Today is the first day of the two-day autumn festival in Takayama Japan, started in the 16th or 17th century. The autumn festival is centered on the Sakurayama Hachiman Shrine and is referred to as the Hachiman Festival. It is held after the crops are harvested. The festivals are famous for the large ornate floats, or yatai, which are pushed around the city at night. The floats date back to the 17th century, and are decorated with intricate carvings of gilded wood and detailed metal-work, similar in style to art from Kyoto during the Momoyama period (late 16th century), and blended with elements from the early Edo period (17th century). Detailed carving, lacquering and decorative metal-work is found not only on the outside of the floats, but inside as well, under the roof and behind the panels, where the work is extraordinarily detailed. The floats are also decorated with embroidered drapery.
The Yatai floats are lined up before dusk, and once the town is dark, as many as 100 chochin lanterns are lit on each of the floats. The floats are moved around the city by people, but unlike floats in other Japanese locations, these are wheeled carts and the bearers are not required to carry them. The floats are escorted on a tour of the city by people in traditional kimono or hakama. Each float reflects the district in Takayama which it represents.
The floats have intricate marionettes which perform on top. The marionettes are made of wood, silk and brocade or embroidered cloth. They are operated by strings and push rods from within the yatai. The puppets, like the Yatai, represent the skilled craftsmen of the area. The three marionettes on Hotei Tai (the god of fortune) require 9 puppet masters to manipulate the 36 strings which make the marionettes move in a lifelike manner, with gestures, turns and other movements. A problem with the puppets are parts needed to repair the puppets. The springs in the puppets are made of Right whale baleen and cannot be replaced with steel springs or the baleen of other whales. Other materials used to make the springs cannot duplicate the movements of the springs made with Right whale baleen.
The tall festive floats are displayed during the two days of both festivals when not being pushed around the town. During inclement weather the floats are returned to their storage houses. The Takayama Matsuri Yatai Kaikan stores four of the 11 autumn floats; the others are stored in special storehouses throughout the city, when not in use. During inclement weather, the outer doors to the Yatai Kaikan are open so visitors may view them. The floats in the Yatai Kaikan are changed several times a year. The Yatai Kaikan is located in the northern end of Takayama’s old town, a 15-20 minute walk from the station. The Yatai Kaikan is open is from 08:30 to 17:00 from March to November and from 09:00 to 16:30 from December to February.
Takayama is known for its local foods, including sansai (mountain vegetables), wasakana (river fish), beef, soba, ramen. A dish of soba or ramen and sansai would be ideal as a celebration, but you really need to go to Japan for them because the wild mountain vegetables are not available elsewhere. Traditional noodles are also hard to find, even within Japan. Here’s a video on making soba in Takayama.