JP

The Passionate Stage Builders

Young men lift the massive Oyama stage apparatus measuring over 10m. This is the Yama-age Festival, an immersive and powerful event held in Nasu Karasuyama city. It is held every July, on the weekend of the 4th Saturday of the month.
The six districts within the city take turns organizing the event and leading the parade and performance. This year (2017), Nakamachi district is on duty, and leading the efforts is Kenichi Shimazaki.
"The Yama-age Festival is a unique version of Kabuki that is performed upon portable platforms. It has a 450 year history, and it is a festival that has been close to me since my childhood" says Shimazaki. The festival started around the 3rd year of Eiroku (1560) when the Lord of the Karasuyama Castle, Suketane Nasu, enshrined the Buddhist god, Gozu Tenno, in his city in the hopes to eradicate diseases.
The stage apparatus reaches 100 meters in length, when the constituent parts are all lined up. These parts include Yatai (decorated, shrine-like section), the stage, zashiki (seating area), nami (waves), yakata (house), and three yama (mountains). The Yatai were constructed between the Edo and Meiji eras, and has rollers underneath to ease the movement to create the stage. The platforms are moved around within the city and performs 5 to 6 times a day at specific locations. On stage Kabuki is performed, and as soon as the performance finishes, the staff take the stage down and move it to the next location. Because the starting time for the performance is fixed, all the staff have to move them quickly, and swiftly assemble the stage. The staff responsible for the assembly are called Wakashu--100 men gathered from the leader district. They are directed through orders given by the Mokugashira's (leader of the Wakashu) whistles and Hyoshigi sticks. Shimazaki, along with Aso, Yamauchi and Kobori, are the responsible figures of all the operations including Wakashu this year. Their formal costume is yukata with haori jacket, with rather western boater hats. "Nobody knows why we wear boater hats, but around the early Showa era, we were already wearing these. Maybe because of the Taisho Democracy movement around then" Shimazaki explained.
The Kabuki performance and the Tokiwazu-bushi musical performance are done by the fine arts division of the local Karasuyama Yama-age Preservation Association. They spend long years of vigorous practice to prepare themselves under directions by their masters. Their day comes in July. The Kabuki dance performed in the festival includes "Masakado", "Modori-bashi", ”Hebi-hime sama", and "Yoshinoyama Kitsune Tadanobu". Each district has their favorite piece, Nakamachi district performs "Modori-bashi". On the Tayu-zashiki, there are two Shamisen players and three singers, and accompanied by their music, the dancers will perform the beautiful Kabuki on the stage.
As soon as the festival finishes in July, the next Wakashu starts preparing. Usually the stages and large platforms are used again with some mending, but the three Yama are made each year. First, they design the mountains to be painted that fits their performance next year. Then, using their spare time, they will build and paint the Yama in time for the festival. "It is massive, so it is a very hard work to be honest. There aren't many young guys in the city, so we ask those from Karasuyama who lives outside to help out. The Preservation Association helps out as well."
The Yama is made of woven bamboo and traditional paper made in the region. Multiple layers of strong Japanese paper makes a durable canvas for the painting process.
The Yama-age Festival of Karasuyama was registered as the Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO, together with a total of 33 festivals in Japan, under "Yama, Hoko, Yatai, float festivals in Japan" in December 2016. "This year marks the first festival after the registration. I would like everyone across Japan to visit the festival". Shimazaki wants to see the festival attract people to Karasuyama.
Kenichi Shimazaki
The 6th manager of Shimazaki Brewery, a Sake brewery opened in Kaei 2 (1849) by his ancestor Hikobee Shimazaki. The main brand is "Azuma Rikishi". Their maturation process is done in the caves with no sunlight, making a unique "Long-term Matured Sake" He knew the festival since his childhood and wanted to participate in it as the Wakashu. His father, Toshio, is the Head of the Karasuyama Yama-age Preservation Association.
The People of Tochigi