The Ogaki Festival holds a tradition of more than 360 years and is famous for their 13 yama festival floats. The festival is said to have originally began in the Keian era (1648) when the Hachiman Shrine, the shrine of the castle town’s patron god, was renovated by the feudal lord of the time: Ujikane Toda. The townspeople were so pleased that the ten different neighborhoods each made their own festival float and showed them off. This event is considered to be the very first festival. Today, the festival is conducted as a celebration for the beginning of summer.
The moment I stepped out of the train I noticed an excitement in the air that was different than the normal “low-key” Ogaki atmosphere. This turned out to be from the energy that was emanating from the crowds of people that were in attendance, wandering around the endless rows of festival stalls. The stalls, lining both sides of the street, started at the station and stretched all the way down to the castle park and at a point about halfway down from the station they then branched off towards the Hachiman Shrine. Food stalls, game stalls, trinket stalls, alcohol stalls… there was everything you could possibly want.
I decided to start towards the Hachiman Shrine area and found that the yama festival floats were still being put together. Since it had been raining until late that morning I suspect that the festival was running a little bit behind schedule. I took the opportunity to take a look at the floats up close. The intricate detail and craftsmanship of the floats was amazing.
If the aesthetics of the floats don’t impress you then the sheer size of them will. The 13 festival floats can be anywhere from four to six meters tall, and weigh one to four tons each (not including the staff that are in the floats operating the karakuri or on the stage performing kabuki). Seeing these floats up close and towering over you alone is worth the trip to the festival.
Maneuvering the floats around the crowded, cramped streets and bridges was a feat that was only possible through lots of practice and teamwork. Each float came with an escort from its respective neighborhood community that included float pushers, guides, flute players, and other personnel. Each neighborhood association had their own distinct uniform that distinguished them from other groups.
After taking a look at the festival floats I decided to wander to the Hachiman Shrine and see what was there. Even in the shrine’s grounds there were festival stalls jammed into every nook and cranny available (I even saw a haunted house).
After passing through the shrine’s torii, a traditional gate found at Japanese shrines, there was a water spring where you could find delicious, drinkable water. Using the funnels and scoops provided on one of the spring’s sides you could drink the water, or even fill a water bottle if you wanted to. Ogaki City is known as the “Water Capital” and is famous for their many water springs and canals that run through the city. Locals have been drinking the pristine water from these springs since long ago and they are still open to drink from, so make sure to sample some.
At 7:00 pm the festival-float lanterns were lit (this only occurs on the first day of the festival), and the festival continued on into the night. Luckily for me I was able to find a good spot in front of the Hachiman Shrine’s front torii, and watched the floats pass by one at a time. When they passed by the torii, they stopped in order to perform either a karakuri marionette show or children’s kabuki.
While the children’s kabuki was a treat to watch, my personal favorite was the karakuri marionette dolls. These dolls performed traditional Japanese folktales or other various feats such as writing “Congratulations Ogaki Festival for becoming an UNESCO Heritage” in real time with a brush and ink (in Japanese it was written with eight characters). The mastery of the karukuri dolls was impressive, and the shows were all very entertaining to watch.
The festival came to a close shortly after 9:00 pm, which was good because I was tuckered out and ready to go home. If you didn’t get to make it to the festival this year then make sure to keep checking our Facebook page for information about next year’s festival and other events that are happening in Gifu.