Each year in May, excitement fills the air as Fukuoka hosts its largest annual festival – Hakata Dontaku which draws close to 2 million people into the city during Japan’s Golden Week. Earlier this year, The Hubs and I braved the crowds and planned a trip to Fukuoka just so that we could catch the action at the Hakata Dontaku Port Festival 2013. And we had a blast!
“The name Dontaku is derived from the Dutch word Zondag meaning “Sunday” or “a holiday.” It started in 1179 as a New Year performance known as matsubayashi. In the Edo Period, it evolved into a parade headed by people dressed up as auspicious gods when visits were paid to the Lord of Fukuoka Castle. This parade was called Torimon. Although the Meiji Government banned this parade because of its extravagance, the citizens preserved their traditions by changing the name of the parade to Dontaku.”
The festival takes place on the 3rd and the 4th of May. While festivities run throughout the day, the main feature is the Dontaku parade which goes on for more than 1km along Meiji Street stretching from Gofuku-machi to Tenjin. Hop onto a train to Tenjin station and there will be friendly guides who will point the way towards the parade. If not, just follow the crowd and you’ll soon find hordes of people lining the streets and bridges.
The parade starts at three in the afternoon but we discovered that preparations start early in the morning. While wandering the streets of the Gion area after breakfast, we chanced upon a group coming out from a nearby temple, and making their way into the city. Besides traditional costumes, the group even had someone dressed up as one of the Japanese gods of fortune riding a horse down the street as part of the procession.
The Hakata Dontaku has been said to be a citizens festival with some 30,000 people from 600 groups participating in the parades and dances. We experienced the enthusiasm and passion of the locals as we chanced upon another group at the Kushida Shrine.
This group was preparing for a traditional musical performance. I exchanged smiles and greetings and before I knew it, they kindly invited us in for a group shot and gave us a Niwaka mask to wear for the celebrations. The warmth of the Japanese certainly made the festival even more memorable for us.
As we walked around, we caught different pockets of performances of traditional folk dance and music taking place throughout the Tenjin area. The energy and buzz in the city was incredible. We were beginning to understand why Hakata Dontaku is one of the three largest festivals in Japan.
And then it was time for the highlight of the day. Just about ten minutes before 3pm, traffic police and volunteers closed off Meiji Dori from Gofukumachi Intersection to Fukuoka City Hall to traffic.
And Meji Dori was transformed into Dontaku Square! Local citizens’ groups – folks young and old – descended on Meji Dori dancing and showcasing their traditions, customs and unique talents. And what would a Japanese festival be without cute mascots?
A big part of the Dontaku procession featured performers clapping together wooden spatulas known as “shamoji” to the beat of traditional music. The story goes that the shamoji evokes the image of a housewife busy preparing a meal, rushing out to join the passing parade!
The Niwaka mask was another common feature at Dontaku. This mask is used in Hakata Niwaka, “a style of traditional improvisational comedy performed at festivals. The term niwaka itself is said to stem from a local rice cracker brand called niwaka senbei, which contained a half mask in its box to be put on during niwaka performances. This allowed the comedian to poke fun at established social conventions in witty Hakata dialect while cleverly hiding his identity from those he satirized!”
The performance by this group had spectators in stitches. They gamely danced down the street, coming right up to the sidewalks and clowned around the entire time. This was definitely my favourite item!
At the close of the parade, visitors were invited to join the performers on the streets to dance together. The locals taught us the basic steps to a folk dance and the vibrant energy of the festival was contagious. They soon had us spilling onto the roads clapping and swaying to the beats of traditional music in the evening light. If you ask me, Hakata Dontaku is definitely a festival worth braving the crowds for!