At the mention of the word “matsuri (Japanese festival),” most people would typically associate it with the summer season. However, there are many unique and fun festivals to take part in during the cooler autumn as well. Join me in learning about the Sandai Kunchi (三大くんち) of Kyushu happening this October and November 2016!
Sandai Kunchi refers to the three major autumn festivals in northern Kyushu i.e. Nagasaki Kunchi (長崎くんち), Hakata Okunchi (博多おくんち), and Karatsu Kunchi (唐津くんち). The term “kunchi” or “okunchi” is a local word used in the region to refer to autumn festivals which are held to offer thanks for a bountiful harvest. Although it is not known how the word “kunchi” came about, it is generally believed that this is related to the matsuri held on Choyo no Sekku (重陽の節句) which takes place on 9 September in the lunar calendar and the day when harvested crops are offered to the gods i.e. kunichi (供日).
Over the years, these festivals have evolved to become uniquely different events reflecting the respective local area’s traits and history. One similarity among these autumn festivals is that there will be a mikoshi (神輿 – portable shrine) procession march from a shrine to the otabisho (御旅所) i.e. the place where the mikoshi is to be lodged at. Other elements and performances which are part of the festival include the daimyo gyoretsu (大名行列 – feudal lord procession), chigogyoretsu (稚児行列 – children’s parade), dashi (山車 – floats), hayashi (囃子 – festival bands), mass dances, and lion dances.
The Nagasaki Kunchi is an autumn festival that started in 1634 in conjunction with the founding of the Suwa Shrine in Nagasaki 20 years earlier. At that time, the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu had issued an edict to stop the spread of Christianity in Nagasaki which had the largest Christian population who had destroyed many Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. By constructing a new major Shinto shrine in Nagasaki, the shogunate had hoped that this would help in forcing Christians to convert to Buddhism and Shintoism which are Japanese religions. However, the temporary structure of the shrine was frequently attacked by the Christians until Aoki Kensei went to Nagasaki to lead the construction efforts and finally completed it. Despite so, the locals were not keen to visit the shrine nor attend the activities organized there.
In 1634, the shogunate issued another edict this time requiring all of Nagasaki’s residents to register at the shrine. It was then that the Nagasaki Kunchi was organized to encourage local participation and to identify any remaining Christians who were then arrested, tortured, and faced possible execution if they still did not convert to Buddhism or Shintoism. After the atomic bombing of Nagasaki in 1945, the shrine was not damaged at all while the surrounding Catholic neighborhoods and the Urakami Cathedral were wiped out. This led the locals to believe the power of the Japanese gods, and the active efforts of the priests of the shrine in rebuilding the city also helped in cementing the shrine’s importance and popularity among the locals. Today, the Nagasaki Kunchi is widely known as one of the three festivals of the Sandai Kunchi in Kyushu and has been designated as an Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property.
On the 7th, 8th, and 9th of October every year, the Nagasaki Kunchi Festival is held at four locations i.e. the Suwa Shrine, the open square in front of Nagasaki Kokaido (長崎市公会堂), the otabisho at Motofuna-machi (長崎市元船町), and Yasaka Shrine at Kajiya-machi (長崎市鍛冶屋町). In order to get a seat to watch the festival at these venues, you will need to purchase tickets. However, it is highly unlikely for foreign tourists to score such tickets as they sell out quickly. In the event that you are unable to secure tickets or wish to watch the festival for free, you can do so along the streets where the procession passes by.
One of the highlights of this festival is the offering dances performed by the 77 towns of the city. Each town will have to perform once every 7 years so you can see about 5 to 7 offering dances each year. Some of the famous dances performed include the Ja Odori (龍踊) which is a dragon dance, Kujira no Shiofuki (鯨の潮吹き) which features a whale being pulled into the harbour and signifies a bountiful harvest from the sea, and Oranda Manzai (阿蘭陀万歳) which features two guys dressed up as Dutchmen surrounded by a group of geishas.
The Hakata Okunchi is an autumn festival with about 1,200 years of history held at Kushida Shrine (櫛田神社) in Fukuoka City’s Hakata Ward. At that time, Kushida Shrine held the Shinjou-sai (新嘗祭) to give thanks to the gods for the autumn harvest on 23 November every year. However, the name and date of the festival were changed from 1953 due to the establishment of the Hakata Okunchi Shinkoukai (博多おくんち振興会). Since then, the Hakata Okunchi has been held on the 23rd and 24th of October annually.
The festivities are largely centered around the Kushida Shrine which can be reached by either walking for 5 minutes from the second exit of Gion Station on the Fukuoka City Subway or from the Nakasu-Kawabata Station. You may also take the train to JR Hakata Station and walk for 15 minutes or take a Seibu bus for 10 minutes, get off in front of Canal City Hakata and walk for 2 minutes. Although there are paid parking spaces available at the shrine, it is recommended that you use public transport instead since these will be taken up almost immediately.
On the first day of the festival i.e. 23 October, the key event will take place in the main hall of the shrine while the mikoshi procession will take place on the second day. There are three types of mikoshi i.e. the Ohatanushi no Okami (大幡大神) at Kushida Shrine, the Tenshoukou Daijin (天照皇大神) housed at Daijin Shrine (大神宮), and the Susanoo Daijin (スサノオ大神) enshrined at Gion Shrine of which only one will be featured in each year’s parade. Once in every 25 years, the three mikoshis will all be featured in the procession. The last time that this happened was back in 2007 so you will have to wait until 2032 for the next occurrence.
The featured mikoshi is pulled by an ox in the center of the procession with side attractions such as lion mask dances, a children’s parade, a brass band playing music, and open-top cars from which the current year’s Miss Fukuoka and her counterparts from other parts of Kyushu will be waving to the crowds. The entire parade usually starts at 2 pm and is expected to last for about two hours.
Besides these, there are other events that take place during or before the festival which you can also participate in:
- Hamanomiyasai (浜宮祭) / Mikoshikiyome (神輿清め)
Takes place on 22 October at Hakata Port where a Shinto priest reads out the congratulatory speech and cloths soaked in sea water are used to clean the mikoshi which will be featured during the festival.
- Gokoku Houjouichi (五穀豊穣市)
This market is held on 22 October from 10 am to 4 pm where autumn vegetables harvested locally and other food products are sold.
- Sumo and judo competitions
The local primary school students take part in these competitions.
- Sentoumyou (千灯明)
This is a light-up event held within the grounds of Kushida Shrine in the evening of 23 October from 6 pm where more than 2,000 lights are arranged to form various pictures.
- Shuuki Taisai (秋季大祭)
This takes place on 23 October around 11 am where the shrine maidens perform various dances as a form of offering to the gods.
Last but not least, let’s find out more about the Karatsu Kunchi happening at the Karatsu Shrine in Karatsu City, Saga Prefecture. This festival is an annual autumn festival of Karatsu Shrine which takes place in early November and said to have its roots during the Kanbun era (1661 to 1673) as a traditional mikoshi procession. By the second year of the Bunsei era (1819), the procession began to feature the red lion floats as well. Although there were 15 floats created by the 9th year of the Meiji era (1876), one of them i.e. the black lion was lost in 1889 thus there are only 14 traditional floats still in use today which were recognized as Saga Prefecture’s Important Tangible Folk Cultural Properties in 1958. There are various assumptions regarding the disappearance of the black lion float e.g. burnt due to the fire in a lantern, or disposed of due to damages suffered by the float, but the truth still remains a mystery. More than 500,000 people take part in this three-day festival which costs about 1 to 2 billion yen each year.
In order to make the Hikiyama floats used during the festival, the shape was first created using clay before pasting about 200 pieces of high-quality Japanese paper over it. Once this was done, the clay was then removed and seven to eight layers of Japanese lacquer called urushi (漆) were applied to the Japanese paper. Gold and silver foil were then added to the surface so as to add a dash of splendor to the floats.
In the past, the Karatsu Kunchi was held from 29 September based on the old lunar calendar. However, with the adoption of the Western calendar, the date was changed to 29 October for the main festival and 30 October for the procession. The pre-festival celebration on 28 October was only considered to be part of the festival from 1962. Subsequently, in a bid to coincide with the holidays and attract more tourists, only the event held at the shrine’s main hall was retained on 29 October while the festival’s Otabisho Shinkou (御旅所神幸) was changed to 3 November which is a public holiday. This then resulted in the pre-festival Yoiyama (宵曳山) to be postponed to 2 November and the float procession Machimawari (町廻り) around the city to be held on 4 November.
During the Yoiyama (2 November) taking place from 7:30 pm, at the signal of the fire arrows, the no. 1 red lion decorated with many lanterns begins its procession from the center of the city with the flute, drum, and bell players riding on it. Cries of “enya, enya” and “yoisaa, yoisaa” reverberate through the night.
On the following day during the Otabishou Shinkou (3 November), the procession begins at 9:30 am towards to the otabisho where the mikoshi is to be placed at and ends with the gohei (御幣) i.e. a Shinto wand with paper streamers being displayed on the top of the red lion’s head.
On the final day of the festival (4 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.
Generally, during the procession, only men pull the floats. But the sole exception when female adults were allowed to do so was during World War II when the men went to the battlefield. The Karatsu Kunchi has been held every year even back in 1988 when the Showa emperor was very ill and there was a mood of self-restraint across the whole country that forced the cancellation of many festivals. However, since the Karatsu Kunchi was meant to pray for the emperor’s recovery, the event could go ahead as planned. Coincidentally, the weather on the Otabishou Shinkou i.e. 3 November has been fine all these years with the sole exception of 2001 when it was axed due to rain.
One important thing not to be missed during this festival is the Kunchi Ryouri (くんち料理) i.e. Kunchi cuisine which is served on 3 November. Preparations for the meal begin at the end of October and are supposed to be wrapped up by 2 November. The centerpiece of this extravagant meal is the ara no nikomi (アラの煮込み) i.e. stewed saw-edged perch which is cooked for 6 to 7 hours in a huge pot of soy sauce, mirin, and sake. For a perch measuring about a meter long, it can serve up to 150 people. The price of this fish isn’t cheap too since it usually costs more than 10,000 yen per kilogram, so a typical size of 30 kg to 50 kg is easily worth a six-figure sum! While the men are busy with the festival, the women take great pains to prepare the feast which also includes dishes such as sushi, in-season items like seafood, and specialties from their hometowns. It is said that people spend up to three months of the family’s food budget for this meal.
In the past, the Karatsu Kunchi meal was offered on unceremonious terms i.e. anyone can just pop into a house and eat with the family even if they may be strangers. However, due to the emergence of group tourists who often took more than they were supposed to, this custom is no longer practiced, so please take note that you cannot enter anyone’s house at will to eat the food that is prepared by that household. Nonetheless, if you are staying in Karatsu overnight for the festivities, you may be able to sample the Karatsu Kunchi Ryouri at places such as Yoyokaku Ryokan which offers the meal to their guests on 3 and 4 November.
Having read so much about the Sandai Kunchi in Kyushu, are you ready to soak in the joyous atmosphere of these autumn festivals and experience a slice of their long-running heritage? Be sure to have fun there!