka (Nishitetsu Kaizuka Line)
Departs Nishitetsu Shingu 3:42, 4:02
> Nishitetsu Kashii 3:56, 4:15
> Nishitetsu Chihaya 3:59, 4:19
> Kaizuka 4:05, 4:25
*Passengers can transfer to Hakozaki Subway Line at Kaizuka Sta.
• Noko-tosenba (312) departs at 3:20
> Marina Town
> Ishi Kaikan and Soft Research Park
> Gion-machi 3:50
> Hakata Station
• Fujisaki (11) departs at 3:15
> Yakuin Station
> Hakata Station
> Gion-machi 3:48
> Chuo Futo
• Nogata (203) departs at 3:22
> Kokutai Street
> Nakasu and Minamishinchi 3:57
• Sawara Bus Office (200) departs at 3:18, 3:28
> Arae Yotsukado
> Kokutai-doro Ave.
> Nakasu and Minami-shinchi 3:55, 4:05
• Kanetake Bus Office (2) departs at 2:55
> Gion-machi 4:03
> Hakata Station
• Kanetake Bus Office (201) departs at 3:15
> Nakasu and Minami-shinchi 4:01
• Midorigaoka Danchi-iriguchi (77) departs at 3:09
> Gofuku-machi 3:43
• Doi-danchi (77) departs at 3:20
> Hakozaki Station
> Gofuku-machi 3:48
• Midorigaoka Danchi-iriguchi (27N) departs at 3:02, 3:12
> Kashiidai 4-chome
> Kashii Sando
> Najima Sports Ground
> Kuramoto 3:34, 3:44
• Shimobaru (23) departs at 3:21, 3:26
> Kuramoto 3:54, 3:59
• Kashiihama Bus Office (29) departs at 3:08, 3:13
> Gion-machi 3:49, 3:54
> Hakata Station
• Kamiumi (39 express) departs at 3:17
> Hibarigaoka Danchi
> Fukuoka Airport
> Hakata Station (will not stop here on the return trip)
> Gion-machi 4:00
• Haruda-bachi (32) departs at 3:07
> Hakata Station (will not stop here on the return trip)
> Gion-machi 3:49
• Katae Bus Office (13) departs at 2:59, Gion-machi 3:45, arrives Hakata Station
• Katae Bus Office (113) departs at 3:19, arrives at Nakasu and Minamishinchi 3:55
• Hibaru Bus Office (50) departs at 2:53 and 3:08, Gion-machi 3:35 and 3:50, arrives at Chuo Futo
• Kashihara Bus Office (51) departs at 2:57, Gofuku-machi 3:41, arrives Yoshizuka Bus Office
• Hibaru Bus Office (52) departs at 2:53 and 3:08, Gofuku-machi 3:32 and 3:47, arrives Yoshizuka Bus Office
• Kashihara Bus Office (56) departs at 2:57 and 3:12, Gofuku-machi 3:43 and 3:58, arrives Hakata Station
• Nakagawa Bus Office (47) departs at 2:56 and 3:06, Gion-machi 3:41 and 3:51, arrives Hakata Futo
• Lake Hills Notame (48) departs at 3:00, arrives at Gion-machi 3:44
• Hakataeki-minami (49) departs at 3:05, arrives Gofuku-machi 3:56
• Nakagawa Bus Office (61) departs at 3:00 and 3:08, Gofuku-machi 3:45 and 3:53, arrives Kyudai-mae
• Itazuke 7-chome (40) departs at 3:25 and 3:35, arrives Gion-machi 3:49 and 3:59
➤JR Trains (050-3786-1717)
• Hakata Yamakasa Line (from Kurume) *runs on 7/15 only
> Kurume 3:30
> Tosu 3:38
> Kiyama 3:46
> Harada 3:51
> Futsukaichi 3:58
> Onojo 4:05
> Kasuga 4:07
> Minami-Fukuoka 4:10
> Hakata 4:19
• Hakata Yamakasa Line (from Kokura) *runs on 7/15 only
> Kokura 2:35
> Tobata 2:43
> Kurosaki 2:53
> Akama 3:17
> Fukuma 3:28
> Koga 3:33
> Kashii 3:46
> Hakata 3:57
• Hakata Yamakasa Line (from Chikuzen-Maebaru and Kyudai Gakkentoshi) *runs on 7/15 only
> Chikuzen-Maebaru 3:55
> Itoshima-kokomae 3:57
> Hatae 3:59
> Susenji 4:02
> Kyudai Gakkentoshi 4:05
> Imajuku 4:07
> Shimoyamato 4:11
> Gion 4:33
> Hakata 4:35
• Hakata Yamakasa Line (from Nogata and Iizuka) *runs on 7/15 only
> Nogata 3:10
> Kotake 3:18
> Shin-Iizuka 3:26
> Iizuka 3:29
> Keisen 3:37
> Sasaguri 3:54
> Chojabaru 4:00
> Yusu 4:05
> Hakata 4:11
Photography: You’ll probably want to take a camera along. It will still be dark when the race begins, so keep that in mind. Also, take along some protective covering (plastic bag, jacket, etc.) to protect your camera from being splashed.
Good places to watch: Since the final Oiyama race is spread out over a 5 km route, there’s no bad place to watch the event, but here’s our top tips on where to get the best view:
1. Take it all in:
Try Higashimachi-suji, the street parallel to Taihaku-dori: it slopes down toward the port, so a spot near the bottom at the intersection with Meiji-dori allows for a nice view of the floats coming from quite a distance away. Be careful, though, as the street is quite narrow!
2. Double the fun:
The intersection of Showa-dori and Taihaku-dori is a good place to see the floats more than once. Catch them a second time as they race down parallel streets.
3. Gentlemen, start your floats:
If you want to watch the race from the starting line, stake out a spot in front of Kushida Shrine no later than 4 am (the earlier the better). After watching three or four starts, move to another place along the route for a different view.
4. Avoid the crush:
If you hate crowds or can’t manage waking up so early, try and catch one of the pre-Oiyama race events. Usually held in the late afternoon hours, they are less crowded than Oiyama. The stronger afternoon light also makes it easier to capture the action on camera. (See festival schedule above)
☛ Cucumbers: Participants are not allowed to eat cucumbers from July 1 to 14, as it is said that a cross section of a cucumber looks like the symbol of Kushida Shrine. There is also a myth that a priest of Kushida Shrine once fell and injured himself while walking through a cucumber patch.
☛ Sleeping in class: Some teachers of schools in Hakata allow students who participated in the Oiyama race to sleep during class.
☛ Days off: Participation in the Yamakasa Festival is a valid reason for male company employees to take days off during the festival.
☛ No nails: Each Yamakasa race float is constructed totally without the use of nails. Dowels, tongue and groove construction, and ropes are used instead.
☛ No womanizing: As a rite of purification, male participants of Yamakasa are expected to abstain from intimate contact with females.
☛ Takeda Shingen: Doll figures of Takeda Shingen, an Edo era daimyo, are never used to decorate the floats as it is thought that it will bring bad luck. At one time when a doll of Shingen was used, it supposedly brought mishaps.
☛ Food: Though not observed so strictly now, the traditional meal after finishing the Oiyama race consists of umeboshi (pickled Japanese plum), kamaboko (fish cake), asari-jiru (clam soup) and sake.
Extra! Read a rundown of the festival by Jesse Kirkwood, Fukuoka Now’s reporter on the scene.
Originally written in Jun. 2016, updated in Jun. 2019.
Copyright Fukuoka Now – including all text, photos and illustrations. Permission required to re-use in any form. Meanwhile, feel free to link to this page.
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 Jun. 2016.