Hikiyama Matsuri, Nagahama’s Intangible Cultural Asset to the World.
Hikiyama Matsuri (Festival) is the crown jewel of Nagahama City and as of December 2016 part of UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage for Humanity. It is held once a year in mid- April, attracting massive crowds of all ages and from all corners of Japan. During the festival, beautiful hikiyama floats are paraded around town by various town groups. A total of twelve hikiyamas exist today but only four of them are brought out each year. Each float becomes a moving theater adorn with lanterns, animal sculptures, and elegant tapestry unique to each performing group.
What truly sets Hikiyama Matsuri apart are the child-actors performing kabuki plays traditionally reserved for grownups. These child prodigies train for a month prior to the festivities, turning momentarily into superstars and being praised by audiences on the street. The events making up the festival commence on the first Saturday of April, when the four participating floats are brought out of the yamaguras (storehouses), and taken to the Hikiyama Museum where they are swapped with the previous year's floats. From then, several rituals and blessings set the stage for the major parades which take place from April 14th to the 15th.
In the early afternoon of April 14th, a “noboriyama” event is carried out and the participating
floats are pulled to Hachimangu Shrine. While the townspeople are gathering at the shrine to get a closer look at the mobile theatres, the kabuki groups are spread out around the town; the children are presented to the crowds, and the final preparations are set for the weekend performances. The festival atmosphere takes over Nagahama and you can feel the energy and the significance of a tradition that began in the 16th century and has been preserved passionately to this present day.
On April 15th, the child-actors board the hikiyama floats and begin the parade at Hachimangu Shrine. The floats are pulled down the central Otemon Street, the audiences
get to see the kabuki plays intermittently, and the show makes its way to “Otabisho”, a
temporary shrine set up for the duration of the festival. To liven up the experience, you can follow the floats up close, getting a peak of the backstage preparations, and a detailed look at the fascinating art.
At Otabisho Shrine and with everyone gathered around the four groups of hikiyamas, the children dedicate their best performance to the mikoshi (portable shrine). As night falls, the adorning lanterns are lid up, the atmosphere is filled with vibrant colour, and the festival reaches a climax. Once all the acting is done, the mikoshi is brought back to Hachimangu Shrine and the hikiyama floats stored back at the museum, where they can be admired throughout the year. The Hikiyama Festival is a fascinating experience and it is obvious why it has been preserved through history. Seeing the whole town come together around the festivities, the hikiyama groups putting all their energy into the logistical feat, and the children sticking it out through a marathon-like performance, is an unforgettable part of the journey to Shiga Prefecture.