Tips to Enjoy the Furukawa Festival

How can I watch the Uchidashi (drum-beating kickoff) ceremony of the Okoshi-Daiko (rousing drum)?

The Uchidashi ceremony is held in the Festival Square, home to the Okoshi-Daiko, following the Shinto ritual for departure that begins at 8 p.m. This is a main attraction of the Okoshi-Daiko and is not to be missed. As a very large crowd is expected, we advise you to come early. Also, dress warmly as it can be quite chilly around that time of year.

What are attractions after the Uchidashi ceremony?

At major intersections where many spectators gather, teams carrying small drums called Tsuke-Daiko try to gain the position nearest the turret on which the large drum is perched, competing with and bumping into each other. We therefore advise you to wait for them at one of such intersections, following the route map. A large crowd is expected there too, so watch your step. First, you will hear a song titled Zenzenoko, and see the lantern procession approaching like ripples, led by people holding large lantern on poles. Then, the moment the turret with the Okoshi-Daiko is passing by, a number of men with Tsuke-Daiko rush out and attack the turret. It is great fun to watch these men fighting against each other, demonstrating the Furukawa Yancha spirit. As the Okoshi-Daiko route changes every year, check it on the route maps posted throughout the town or festival brochures. The best point to enjoy Tsuke-Daiko is the intersection of the Kaba Sake brewery and Watanabe Sake Brewery in Ichinomachi: with the drummers on the top of the large drum bathed in light, the turret carrying the drum rolls heavily as men tussle with each other, while those holding Tsuke-Daiko shout “Wasshoi (heave ho)!” repeatedly.

Has anyone been injured?

Surprisingly, there has been no major injury to date. Presumably, these men exercise moderation as part of a Shinto ritual.

Can I take part?

In principle, only the Ketawakamiya Shrine parishioners are allowed to take part. In some years, however, out-of-towners can join the lantern procession holding small paper lanterns, marching throughout the town together with the townspeople. To find out whether it applies to this year and how to take part, call the Hida Tourism Association at +81-577-74-1192.

When can I watch children’s Kabuki and karakuri ningyo (mechanical marionettes)?

At what time of the day they are performed varies each year, both for April 19th and 20th. For the schedule, call the Hida Tourism Association at +81-577-74-1192. If it rains, you will be able to watch these in the warehouses for respective yatai floats.

How many visitors does the festival typically attract?

Each year, the festival draws a large crowd, about 50,000 visitors over two days. As the Okoshi-Daiko attracts a great number of spectators, you have to come early to watch it. By contrast, the yatai float parade is a more laid-back event in which you can thoroughly enjoy the beauty of each yatai.

Furukawa Festival Trivia

When did the Furukawa Festival begin?

The festival is said to have been first held around 1685, but had not been a crowd-puller until Hida became a shogunal demesne in 1692. The festival has since evolved over the years, most notably by adding the yatai floats and the Okoshi-Daiko.

When was the first Furukawa Festival yatai float created?

When the first Furukawa Festival yatai float was created or paraded is unknown. According to a record, the original Kinki-tai was constructed in 1776, which seems to be the oldest yatai built in Furukawa; and in 1782, nine yatai floats were paraded in the town.

When did the Okoshi-Daiko begin?

In the festival protocol, the Okoshi-Daiko was first acknowledged in 1831.

Would you tell us more about the splendid mikoshi (portable shrine)?

The mikoshi was completed in 1872. Weighing approximately one ton, it is massive and glorious. With the Hashiri-Daiko drummers at the forefront announcing that the procession is nearing, the mikoshi is escorted by 300-plus people, including those holding yatai name banners, guards wearing attire called kamishimo (ceremonial samurai dress), and gagaku (court music) and kagura (Shinto music) performers. The mikoshi procession continues throughout the two-day festival as if a magnificent historical picture scroll unfolded.

Why is salt spread on the road on which the mikoshi procession travels?

The townspeople do so to purify the road. In addition, to entice the sacred presence of the deity into their homes, they sprinkle a line of salt in front of their homes, drawing branch segments from the main line on the road to their entranceway. In the past, they are said to have spread red soil taken from mountains.

What is Miokuri?

The term refers to elaborately designed drawings and writing hanging from the rear of yatai floats. One meaning of “miokuri” is seeing off someone or something from behind. Some of the yatai switch their Miokuri on the 19th and 20th, the former being called Kae (alternative) Miokuri and the latter Hon (real) Miokuri. It is typical of the Furukawa Yancha spirit to nonchalantly show the artwork of some of Japan’s top painters, such as Seison Maeda (Kirin-tai) and Insho Domoto (Seiryu-tai).

What role do the yatai floats play?

In the past, the yatai were at the forefront of the mikoshi procession to guard the mikoshi. While their name banners have taken on that role today, the elaborately decorated yatai floats render the festival magnificent and stately.

How do the yatai floats turn corners? Don’t they get caught in overhead power lines?

Each yatai is equipped with an additional wheel to round. Before turning a corner, this additional wheel (known as “nakaguruma”) attached to the rear of the yatai is put down while the two normal rear wheels are jacked up, so that the yatai is rotated using the three wheels—the two front wheels plus the additional wheel. As a result, the yatai manages to turn the corner with the road and itself unscratched, without using much manpower. This is a testament to the wisdom and skill of the Hida craftsmen. Moreover, the roof of each yatai can be lowered if needed to transport the yatai or store it in the warehouse. In the event that overhead power lines hamper a yatai going forward, members of the yatai group lift the power lines with poles for the yatai to proceed. In some areas, even the orientation of the lights on the shopping street is adjusted for the sake of the yatai floats.

How are karakuri ningyo operated?

They are called “Ito (string) Karakuri” because pulling strings enables them to show delicate movements. Clad in traditional Chinese attire and operated by eight marionettists using 20 strings, the Kirin-tai’s marionette dances wearing a lion mask and showers flower petals in tune with a Noh song titled Shakkyo (Stone bridge). The Seiryu-tai, meanwhile, showcases two marionettes: Fukurokuju, the god of happiness, wealth, and longevity; and a marionette clad in traditional Chinese attire. Manipulated via 25 strings, these also are quite a spectacle, such as the marionette clad in Chinese attire climbing a ladder and a turtle turning into a crane. These are made possible because meticulous attention is paid to every detail, from how ropes are attached to the marionettes to the ways each marionette moves their hands and body. All the marionettes are operated by the young members of the local marionette preservation societies.

Is there a set order in which to line up the yatai floats?

Customarily, the Kagura-tai always comes first, followed by the Sambaso -tai. For the other eight yatai floats, the order is determined at a draw ceremony each year. The yatai of the neighborhood group in charge stands at the end of the line. (For the Sambaso -tai that has been disused, its yatai name banner lines up.)

Where are the yatai floats placed on non-festival days?

Each yatai group has a warehouse in which its yatai is carefully stored. Also, three of these yatai floats are on display at the Hida Furukawa Festival Exhibition Hall year-round for visitors’ perusal. Each year, a new set of three yatai floats starts to be displayed once the Furukawa Festival ends; in addition, the yatai rotation ceremony is held in the fall.

What does the Okoshi-Daiko mean?

While there appear to be multiple theories, the origin of the Okoshi-Daiko is said to be the “wake-up drums” that went around the town to announce the start of the festival.

What is Tsuke-Daiko?

Tsuke-Daiko is a small drum bearing each team’s insignia, attached to 3.5-meter pole with rope. In order for their Tsuke-Daiko to gain the position nearest the rear of the turret on which the large drum is perched, the 12 Tsuke-Daiko teams fiercely compete with each other, staking the honor of their neighborhood. Even while lying in wait at various intersections for the turret to approach, they sing a song called Zenzenoko, set up and climb Tsuke-Daiko poles, and otherwise demonstrate the Furukawa Yancha spirit fully and energetically.

How are the drum beaters chosen?

They are chosen from among the members of the neighborhood that is determined to be one in charge of the Okoshi-Daiko at the draw ceremony in March. The role of drum beater is considered a once-in-a-lifetime honor. Each year, a total of 16 men are selected, because four groups of four men—each consisting of two beaters straddling the drum and the other two standing each side of the drum—take turns. In some yatai groups, members of the local marionette preservation societies are preferentially selected.

Would you tell us more about the drumsticks?

Each young man chosen for the drum beater makes his own drumsticks. They are made from live willow branches, because live branches are solid and seldom crack, and white willow wood is perfect to make beautiful drumsticks. To enable the men to beat the drum in an upright position, the drumsticks take a unique curved shape.

What roles do the people on the turret play?

Sotsukasa, the commander of the Okoshi-Daiko team, positions himself in the center of the front of the turret and, after the Shinto ritual for departure, delivers the kickoff speech. As the crowd erupts in cheers and applause and the festival spirit kicks in, the drum beaters straddle the drum, indicating the start of the Uchidashi ceremony. The main guardsmen, Hon-ei, on the turret show the direction in which the Okoshi-Daiko is headed by waving their paper lanterns with a bow-shaped handle.

Roughly how many half-naked men are there in the festival?

About 1,000 men compete with and bump into each other, embodying the Furukawa Yancha spirit. Every single one of them is a townsman.

What role do the women play?

The women of the neighborhood group in charge of the Okoshi-Daiko participate in its procession, each holding a red-and-white small paper lantern. Those lanterns held by 1,000-plus people create a band of light that illuminates darkness, guiding the Okoshi-Daiko throughout the town until midnight. The ethereal beauty of this procession invigorates the Okoshi-Daiko in a way that contrasts with the energetic half-naked men following the procession. The women are also very busy dressing their husbands in kamishimo (ceremonial samurai dress) and preparing dishes for their guests. In some yatai groups, not only boys but also girls perform music and Kabuki on their yatai floats, actively enlivening the festival. There are some female gagaku (court music) performers too.

What are typical festival dishes?

Usually, guests are treated to seasonal spring cuisine such as clear soup, pickled dishes, and wild-plant plates. An item that has always been served on festival occasions over the years is tempura manju, steamed bean-jam buns that are deep-fried. Another traditional dish is giseiyaki, which is prepared by sautéing mashed tofu seasoned with salt, sugar, and black sesame seeds. A traditional Furukawa homemade dish that is difficult to master but should be passed on to future generations is tsukage, crispy fries of seasoned burdock roots, Azukina plant, and soybeans. Nowadays, tempura manju, giseiyaki, and soybean tsukage are produced and sold year-round, and popular as tourist souvenirs too.


What are popular souvenirs?

They include Hida Furukawa delicacies such as local sake, local popular sweets, Hida beef, pickled red turnips, and hoba miso; craftwork like yew wood carvings and paper cutouts; and Chidorigoshi and Kumiki wooden crafts born of the wisdom of Hida craftsmen. Some shops can send your purchases home for you.