The Extravagant 27 Yatai Floats Gather at the Kurikomi

Lions bearing their white fangs, dragons fighting over a globe, a hawk chasing a squirrel. These are the stunning openwork carvings of the Kanuma Yatai Floats. These carved wonders dedicated to Imamiya Shrine are drawn down the streets during the Kanuma Autumn Festival on the second Saturday and Sunday of October every year.
Mr. Katsuyoshi Kamiyama handles this festival as the president of the Kanuma Imamiya Festival Preservation Society. “I loved the festival from a young age, and my parents say that when I was three years old at the festival I was crying my eyes out, but as soon as I heard the music playing, I immediately buttoned up," Kamiyama says with a grin. This festival is one of the 33 representative “Yama, Hoko, Yatai, Float Festivals of Japan,” also known as the Kanuma Imamiya Float Festival. It was listed as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage in December of 2016.
The origins of the festival are said to have begun in the 13th year of the Keichō era (1608) when parishioners gathered for a rainmaking ritual at the Imamiya Shrine when heavy thunderstorm struck. Kanuma city had historically flourished as a logging center. Thanks to quality lumber, it prospered as a woodworking town, and during the Edo period many of the yatai floats were constructed.
Kanuma was also a way town on the Nikko Dōchū Mibudōri that connected Edo and Nikko. Craftsmen doing carving at the shrines of Nikkō Tōshō-gū on their way back to Edo or others coming from Edo staying in Kanuma at some large merchant establishment would do carving work on the yatai while they were in town. Some of the yatai were worked on for more than 20 years. The master carver, Gotō Shūji Masahide, who led the effort on the five-story pagoda at Nikkō Tōshō-gū also had a hand in the carving of the yatai floats in Kanuma’s Kamitamachi and Nakamachi districts. The Kamitamachi yatai was unfortunately lost to fire, but was rebuilt in 1953.
There are 34 parishes in the city, and 27 of which have their own yatai. The parishes are divided into 4 areas (Kami-gumi, Shimo-gumi, Tamachishimo-gumi and the Tamachikami-gumi), and rotate as head of the festival every year.
There are three types of yatai floats: ones with colored carvings with a lacquered cart; uncolored carvings with a lacquered cart; and uncolored carvings with an unlacquered cart. Originally the gorgeously colored yatai were the norm, but overly lavish festivals were forbidden during the Tenpō Reforms during the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1842, and since then the yatai were of the uncolored variety. After the reforms, the carving itself took the forefront and the carvers showed off their skill with how elaborate and detailed they could make the yatai. The yatai are assembled without the use of nails, and in the past were disassembled for storage. Nowadays, the yatai are stored assembled, with some on exhibit.
The showcase event comes on the first day with the kurikomi, a parade of all 27 yatai that winds through the parishes for their annual return to Imamiya Shrine. The parish participants number around 3,000, but counting the tourists, is becomes a gathering in the tens of thousands. After sunset, lanterns light up the night invoking a fantasy like world that will capture your heart.
The other major attraction is the buttsuke. Five musicians ride atop of each yatai playing on bamboo flute, bells, and drums. The musicians come from the 34 groups of the Kanuma Yatai Music Preservation Association. When two or more yatai arrive at an intersection, the competing groups of musicians face off in a frenetic performance. This buttsuke, or battle of the bands, is where the name came about. Each yatai band plays a random song from song titles translated like “Edo Fool” (Edo Baka) or “Entry to the Shrine” (Shōden), and try not to get drown out by the opposing band. It is quite overwhelming to experience this tour de force of battling musicianship.
Festival preparations begin in May, for about a total of 30 meetings with around 100 people. To that extent, you can say the people of Kanuma are betting big on the festival. "Everyone thinks that their yatai is the best one in town. And since this is the first year under the UNESCO registration, I hope people turn out live never before,” says Kamiyama, expectations high.
Katsutoshi Kamiyama
Chief Representive for Kanuma Shiko Ltd., a company that makes industrial use filters for Japanese saké and beer brewing. Born in the center of Kanuma city. Looks forward to the Kanuma Fall Festival every year since childhood. Originally from Shimoyokomachi, he now lives in Kamitamachi. From March last year has served as Chairman of the Kanuma Imamiya Festival Preservation Society.
The People of Tochigi