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You are in: Features: "The Yamakasa"

The Yamakasa By: Nick May

The Yamakasa: Fukuoka's 750 year old festival.

It is 4:58am on the morning of the 15th of July and I am crammed, hot
Waiting for the off 
and sticky in the summer pre-dawn in the precincts of Kushida-shrine. Around me, despite the tender hour, almost a million Fukuokans and visitors of all ages wait in good natured anticipation for the climax of the Yamakasa, the city's most famous festival.

Over a tannoy a voice counts down the seconds - the clock hits 4:59 am - a taiko drum beats - instant noise, shouts, the flash of naked human flesh - a wave of passion sweeps the air and a huge wooden "kakiyama" float hurtles into view. This is the "Oiyama" - no parade, no genteel display of past culture for out of towners. For this is Fukuoka, Japan's city of passion and this is a race, and it's serious, and that float is heavy and the course is more than 2 km. At least 30 minutes of backbreaking work that starts with a
Last prayers at Kushida Shrine 

There will be a winner - and six losers.

The "kakiyama" floats - sturdy portable shrines weighing over a ton - are carried on the shoulders of the men of the different townships of Hakata, the ancient city that is the soul of modern Fukuoka. The first 14 days of the festival have been gentler; parades, blessings, tradition, viewings of the towering but immovable "kazariyama" floats that have graced the streets for almost a month. But in the last few days the pace has quickened as practice becomes serious. Today is about raw power, dynamism, speed, athleticism - but also about bonding - for foreign business people, of being accepted, of your company succeeding or failing. On each
kakiyama float 
float sit three men, the Dai-agare who will exhort the shifting teams of men who bear it to ever greater efforts. Perhaps a thousand men will be with each team, young and old, grandads holding tiny children of both sexes, boys and fathers, but the very young and old will stay well clear of the float itself. A central core of younger men does the hard work, constantly changing as tired bearers drop back and fresh, eager shoulders take the load.

It's hot - dawn has broken and the sun rises. The air warms further. The crowds jostle for a better view. As they hurtle through the city streets each shrine is framed majestically by waves of water thrown high above it to cool the runners. For a moment, as the water glints in the first rays of the dawn sun, each looks to be borne on graceful but madly beating wings.

"Osshoi! Osshoi!" chant the runners. Each wears a "mizuhappi"
Happi talk at three am 
(a short coat) and a "shimekomi" a - loincloth the thickness of a rolled up teatowel that at once preserves modesty and suggests nudity. Women do not run the "Oiyama" - though young girls often run with their fathers. If they have obeyed the ancient injunction the men will have refrained from sex from the festival's start. Cucumbers - in cross section a cucumber is reminiscent of the symbol of Kushida shrine - are also forbidden. It's male bonding - but female bonding too - it's wives and mothers who do much of the background work, preparing the food and drink without which no festival in Japan could function

By 6am its almost over.

The Yamagasa is ancient, but in its good natured passion and its dynamism it captures something that essentially Fukuokan.

Page 2: History
Page 3: Schedule
Page 4: One Runner's Experience...
Page 5: Taking part - tips.
Page 6: Sexism?

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