Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Towering Matsuri of Inuyama & Ichinomiya

On April 1st, Inuyama Matsuri marks the start of Japan's spring festival season. Over the course of a few months, hundreds of floats will emerge from their winter hibernation and travel across the small towns of Aichi Prefecture bringing music, excitement, and puppet shows.

Often known as Aichi's "Little Kyoto,” Inuyama is lined with preserved Edo era homes, traditional Japanese inns, tea houses, and museums. The small but popular destination welcomes visitors with Japan's oldest castle, which towers over Haritsuna Shrine, home base for Inuyama's spring festival. With its enormous parade of thirteen ornamental dashi, large crowds of excited visitors, and neighborhoods brimming with culture, Inuyama is the perfect place to fall back into Japan's festival season.

On the first day of the celebration, Inuyama's dashi, or yama, gather in front of Haritsuna Shrine. The thirteen floats, each adorned with karakuri ningyo, tower above thousands of eager spectators. These are some of the tallest dashi in the Japan, measuring about 7 meters high. However, they are more slender than their cousins, and, despite their height, weigh about the same. Instead of ornate wooden carvings, the dashi are constructed from narrow beams and adorned in local textiles. Also, To help manage the float's weight, the karakuri ningyo puppets are a bit smaller.

Inuyama Matsuri is home to one of Aichi's most unique floats, a stunning 6 meter boat that travels through the narrow streets performing the story of Urashima, an old man who spends four hundred years underneath the Pacific. Typically a dashi's decorations, carvings, and embroidery won't offer too many clues into the karakuri ningyo they shelter. However, this stunning gold-trimmed vessel creates a unified vision of Urashima's famous nautical tale.

Urashima is not the only celebrated personality at Inuyama Matsuri. While children always play an important role in Japanese festivals, from pulling floats to playing music, the kids in Inuyama are adorned like living idols. The leader of the annual festival, or chigo, is selected each year from local primary school students. This six year old is draped in silks and a crown as he leads the annual procession.

Other children are dressed in beautiful outfits accessorized with decorative swans.

Like the blossoming sakura that attracts millions of tourists to Japan from across the globe, children represent Spring's sense of purity, rebirth, and future prosperity.

However, this has not been a good year for cherry blossoms. While April 1st in Inuyama is usually marked by a vibrant backdrop of blooming flowers, an unusual shift in weather has brought a spring season lacking the renowned colorful flourishes. As the afternoon parade of children lead the dashi underneath the naked trees, my mentor and friend Yasuko Senda can't help but mention the number of kids participating seems to shrink each year.

For locals, the future of these festival traditions always feels precarious. During the opening ceremonies, Inuyama's mayor mentions another event happening simultaneously 30km away - the grand opening of Japan's first Legoland. Sure, it will contribute to the economic development and growth of tourism to Aichi Prefecture, but the mayor reminds the crowd that it's got nothing on his hometown's 383 year old festival.

Compared to performances of Bunraku and Noh, where the majority of audience members are elderly enthusiasts in their 70s and 80s, I feel like Japan's festivals are far from drifting into obscurity. I mean, I just had to scramble through a crowd 3,000 people to watch a puppet show. But the residents in small town Japan are more aware of the country's population decline and impact of locals migrating to urban centers. It's inescapable, no matter how busy the festivals get. The children, with swans rising from their backs and head pieces tangled into blinking LEDs, aren't just symbols, but physical treasures of hope and endurance. 

Inuyama Matsuri continues for two days, marked by a stunning night parade and another performance of the thirteen karakuri ningyo.

The shows on the second day are performed at the shrine. Each dashi is pushed towards the torii gate by a team of young men. 

Unlike other floats, the massive wheels allow men to gather underneath the dashi to push and pull the towering vehicles throughout the city.

The floats are are filled with the local children, who look down at the crowds with curiosity, as the puppets perform for the gods.

In the neighboring city of Ichinomiya, the small town hosts their own festival two weeks later. Given their close proximity, the two matsuri share a lot of similarities, particularly the slender and towering dashi. However, Ichinomiya's floats are more modest. Instead of expensive fabrics and ornate decorations, the dashi are decorated in white papers that symbolize donations received from community members.

Inuyama's city government allocates a large budget to preserve and promote the annual festival. However, Ichinomiya lacks government support. Instead, the festival relies on the local shrine, Iwato Jinja, to organize fundraising efforts. While the festival might feel a bit more unorganized, lacking the Master of Ceremonies and VIP tents for special guests, the event is filled with ritual, including the offering of seven well-dressed horses to the shrine's god before they are paraded through the town's streets.

While the dashi may not have the same ornamental flare or financial support as Inuyama, the karakuri ningyo in Ichinomiya are well-rehearsed and exciting. It's some of the best performances I've seen so far during the spring season.

While watching the mechanical puppets trapeze across the towering stage, it corroborates my new adage, "You can't judge a puppet by it's dashi."

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