Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Dashi Kaikan And The Great Float Festival Of Sawara

"A great passion for 
the splendid festival of floats."
Sawara's Great Float Festival

The entrance to the Suigo Sawara Dashi Kaikan (Float Hall).
Sawara, a town of canal by the Toner River, is a vibrant community known for its summer and autumn festivals. The dynamism of these festivals can be experienced at "Dashi Kaikan", where 2 of the 24 floats are shown up close. "Dashi" is generally a float pulled on the streets at festival time, decorated with a figure of a mountain fish, doll, bird, animal, or plant. The word "dashi" (山車) was derived from the word describing the targeted location where God descents down.

The wooden floats are mostly made of zelkova tree. They are surrounded on all four sides by ornamental handrails and are decorated with twisted fresh straw ropes as well as gorgeous canopies. This is because the "dashi" is considered a symbolisation of the throne. Big dolls of 4-meter high or other kind of symbols are set on the top of the floats. Towards the end of the Edo era, luxurious dolls were made by experienced craftsmen of Edo.

Visitors will get the chance to see the floats from close-up at the Float Hall.

The front view of the 8-meter tall float.
 To be honest some were a little intimidating, but they were still pretty impressive.

A close-up view of the one of the two floats figure.

An anecdote says that in the age when Sawara was well-known as a village that produced good rice wine (sake) and soy sauce, there lived a lot of sake masters and young workers at every brewery. On festival days, they were smart "chonai-banten" (workman's livery coat with the initial letter on the back) and draw carts fully loaded with his first products of the year to dedicate them to the shrines. These carts were beautifully decorated with sacred tree branches with green leaves and pendant strips of cut paper, which prompted the villagers to call these carts "dashi" or "heidai". 

Back then, after the festival ended, any decoration on the top floor of the "dashi" was thrown into the fire and  villagers will rebuild a new one in the following year. However, the same decoration are used every year at present day. In the olden days when there were no electric lines over the sky, the figures on the top floor of "dashi" were so huge, that people in nearby village is said to be able to see the upper parts of the figures from distance away across the field.

The artful engravings and beautiful embroidery around the float may make you feel as if you were on the day of the festival.

A mikoshi which is a divine palanquin. Shinto followers believe that it serves as the vehicle to transport a deity in Japan
while moving between main shrine and temporary shrine during a festival.

Small paper lamps which is carried by the people who accompany the float procession during the grand festival.

The floats seen from the second floor of the Float Hall.

As times went by, these "dashi" become more and more beautiful, bigger and taller in size as the brewers began to compete with each others in terms of their decorations and the claim superiority in its size. The brewers also kept in touch with people in other parts of Japan and adopted different culture from every part of Japan. This made Sawara Festival to become more and more gorgeous every year. Today, Sawara Grand Festival (佐原の大祭) which has a tradition of about 300 years, is called one of the three major float festivals in Kanto region (for some reason, in Japan they always list top things in threes). This festival is held twice a year - in the summer festival, 10 floats are operated on Onogawa's east side region; while 14 floats are operated in Onogawa's west side region in autumn.

The summer festival is called "Honjuku Yasaka Shrine's Festival" held for three days on the second or third weekend in July, and the  autumn festival is called "Shinjuku Suwa Shrine's Festival", also held for three days on the second weekend in October. Sawara is divided into two parts - Honjuku on the eastern part and Shinjuku on the western part, by a river called Onogawa river.

A panoramic photo of the grand festival, taken during the special anniversary year, which featured all 24 floats.

Some of the materials on Sawara's float festival, which has been designated as an Important Intangible Folk-Cultural Property.

Musical ornaments such as drums and pipes as well as wooden float sculptures are on display.

There are various dolls, skillfully carved by a group of craftsmen that decorate the top of the floats.
 These dolls, usually measuring about 4 to 5 meter-tall, were derived from the folk tales in the olden days.

Black-and-white photos of the "dashi" taken during the festivals in the olden days. 

The town area called Honjuku, which supports the summer festival includes, Honhashimoto, Kaminakacho, Shimonakacho, Yokaichiba, Tajuku, Terajuku, Niijuku, Hamajuku, Araku, Honcho, Konkawagishi, and Funado. The other area called Shinjuku, which supports the autumn festival, includes, Shinhashimoto, Wakamatsucho, Minamiyokojuku, Shimowake, Kamishinmachi, Shinmoshinmachi, Kitayokojuku, Nishisekido, Higashisekido, Shinuwagashi, Nakakawagishi, Shitagashi, Tanaka, and Yokokawagishi. Each of these blocks owns its proudest festival float.

On festival days, town people pull the floats not only through broad streets but even narrow lanes that could allow it to go through. The floats are all decorated with elaborate carvings on four sides and with a set of tall figure on the top floor. The amazing feature of the festival is the festival music - "Sawara Bayashi", played by music players firmly sitting on the rails of the float. This music, said to date from 400 years ago, is now designated as an Important Intangible Cultural Asset. There is also a dancing team called "Tekomai", performed by young girls drawing the ropes attached to the float, which is a spectacular view worth watching.

 A huge Japanese carp or "koi", made of straw, which will decorate the top of one of the float from Yokaichiba (八日市場) area.

After dark, the best view of the festival is enjoyed on both sides of the Onogawa River. The lit-up floats and figures reflected in the river will be seen swaying on the surface of the water. In the years of good harvest, people are likely to adopt ingenious programs in addition to the ones of the usual year.

There is no written record about the origin of this festival. However, according to "The History of Sawara City", Shinjuku Shrine's festival is believed to have started in 1721. It says that Uno Gonnojo, the 4th head of village (called "nanushi"), took responsibility to organise every procedure with the festival in that year. Unfortunately, any documents about Honjuku Yasaka Shrine's Festival is said to have been lost in a fire. The whole procedure to administer the festival is traditionally decided by a meeting on July 1st (known as "shochokaigi") on the Honjuku side, and on September 1st (known as "hassakusankai") on the Shinjuku side.

Make sure you catch this unique festival, considered the highlight of the year in Sawara.

Suigō Sawara Dashi Kaikan (Float Hall) (水郷佐原山車会館)
Address: 3368 Sawara-I, Katori City, Chiba Prefecture, Japan (within the proximity of Yasaka Shrine grounds) (千葉県香取市佐原イ3368) (八坂神社境内)
Opening Hours: 09:00 - 16:30 (09:00 - 20:30 during the summer festival season)
Closed: Every Monday and Year End and New Year holidays (open every day during the Iris Festival and national holiday)
Admission Fee: 400 yen (adult), 200 yen (elementary and junior high school students) (special discounts for group more than 15 people and set tickets).
Website: (Japanese only)
Tel: 0478-52-4104
Parking: Available
Access: From JR Sawara Station (JR Narita Line) (about 90  minutes from JR Tokyo Station), walk for 15 minutes; Car: 10 minutes from Higashi-Kanto Expressway Interchange・Sawara Katori IC

No comments: