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Tue, Dec. 12, 2017 Karatsu: Festival floats, deep community spirit
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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.

Hikiyama Exhibition Hall
Hikiyama Exhibition Hall
Visitors can observe close-up the 14 hikiyama (floats) used in Karatsu Kunchi, and find out more about their history and traditions.
Address: 6-33 Nishi-Jonai, Karatsu City, Saga Prefecture
tel: +81-(0)955-73-4361
Karatsu Shrine
Karatsu Shrine
This ancient shrine was founded in 755. Karatsu Kunchi is an annual ritual held in the autumn for the deities enshrined here.
Address: 3-13 Minami-Jonai, Karatsu City, Saga Prefecture
Long considered one of the three most scenic coastal pine forests in all Japan, this area has been designated as a place of natural beauty.
Address: Hamasaki, Hamatama-machi, Karatsu City, Saga Prefecture
Karatsu Castle
Karatsu Castle
Karatsu castle used to serve as the administrative headquarters of the Karatsu clan that ruled the area in pre-modern times. The present castle was rebuilt in 1966.
Address: 8-1 Higashi-Jonai, Karatsu City, Saga Prefecture
Yobuko Morning Market
Yobuko Morning Market
This market is held in Yobuko, a fishing port to the west of Karatsu city center. It takes place every day from 7:30 a.m. to noon, except during the New Year holidays.
Address: Asaichi-dori, Yobuko, Yobukocho, Karatsu City, Saga Prefecture
Ohara Shoro Manju
Ohara Shoro Manju
This producer of traditional confectionery was founded in the Honmachi district in 1626. During Kunchi, festival fare is served here, as featured in the program.
Address: 1513-17 Honmachi, Karatsu City, Saga Prefecture
To reach Karatsu, flights from Tokyo's Haneda Airport take just under two hours to Fukuoka. From there, it takes 80 minutes by train. There is also an express bus service.
Travel Log

Traveler: Kyle Card > More Info


Occupation:actor / talent

Length of residence in Japan:9 years

Reason:Improving my Japanese and work as an actor

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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.

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