One of my favourite times in Japan is during the season of Autumn. The weather is perfect, and we get the chance to see the Cherry Blossoms not too well-known sibling, Momijigari (紅葉狩) or Red Leaves Hunting. It is the Japanese tradition of going to visit scenic areas where leaves have turned red in the Autumn. While travelling through Kyushu, I got the chance to see the leaves turning orange and red, but I also was very lucky to visit Saga Prefecture to experience one of the most popular Autumn festivals of the region, and a new personal favourite of mine, the Karatsu Kunchi (唐津くんち). Karatsu (唐津) is a coastal city in Saga Prefecture on Kyushu, about 50 kilometers west of Fukuoka. In the past, Karatsu was a major stop for ships making the journey towards Korea and China because it is one of the closest Japanese cities to the Korean Peninsula. Today the city is known for its castle and the annual Karatsu Kunchi festival. Karatsu Kunchi is an autumn festival that takes place annually over 3 days from November 2 to 4 in Karatsu City and it attracts upwards of 500,000 visitors.
The Karatsu Kunchi is a chance to celebrate a rich harvest and prosperity in business, and has turned into a massive three-day parade at the beginning of November featuring huge floats known as hikiyama (曳山). The festival’s hikiyama race dates back to 1819 when a woodcraftsman Kahei Ishizaki from Katana-cho built Akajishi, or red lion, as an offering to the shrine after he was inspired by the beauty of the Gion Yamagasa he saw in Kyoto on his way back from a pilgrimage to Ise. This first Hikiyama, Akajishi (The Red lion (赤獅子)), was made about 200 years ago, and the 14th and last Hikiyama, Shichihomaru (七宝丸), was made in 1876. Since then a total of fourteen huge floats was built by 1876, including Aojishi, or blue lion, Urashima Taro, or Urashima the Fisherman, Tai, or sea bream fish and Shachi, or killer whale. These floats are carried in a parade through the old castle town in Karatsu by the old and young men of the town to the chants of “Enyā! Enyā!” (エンヤー、エンヤー) or “Yoisā! Yoisā!” (ヨイサー、ヨイサー) and accompanied by Japanese bells, flutes, and drums. The basic structure of each Hikiyama is made from wood, and topped with a large decoration made from clay or wood over which, along with hundreds of sheets of washi paper, linen and other materials are laid. The surface is covered with different types of lacquer and finished with gold and silver leaf. It is said that each neighborhood spent enormous sums of money on the floats that took 2 to 3 years to complete. In 1980 the festival was designated an Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property.
Access and Accommodation
Going by Express Bus
On the 3rd floor of the Hakata Bus terminal next to the Hakata train station, you can buy a ticket bus ticket that will take you straight to Karatsu. A one-way trip ticket costs 1,030yen.
The bus to Karatsu will arrive at the bus terminal number 32. Please check the bus schedule on the on the Showa Bus website
It will take 90 minutes for the bus to reach Karatsu from Hakata. Please disembark at the bus stop, “Arpino Mae” (アルピノ前). You can also take the express bus from the Fukuoka International Airport.
Going by Train
Fukuoka and Karatsu are connected with each other by direct trains along the JR Chikuhi Line from Meinohama Station. Some trains along the Fukuoka subway line run directly all the way from Fukuoka Airport via Hakata Station, Tenjin Station and Meinohama to Karatsu. The one way ride from Hakata Station to Karatsu Station takes about 90 minutes and costs 1160 yen. The Japan Rail Pass is valid between Meinohama Station and Karatsu, but not on the subway line section east of Meinohama.
Although you can make a day trip to visit the festival, with the amount of people coming to the festival from all directions, arriving will be very congested, so I would suggest to stay at least one night in Karatsu. With the crowd estimated to be around 500,000 during the event, be sure to make hotel reservations early if you plan to be in the city area, and not do what I did where I didn’t have a place to stay, so I slept at the local 24/7 Family restaurant, JoyFull.
There are many Hotels and Hostels to choose from in the City.
The first day of the festival, November 2nd, is called Yoiyama (宵山), and let me say, I have never seen so many people, food stalls, and energy engulfing a “small” coastal city. It was amazing. Fireworks started going off, people were lining the streets, ready for the Yoiyama to start. From 7:30pm on the first day, the Hikiyama departs from Oteguchi near the Karatsu Shrine. The way hikiyama walk around the town as the lanterns paint the sky with lights, flutes playing in the background, and rhythmic chants, is fantastic and almost sensual. I felt like I was dreaming. My favourite Hikiyama was The Sea bream (鯛) by Uoya-machi (1845). If you would like to experience the fantasy-like atmosphere of the floats, then make sure you visit the night festival on this day.
The biggest highlight of the three-day festival is the Otabisho Shinkou(御旅所信仰), held on November 3rd, an Autumn offering at the festival’s sacred area of rest. During the day, the Hikikomi(引込) is held, a performance at the festival’s sacred area of rest, the Otabisho, located in the local sandy region, as the festival reaches it’s climax. One by one, the Hikiyama are pulled through the sand by the Hikiko(曳子), and placed in their designated space. As the 14th and last Hikiyama, comes into place, a great sense of relief is felt by the crowd, and something very special to see.
On the final day of the festival (4th of November), fireworks mark the start of the parade from 10:30 am and all floats are due to reach the front of the JR Karatsu Station by 12 noon. At 3 pm, the floats begin the west side tour of the city and end the parade at the Hikiyama Tenjijo (曳山展示場) where the floats are kept at. If you would like to visit the Hikiyama Exhibition Hall, it is open every day from 9 am to 5 pm except between 29 and 31 December and the first Tuesday and Wednesday of December. Adult tickets go at 300 yen, while primary and junior high students pay half the price at 150 yen. If you are in a group of 20 and above, you can get a bulk discount.
What to do?
Here’s a breakdown of what activities each day of the Karatsu Kunchi Festival brings:
- Yoiyama (2 November): The yoiyama (eve celebration) takes place at 7:30pm when the procession of hikiyama departs from the vicinity of Karatsu Shine. During the parade route through Karatsu City, the hikiyama are beautifully illuminated with chochin (paper lanterns).
- Otabisho Shinko (3 November): The second day of the celebration starts around 9:30am as the procession of hikiyama makes its way to the sands of Nishino Hama Beach by noon where they are displayed on platforms — this is considered the highlight of the Karatsu Kunchi Festival.
- Town Parade (4 November): On the final day of the festival, the hikiyama procession makes it way through the “old castle town” area of the city to the sound of traditional music before they are marched back to the Hikiyama Exhibition Hall where they are kept until next year’s festival.
If you miss the festival, you can always catch the floats in the Hikiyama Exhibition Hall, where you can see the huge structures up close (though behind glass) and with excellent English descriptions of each one.
What is there to eat?
You can expect to work up an appetite after following the hikiyama procession for a few hours, but thankfully, there are plenty of food stalls lining the roads. But if you’re lucky enough to have a friend in Karatsu City or meet a friendly resident that invites you to enjoy a kunchi meal, you’re in for a real treat! In Karatsu City, the custom of serving a kunchi meal prepared on large dishes during the festival has been passed down from generation to generation in many families. People invite those who have continuously helped them, such as their business partners, relatives, friends and acquaintances, and entertain their guests with the meal.
The centerpiece is the Ara no Sugatani(アラの姿煮), a gigantic saw-edged perch that’s been stuffed with daikon radish, boiled eggs, and other ingredients before it’s boiled all day in soy sauce and sake. While I was watching the Hikikomi on the second day, I met a very nice man who I started to talk to and he ask if I would like to join him to his friends house for a feast. Knowing the traditions of Karatsu, I stuck to him like glue and from there we went of a feast-crawl that I have never experienced before. The hospitably and the welcoming nature of the people of Karatsu was amazing. The word Omotenashi, Japanese hospitality, is a phrased commonly used in Japan, but I have never experienced anything like this, it really was a memorable experience for me.
If you don’t have the opportunity to join a local family for their kunchi meal, many inns in the area serve this experience, including Yoyokaku (reservations are a must), a historic inn near Karatsu Castle. There are also plenty places to have local favourites like tsugani (local river crab), kanimeshi (crabmeat rice), yobuko squid, and saga beef (Japanese black cattle), which is often served as shabu-shabu.
Karatsu Kunchi is the must see Autumn Festival of Saga Prefecture! It is a hidden gem of a festival, but the rewards for attending such a wonderful event is bountiful.