Karatsu Kunchi is a three-day festival held in November each year in Karatsu City, Saga Prefecture. The highlight is the gigantic floats known as hikiyama that are hauled through the streets of the old town. This tradition has a history dating back more than 300 years. In 2016, the festival was included in UNESCO's intangible cultural heritage list.
On this edition of Journeys in Japan, Kyle Card visits Karatsu to discover the spirit of Kunchi. He observes the 14 floats, which each belong to a different neighborhood. And he meets some of the men who make this event happen.
Address: 6-33 Nishi-Jonai, Karatsu City, Saga Prefecture
Address: 3-13 Minami-Jonai, Karatsu City, Saga Prefecture
Address: Hamasaki, Hamatama-machi, Karatsu City, Saga Prefecture
Address: 8-1 Higashi-Jonai, Karatsu City, Saga Prefecture
Address: Asaichi-dori, Yobuko, Yobukocho, Karatsu City, Saga Prefecture
Address: 1513-17 Honmachi, Karatsu City, Saga Prefecture
Traveler: Kyle Card > More Info
Occupation:actor / talent
Length of residence in Japan:9 years
Reason:Improving my Japanese and work as an actor
For this journey I was whisked off deep into western Japan, to Karatsu in Saga Prefecture, a beautiful coastal city that has long been a bustling hub for industries such as paper and coal.
I traveled to Karatsu to attend the legendary Karatsu Kunchi festivities. Kunchi is a sacred Shinto ritual held once a year, in which the local kami (deities) are carried on a portable shrine from Karatsu Shrine down to the seaside. This serves as a form of home-coming, as the kami are believed to have originated from the sea.
Kunchi was recently recognized by UNESCO as part of the world's intangible cultural heritage. As a result it was teeming with visitors this year. The streets were filled to the brim with eager spectators as the participants hauled wheeled floats, each weighing 1 to 2 tons, known as hikiyama. These accompany the kami, as a form of protection, through the city's streets in a sacred promenade.
People who hail from Karatsu make their way from all over Japan to take part in these festivities without fail each year. More traditional events such as the Japanese New Year and the summer Obon festival can be forgone - but Kunchi is an event that absolutely cannot be missed.
In fact, Kunchi goes beyond being a mere "festival." It is something more ritualistic, deeply personal and overtly tribal. The sense of community binding the members of each hikiyama group is tantamount to being a huge extended family, in which members grow up and grow old together, sharing in each other's triumphs and losses. From young to old, each member has a role in the processions. And everyone is charged with passing on the minutiae of each position to those who take their place in the future.
Experiencing Kunchi made me realize the importance of keeping traditions alive and passing them on to future generations. Now it has been recognized by UNESCO, Kunchi can serve as an example of how to practically and successfully pass on the disappearing roots of traditions and cultures, before they fade from our collective memory.