For centuries, the Hojoya Festival has been the biggest event on the calendar of this city. In the middle of September, the Hakozaki Shrine is thronged by locals taking part in shrine ceremonies, picking up matsuri souvenirs, and tanking up at the hundreds of street stalls.
The Hakozaki Shrine is deep in what was once the city of Hakata, around the year 923. Dedicated to Hachiman, a kami of archery and war, it is fitting that Hakozaki is closely connected to the martial history of the city, having burned down in the Mongol assault of the 13th century, and rebuilt in memory of the defeat of the invading forces.
The roots of the Hojoya festival remain even now, and the Chinese characters used to spell the name mean, roughly, “freeing life,” suggesting a connection to Buddhist tradition.
Hakata’s wealth was built by powerful merchant families who grew rich trading with China, Korea and the Ryukyu Kingdom; the wealth of the traders supported shrines like Hakozaki and their annual festivals. When the festival days came, city burghers, merchants, traders and pilgrims would make their way out to the fairly remote Hakozaki Shrine, surrounded at the time by fields of ginger. Not much ginger is grown around the shrine these days, but the tradition of picking up a bundle of ginger is still upheld.
The parade of mikoshi (sometimes called “portable shrines” in English) takes place on the first and the third days of the festival. The mikoshi are on display throughout the matsuri, though. The culture and arts of the Hojoya festival have become something like a time capsule of local tradition. Over the past several decades, previously lost traditions like makudashi (informal feasts supported by local merchants) have been revived by the shrine and local citizen supporters.
The shrine sets up a stage during festival nights to host local performers. Even with the bright lights, smartphones clicking and modern equipment, there’s something timeless about the performances. You can imagine similar scenes playing out decades or centuries before. There are some concessions to more modern artforms (expect to see at least one idol group) but the bulk of performers are keeping alive ancient traditions.
Like any matsuri worth its sacred salt, the street stalls are a major attraction. Offerings at the street stalls range from traditional snacks native to Fukuoka and Hakata to outlandish creations that would be at home on an American carnival midway, and there’s always plenty of liquor. Held at the start of September, Hojoya is the last festival before the nights start to turn chilly, and it feels as if this is summer’s last hurrah. There’s no better excuse to stroll on a humid Kyushu night than a lively shrine festival like Hojoya.
Sure, the New Year’s festivals might bring a few more people out, but Hojoya is special in Fukuoka. Folks have been partying and praying here for a millenium. This is a distinctly Fukuoka matsuri, with traditions going back to the 10th century but plenty of vitality left in it because of the work of citizen supporters and proud locals. So, kiss summer goodbye and experience truly local culture with a night out at Hojoya matsuri.