Held twice a year in the old town of Takayama, the Takayama Festivals (Takayama Matsuri) in Japan are rich experiences featuring large ornate floats (Yatai) which are displayed throughout the city. The spring festival, held on April 14th & 15th, is held each year to pray for a good harvest and features the Hie Shrine. The shirine is known as Sanno-sama and is why the spring festival is referred to by many as the Sanno Festival. The fall festival (Hachiman Festival), held on October 9th and 10th after the harvest, centers around the Sakurayama Hachiman Shrine and focuses on giving thanks for a good harvest. Started sometime in the 16th century, it draws hundreds of thousands of visitors each year and is one of the three largest festivals in Japan behind only Kyoto’s Gion Matsuri and the Chichibu Matsuri. The activities and attractions of both festivals are quite similar with each festival having its own set of nearly a dozen impressively decorated floats.
Kept throughout the year in storehouses around the town, the Yatai floats are displayed on the city streets each day of the festivals. There is also the mokoshi, a portable shrine that can only be carried around the town during these festival days and is part of a parade that begins and ends at each festivals respective shrine. Most of the floats date back to the 17th century and are amazingly decorated with intricate wood carvings, detailed metal work and even marionettes. Some of the marionette displays on the floats, like the three marionettes on Hotel Tai, are so intricate that they require as many as 9 or more puppet masters to operate. Several of the floats also feature karakuri ningyo, high-tech mechanical dolls that move and dance. During times on inclement weather these amazing floats are instead kept in their storehouses but they are opened to the public so visitors can still enjoy these magnificent creations. Considered by many to be the highlight of the festivals, on the evening of the first day of festivities all of the Yatai floats are lined up. Once the darkness arrives dozens upon dozens of trafitional Japanese chochin lanters are lit on each of the floats, creating a magnificent visual experience. The now radiant floats are escorted around town by people dressed in traditional kimonos.
Between festivals the Takayama Festival Float Exhibition Hall (Takayama Matsuri Yatai Kaikan) holds four of the largeer, more intricate floats used in the festival. A wonderful place to see the wonders if you are not able to make it to the festival, the Yatai Kaikan even offers free 20 minute guided tours in English. Admission to the Yatai Kaikan also includes the Sakurayama Nikko Kan exhibit next door, a nearly 100 year old replica of the 28 building Toshogu Shrine in Nikko. Being an extremely popular event, if you plan on attending it is recommended that you plan ahead by at least six months so you can reserve a hotel close enough to partake in the evening celebration. Be sure to check out the all the local sights as Takayama is full of awesome places to visit like the beautiful Hida Minzoku Mura Folk Village or the Takayama-shi Kyodo-kan museum that chronicles local history, handcrafts and traditional items.