Gifu is best known, when it comes to festivals at least, for the famed Takayama Festival, which takes place once in the fall and once in the spring and is considered to be one of Japan’s “most beautiful festivals.” While the Takayama Festival is thus a pride of Gifu Prefecture, there is the unfortunate side effect that it might overshadow other spectacular festivals that go on throughout the prefecture. I had the pleasure of going to the Takayama Festival in the fall and enjoyed it very much. But, if I am to be honest, the Furukawa Festival was without a doubt (for me at least!) the most captivating festival of the year.
This festival is well-know in its own right, having been designated an Important Itangible Folk Cultural Property of Japan and named as one of Japan’s three Great “Naked Festivals,” although to clarify…there’s really nothing “naked” about it! Either way, the Furukawa Festival is best-known for the Okoshi-daiko (“awakening-drum”) performance that announces the start of the festivities and takes place from 9pm all the way until 1:30 or 2am! It certainly doesn’t follow the standard formula for a Japanese festival, which is one of the reasons why it was so alluring and why I recommend it so highly to those seeking to see something truly unique!
With all that I had read about the festival, I knew that I wanted to do nothing more on April 19th (the festival is held on the 19th and 20th every year) than just head up to Hida Furukawa and take in the spectacle first-hand. Luckily for me, one of my co-workers just happened to be from Furukawa and was going to be heading up there for the festival…he offered to put me up at his family’s house for the night, an offer which I accepted almost before it was out of his mouth :). So I’d like to give a big shout out to KK for the generous hospitality!
When we got to Furukawa, one of the first things that KK pointed out to me was the ubiquity of lanterns (above) all around the town. They signify the neighborhood group, of which there are twelve, and which will be important again later. There’s just something about paper lanterns that gives a Japanese town a decidedly traditional feel…I wish they remained in-place all year, but ufortunately they are only put up specially for the festival! In addition to those lanterns on the side of the streets, there were also gate-like structures erected (pictured below) to mark the entrances to different neighborhood districts, another sign of the importance of these distinct groups.
After being warmly greeted by KK’s family and treated to some delicious food (which took me completely by surprise), it was time to explore the town. With many daylight hours still ahead, it would be quite some time before the long-awaited drum spectacle began. Thankfully, there was more than enough to tide me over until then. Although the real heart of the festival would not start until nighttime, the other sights that you usually see at a Japanese festival were still out in full force. Food stalls galore, traditional Japanese lion dance, long processions with locals dressed in traditional garb that dates back centuries…it was all there.
Just a few points of interest. The Hida region of Gifu (the northern region) is still quite chilly in April, and the “naked” aspect of the Furukawa Festival refers to the outfits that the men wear at night: bleached cotton loincloths and stomach wraps, which leave half of their upper bodies and their legs exposed to the elements. The point: it’s cold at night. So what do they use to numb themselves against the cold? As you may have guessed, sake is their remedy! So while sake plays a large role in all Japanese festivals, it probably takes on even larger importance during the Furukawa Festival. What really surprised me was that, during the lion dance performances (in the daytime!), all the men were passing around a bottle of sake and drinking heartily from it…even those inside the lion costume in the middle of their performance! I was floored by this…even when I found out later that it was really just water in the sake bottle (they sure got me good…)! Nevertheless, it still speaks to the symbolic importance of sake to this festival in particular.
Aside from this, another element of the Furukawa Festival that I had never encountered before was that, during the procession (pictured below), locals were carrying around town the actual deity (kami-sama) of the Kitawakamiya Shrine! Normally, portable shrines are carried through the streets as kind of a proxy (and this is still done during the Furukawa Festival…on the 20th), but this is the first time I recall seeing the deity itself (in its vessel, of course, which nobody can look inside of) being carried around. These kinds of unique elements really stood out to me and made the festival all the more enjoyable!
My day was far from done (let alone my night), and yet I don’t want to overflow you with too much information/awesomeness at once, so I’m going to leave you hanging here in anticipation of Part II, whose contents may include melon-bread, festival floats, Japanese candles, and more!
To be continued!!