Japan is renowned for its traditional festivals. These involve mobile festival floats, Ohayashi festival music, brilliantly-colored kimonos, evening lanterns, and intricate mechanical puppet-like dolls. Some festivals are held annually or twice-annually (fall & spring for example). However, when the festival only comes around every-other-year, the festival year is a special treat for locals and visitors alike.
This coming November 9-11, visitors to Tochigi City, Japan, just 70 minutes north of Tokyo’s Asakusa Station on the Tobu Railway line, are in for a special treat. This is the year of the biannual Tochigi Autumn Festival! The festival is held in historic Tochigi City, often called “Little Edo,” because of its ever-present Edo period townscape and culture shaped by maritime transport. During the festival, the key draw are the elaborately decorated dashi floats in motion, that “magically” appear after dark. These dashi are enhanced by skillfully crafted karakuri ningyō dolls - mechanical dolls operated on traditional watch technology, originally created during the Edo Period. The celebratory ambience is further elevated by traditional Ohayashi festival music -- with taiko drums and shakuhachi flutes, passed down from the Meiji Period.
Tochigi Autumn Festival History
The Tochigi Autumn Festival began in 1874, when people paraded with dashi floats to honorEmperor Jinmu, the first emperor of Japan (660 BCE), during a ceremony held on the premises of the prefectural office (located in the former Tochigi Town, currently Tochigi City). These particular dashi floats are called edogata ningyō dashi, because they were originally produced in the Edo period. Soon the entire town started to compete by showcasing dashi floats ofShizuka Gozen (12th C) during the Tenka Matsuri (Edo Sanno Festival) and other dashi floats featuring dolls produced by skillful doll makers, such as Shugetsu Hara III (sample works:http://www.kuranomachi.jp/akimatsuri/dashi/index.html)
About the Edogata Ningyō (Float Dolls)
The dolls used for Edogata ningyō dashi vary, but mainly feature gods and heroes that appeared in Kojiki and Nihon-shoki (Japan's old historical records) or great figures and heroes from China. They also symbolize folk beliefs and legends.
Festival Highlight: Buttsuke
One of the festival’s highlights is buttsuke, where multiple dashi floats face off by playing ohayashi, festival music, initiated by the call of each leader. All carriers brandish lanterns above their heads and shout to enliven the music. It is customary for dashi floats with out-of-tune ohayashi to concede. The invigorating calls are also unique, representing each town. If you go, join in and shout to your heart’s content! The evening parade offers a chance to view a magical world, where lantern-illuminated floats, brighten the night festivities.
If You Miss the Festival
The Tochigi Dashi Kaikan or Tochigi Doll Float Museum reconstructs scenes from the biannual Tochigi Autumn Festival through installations produced with digital technology and actual dashi floats. It allows visitors to immerse themselves in the festival’s spectacle and appreciate the beauty of the dashi floats even if their visit to Tochigi City does not correspond to the specific festival dates. The Tochigi Dashi Kaikan, founded in 1995, stores the dashi floats, which are tangible folk cultural properties designated by Tochigi Prefecture. Three dashi floats actually used in the Tochigi Autumn Festival are on permanent display and are rotated on a regular basis to allow visitors to encounter different gorgeously adorned, mobile dashi floats every time they visit.
This year, Tochigi Daishi Kaikan’s high-tech festival video was just updated during a two-month museum closure from January to the end of February 2018. Now, this digital introduction to the Tochigi Autumn Festival is available in several languages, enhancing the experience for foreign tourists.
For more information on the Tochigi Autumn Festival, check out theTochigi City Tourist Association’s website.