Apr 11, 2018

Spring Takayama Festival, one of Japan's most beautiful matsuri

A guide to the Spring Takayama Festival (春の高山祭), one of the most celebrated traditional festivals in Japan held in the city of the same name in Gifu Prefecture over April 14 and 15 every year.  The Spring Takayama Festival (Sanno Matsuri) is one of two parts for the Takayama Matsuri, the other being held in autumn (Hachiman Matsuri).  This guide concentrates on the spring festival, looking at the where, what and when for Spring Takayama Festival 2018.

Spring Takayama Festival, one of Japan's most beautiful matsuri photo

The Japanese like things to be grouped into “best three” lists, where “best” can be swapped for any other beaming superlative. It’s with great pride then, that organizers of the Takayama Festival (Takayama Matsuri) claim their shindig as one of the “three most beautiful festivals in Japan.” Well, it’s certainly got the location for it in Takayama, a small city (officially Hida Takayama / 飛騨高山) sitting all 17th century atmospheric in the mountains of the Hida region in Japan’s Gifu Prefecture.

Actually, we should perhaps use the term “atmospheric” with some care. Such is the increasingly booming influx of tourists into this city, that the atmosphere of old has become somewhat swamped by camera-toting tour groups and smartphone-wielding millennial backpackers.

Still, Takayama remains an enchanting place, and besides, during the Takayama Festival, none of this matters for this is one of the great traditional bashes of Japan and hundreds of thousands of festival goers, foreign and domestic, rock up to join the party.  

The Takayama Festival is actually held over two periods -- spring (April 14 and 15) and autumn (October 9 and 10).  

Spring Takayama Festival (Sanno Matsuri) (春の高山祭)

Festivities for the Spring Takayama Festival (Sanno Matsuri) center on Takayama’s Hie Shrine (Hida-sannogu Hie Jingu) in the southern half of the city, where what is all believed to have started sometime around the late 16th, early 17th century as a humble village gathering, has grown on the back of Takayama’s reputation as a center of timber. The crew of merchants, industrialists, entrepreneurs, and creators drawn to the area invested money and skill into the festival’s floats, “yatai,” helping to develop them into the extravagant affairs that they are today.

These yatai are the centerpiece of the festival. Out of a collection of 23 floats, 12 are brought out from specially designed storehouses for Spring Takayama Festival celebrations, in the southern half of the city. In what is called a “gathering of the yatai,” four of the floats are parked up near the “Otabisho,” a kind of resting point for mikoshi (portable shrines) during festivals. The remaining floats are on display streetside. The Spring Takayama Festival serves as one of only two times in the year (the other being the Autumn Takayama Festival) during which its possible to get up close and personal with these great displays of traditional craftsmanship, designated as “Tangible Cultural Properties” by the Japanese government.  

Traditional Japan often appears in its most haunting and beautiful guise during the evening, and the Spring Takayama Festival is no exception. During the “Night Festival,” held on April 14, all 12 yatai are decked out with lanterns and are gently paraded in front of festival crowds in a quite intoxicating display of Japanese magic before being stored away for the night. 

Spring Takayama Festival, one of Japan's most beautiful matsuri photo

(Yatai at Takayama's Sanno Matsuri)

Karakuri performances see three of the floats host marionette shows. Marionettes are those puppets manipulated from above via wires and strings. Apparently it takes some nine puppeteers (controlling three puppets between them), or marionnettiste, secluded within the floats away from eyes reach, to bring about the intricate movements of the marionettes as they recount Japanese tales of yore.

No traditional Japanese festival could be complete without an airing of the local deity, in this case Sanno-sama (The guy from the TV?!). The “Gojunko Procession” is Spring Takayama Festival’s turn to labor under the dead weight of a mikoshi, those portable shrines in which deities are taken around the local streets to purify and bring good vibes to businesses. Expect accompanying musicians and lion dances during the parading of the mikoshi at the Takayama Festival.

The mikoshi departs Hie Shrine on the 14th, returning on the 15th.

Those who can’t make to the Takayama Festival (in spring or autumn) can see just a select few of the festival’s yatai on display in the Takayama Festival Floats Exhibition Hall (Takayama Yatai-Kaikan) near Sakurayama Hachimangu Shrine east of the east of the Miyagawa River from Takayama station.

Karakuri dolls, and scheduled performances, can be seen at the Karakuri Museum throughout the year. The museum is just south of the Takayama Festival Floats Exhibition Hall.

Web: http://www.takayamakarakuri.jp/

If the weather should be adverse during the festival expect all performances that take place outdoors to be cancelled. This includes the outdoor display of the yatai. Instead they may be returned to their special storerooms where door will be opened for visitors to have a look in.

Takayama Matsuri notes

Access to the stunning gassho zukuri villages of Shirakawago and Gokayama, as well as historical charms within the city itself make Takayama a year-round-destination of considerable popularity. Add a few extra thousand festival goers then and you’ve got a recipe for booked out hotels and other accommodation options. In fact, when it comes to attending the Takayama Festival, it’s probably safe to say that you can’t book accommodation early enough.

Most overseas travelers and expats are likely to come to Takayama for the festival using public transport. For those driving here during the festival, as well a Takayama’s regular parking lots, the city lays on a handful of other temporary parking lots to help take up the strain.

For more information about getting to the Takayama Festival from Tokyo:

Tokyo to Takayama: Cost of getting there and on to Shirakawago, Gokayama

Spring Takayama Festival (Sanno Matsuri) 2019

The Spring Takayama Festival is held on April 14 and 15 every year, regardless what days those dates should fall on. 

Yatai display

WhenApril 14 - 15, 2019
Hours9:30 - 16:00

Night Festival

WhenApril 14, 2019
Hours18:30 - 21:00
Startoutside Takayama City Archives Museum
FinnishNakabashi Bridge
MapNight Festival map

Karakuri performances

Three of the yatai will host karakuri performances in 2018 -- Ryujintai, Shakkyotai, Sambaso

April 14: 11:00 and 14:30

April 15: 10:00 and 14:00

Performances last for around 50 mins and take place in front of the otabisho. 

Gojunko Procession

WhenApril 14 - 15, 2019
Hours (14th)13:00 (Hie Shrine) - 16:10 (Otabisho)
Hours (15th)12:30 (Otabisho) - 15:40 (Hie Shrine)
MapGojunko Procession route

While Hie Shrine marks the true beginning and end of the Spring Takayama Festival, it’s really the Otabisho that forms the geographical heart of proceedings. The Otabisho for 2019 is located at the west entrance to Miyagawanaka Bridge (or Nakabashi Bridge). 

Otabisho map:

The 12 yatai on display for the Spring Takayama Festival

1) Kaguratai 神楽台

2) Sambaso 三番叟

3) Kirintai 麒麟台

4) Shakkyotai 石橋台

5) Gotaisan 五台山

6) Ho’otai 鳳凰台

7) Ebisutai 恵比須台

8) Ryujintai 龍神台

9) Konkotai 崑崗台

10) Kinkotai 琴高台

11) Daikokutai 大国台

12) Seiryutai 青龍台

If your Japanese is up to the task, you can read a little of the history of each on the Takayama City page for the Sanno Matsuri here .

Have you even been to the Spring Takayama Festival?  Heading there in 2018?  Let us know in the comments.

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(Top): Paul Robinson Flickr License

(Yatai at Takayama's Sanno Matsuri): Paul Robinson Flickr License



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