By Isla Phillips for Fukuoka Now
Through generosity, serendipity and confusion I spent the day as a princess in Yanagawa’s Ohina-sama Water Parade.
Yanagawa is an old canal town about an hour from Tenjin on the Nishitetsu line. It’s apparently known as the Venice of Kyushu, with gondolas and all. Personally, being British, it reminds me of Cambridge and punting. Every week, I go there to teach English to my wonderful student and friend Keiko. Last October I mentioned to her that I hope to try on a kimono whilst in Japan. She took this wish and worked absolute magic. Using her connections in the town she arranged for me to be the first foreigner to be a part of this year’s Ohina-sama Water Parade.
The Ohina-sama Water Parade is a procession of around 200 women, sat in 11 boats, gliding through Yanagawa’s canals. The lead boat contains the festival’s chief priestess, who sprinkles flower petals while kneeling at a portable altar. Her two attendants sit behind her, dressed in white with golden headbands and carrying a bough of leaves. The rest of the boats are filled with kindergarten-aged girls dressed in red with ornate golden headpieces. In the following boats are more adorable princesses and people dressed as the emperor and empress dolls, the living incarnation of the principle dolls from the famous hina displays. Then, in the boats behind these are more young girls, in beautiful kimono – and me! The flotilla is accompanied by the sound of traditional Japanese flute music and watched by crowds of people from the banks of the canal.
The parade is the culmination of Hina Matsuri celebrations, which are particularly special in Yanagawa. Across Japan, people celebrate Momo no Sekku (girl’s day) on March 3rd with Hina dolls to pray for the health of young girls. The festival marks the arrival of Spring and is said to have begun in the Heian period (794-1185), when people would drive away evil spirits by transferring them to dolls.
In Yanagawa the festival begins with a procession of local girls dressed as princesses, riding through the streets in ox-drawn carts. This is then mirrored at the end of the festival by the water parade. Throughout the month, you see sagemon decorations hung all over the town. Various homes and businesses open their doors for visitors (viewing spots are marked with pink flags). These decorations are handmade and are often family heirlooms. The sagemon mobile consists of lots of fabric dolls, maybe rabbits or cranes, other charms, and also mari (colorful woven spheres). They are often bought for baby girls and might be personalized, for example with the zodiac creature for the girl’s birth year. During the Ohina-sama Water Parade the colorful sagemon are strung across the river and make for a really beautiful sight.
My day started at the hair salon at 7 am. Because I was wearing the kimono and going to be in the parade, I had to have my hair done to match. My hair was put into a traditional Japanese style and adorned with flowers that would match the kimono. The hair ornaments are called kanzashi and mine were silk flowers with fun little bells attached. I was attended to by two hairdressers and a makeup stylist and felt like a celebrity. After this, I was then taken to be professionally dressed in the kimono. I was given a proper white undergarment to wear and then trussed up and wrapped in a process that took almost forty minutes! The main kimono was then folded in the traditional way and I was shown how to unfold it properly, in case I should need to use the bathroom (I managed to last until the afternoon so thankfully didn’t have to fret about messing up the kimono during the parade).
The kimono I was wearing is known as furisode with almost floor-length long sleeves, designating that I’m an unmarried girl. The kimono was secured by a sash called an obi decorated with lucky cranes. This was tied elaborately at my back and stuffed with a towel to make it stick out in the traditional manner. The tying and knotting around my stomach was to achieve straight lines down my side, which is the desired look for the kimono. I wore traditional split-toe cotton socks called tabi and traditional sandals called zori, which are meant to be too small for your feet.
At last, I was properly attired and it was time to head down to the river. With some time to spare I clipped around in my sandals, accompanied by Keiko who ended up acting like some kind of PR manager. My heart melted at the sight of the little girls beautifully dressed in kimono and the atmosphere was very jubilant and exciting.
There were so many people trying to take my picture that when, at 10 am, it was time to get into the kawakaduri boat I was quite relieved to escape the onslaught of close-up camera lenses. Then, an amazingly energetic display of drumming was performed before a firework signaled the start of the parade. Being seated in the kawakaduri gave me an excellent view of the first two ceremonial boats and then it was our turn to join in. For the next hour and a half we were punted around the beautiful willow-lined canals in glorious sunlight. The little princesses perfectly behaved. This was partly due to the foresight of their mothers who’d brought a plethora of snacks as well as the general excitement about the day. One little princess stuck in a quick snooze in her mother’s lap because waving at crowds for over an hour is undeniably tiring (especially if you’re trying to concentrate on picking your nose at the same time). I also really enjoyed spotting the dads on the bank, who was running to keep up with the flotilla so that they could photograph each moment of their little girl’s special day – it was very, very sweet. From the banks of the canal, countless photos were snapped and everyone cooed over the unbelievable cuteness of the little princesses (and me).
It was a very special day which I’ll never forget. If you get the chance to visit Yanagawa, I would always recommend it and I would certainly recommend going to see the Ohina-sama Water Parade – you won’t be disappointed. If you’re lucky enough, you must also get a Japanese friend like Keiko!