The recent massive flooding in Western Japan from Kyushu to Gifu has made many of us living in Japan check the vulnerability of our own homes to severe flooding. One way to do this is to check the hazard maps published by local governments.
As listed below, Shiga Prefecture has published online hazard maps for floods, landslides, earthquakes, and nuclear power plant radiation leakage. The hazard areas are color-coded and quite detailed (you can zoom in and scroll around your neighborhood). The green “running man” icon indicates refuge areas (parks, schools, etc.). All the hazard maps are in Japanese only, no versions in English or other foreign languages. And so I’ll explain about these maps so you can have a basic understanding.
We have to look at the maps as just a rough guide. It’s impossible to accurately predict how your neighborhood or home will be affected in a major disaster (especially earthquakes).
The best thing to do is to be prepared. But it’s hard to be fully prepared for something you’ve never experienced or something that strikes unexpectedly. At the very least, always keep a stock of bottled water (at least one week’s worth), canned food and snacks, first-aid kit, and a hard hat. And whenever you go out, always carry water and snacks in case you get stuck on a train in an earthquake, etc.
Japan is certainly a disaster-prone country. Earthquakes, heavy rains, typhoons, floods, landslides, tornadoes, tsunami, volcanic eruptions, leaks from nuclear power plants, and man-made errors. All of these can be quite frightening, but keep in mind that the chances of you dying or getting injured by any of the above is still minuscule compared to dying due to a traffic accident, smoking, consuming too much fat and sugar, not exercising enough, or a disease like cancer. So before looking down on Japan for its disasters, look down on your own bad habits and lifestyle that may affect your health and lifespan. (Eat more vegetables, fruits, and natto, and exercise more.)
Shiga Prefecture Flood Hazard Map http://shiga-bousai.jp/dmap/map/index?l=M_r_k_risk_map&z=&lon=&lat=
This map highlights the areas in Shiga that can get flooded due to heavy rain, overflowing rivers, or breached riverbanks. The map’s sidebar lets you set various parameters such as the probability (once in 200, 100, or 10 years) of flooding. By default, the map shows a probability of once in 200 years. The default color coding is as follows:
Aqua: Areas that can get flooded up to 0.5 meter.
Yellow: Areas that can get flooded up to 1 meter.
Green: Areas that can get flooded up to 2 meters (1st floor height).
Pink: Areas that can get flooded up to 3 or 4 meters.
Red: Areas that can get flooded up to 5 meters (1st floor height).
River Cameras in Shiga http://c.shiga-bousai.jp/shigapref/pc/index.html
Shiga Prefecture has live cameras monitoring major rivers. They are connected online so we can see the river’s water level. On this map, click on a camera icon to view the camera’s river image online. The image is updated every 5 min. (It’s not a video.) The map also has icons indicating the water level. Blue is normal while red is the river’s flood warning level.
Shiga Prefecture Landslide Hazard Map http://shiga-bousai.jp/dmap/map/index?l=M_d_risk_map&z=&lon=&lat=
This map highlights the areas in Shiga vulnerable to landslides. Mountainous areas where a landslide can occur are outlined by a brown polygon and filled with slanted, vertical, or horizontal lines. (These lines indicate the type of landslide.) The yellow areas show where the landslide can bury homes and property. Again, this map is only a rough guide. Heavy rains or prolonged rains can well expand the landslide or mudflow to cover a larger area than indicated in yellow (土砂洪水氾濫). (The landslide hazard maps for areas in Okayama and Hiroshima flooded in early July 2018 proved to be woefully inaccurate since the landslides affected a much larger area than shown on the maps.) If you live near a mountain, you need to be extra careful during and after heavy rains.
Shiga Prefecture Earthquake Hazard Map http://shiga-bousai.jp/dmap/map/index?l=M_e_risk_map&z=&lon=&lat=
This is an interesting map, but I wouldn’t rely on it too much. In fact, it might be pretty useless. There are just too many unknown factors, especially unknown earthquake faults. The two major earthquake faults known in Shiga are the Yanagase Fault (柳ヶ瀬断層) in northeastern Shiga in Nagahama and the Western Lake Biwa Fault Area (琵琶湖西岸断層帯) which is a series of faults along Western Shiga from Otsu to Takashima. The last major earthquake that struck Shiga was the Anegawa Earthquake (Yanagase Fault) in 1909 striking Nagahama (Torahime, Anegawa River area, and Gifu). It was magnitude 6.8 and 35 people died and 643 people were injured in Shiga. Over 2,000 homes in Shiga collapsed.
The default color coding is as follows:
Blue: Areas that may have a Magnitude -5 earthquake.
Green: Areas that may have a Magnitude 5+ earthquake (bookshelves and cupbards falling over).
Yellow: Areas that may have a Magnitude -6 earthquake (roof tiles may fall off, furniture falling over).
Orange: Areas that may have a Magnitude 6+ earthquake (buildings can collapse).
Red: Areas that may have a Magnitude 7 earthquake (buildings can collapse).
Shiga Prefecture Nuclear Plant Radiation Hazard Map http://shiga-bousai.jp/dmap/map/index?l=M_g_gensiryoku_map&z=&lon=&lat=
This map shows a 30 km radius (in orange) from each nuclear plant in Fukui Prefecture. Of course, the radiation can spread beyond this radius depending on prevailing winds. Local officials are still trying to figure out how people can evacuate northern Shiga en masse in case of a major radiation breach in Fukui. If there is a major radiation leak, say good-bye to our water supply and endemic fish. People in Kyoto and Osaka will also suffer. And yet, big business and local politicians think it is worth the risk.
Here’s the 2018 summer fireworks (hanabi) schedule for Shiga Prefecture (Shiga-ken hanabi) listed by date. Keep in mind that foul weather is always possible and fireworks can be postponed or canceled. “More info” links go to Japanese-language pages. (No information in English except on this page. That’s why I create this page every year.)
–July 14, 2018–
♦ Echigawa Gion Noryo Hanabi Taikai in Aisho, 7:40 pm – 9:00 pm
At two locations along the Echigawa River bank near Miyukibashi Bridge. 15-min. walk from Ohmi Railways Echigawa Station. If rained out, to be postponed to July 16. About 40,000 people are expected. Map
More info: 愛知川駅コミュニティハウスるーぶる愛知川 TEL：0749-42-8444 https://hanabi.walkerplus.com/detail/ar0725e00768/
Yokaichi Shotoku Matsuri
–July 21, 2018– ♦ Yokaichi Shotoku Matsuri (Finale Fireworks) in Higashi-Omi, 8:30 pm – 9:00 pm
This is a dance festival starting at 7:30 pm and ends with fireworks from 8:30 pm near Yokaichi Station. The festival is a huge bon dance with 600 dancers dancing to Shiga’s native Goshu Ondo folk songs. A large section of the main road in front of Yokaichi Station is closed to traffic for the festival. The festival is named after Shotoku Taishi. Map | Video
More info: 八日市商工会議所 TEL: 0748-22-0186 http://www.odakocci.jp/pickup/matsuri.html
–Aug. 4, 2018–
♦ Makino Summer Carnival at Makino Sunny Beach, Takashima, 8:30 pm マキノサマーカーニバル2018
More info: 四季遊園マキノ交流促進協議会事務局 Phone: 0740-28-8002
♦ Takashima Summer Festival at Makino Sunny Beach, Takashima, 9:00 pm
Fireworks is part of their summer festival that starts at 4 pm.
More info: たかしま夏まつり実行委員会 Phone: 0740-36-2011
♦ Ujisato Matsuri in Hino, 8:45 pm – 9 pm
Fireworks is the climax of this summer festival (bon dance, etc.) held in the northern parking lot of Hino Town Hall starting in mid-afternoon. 氏郷まつり「夏の陣」2018
More info: 日野町イベント実行委員会 Phone: 0748-52-6562
♦ Kotonarie Summer Festa in Hibari Park in Higashi-Omi
Part of an illumination and music festival. 20-min. by bus from Yokaichi Station. Fireworks start at 8:40 pm. コトナリエサマーフェスタ
More info: 東近江市湖東商工会 Phone: 0749-45-2571
♦ Konan Natsu Matsuri in Konan, fireworks at 8:00 pm
Fireworks is the climax of this summer festival (Goshu Ondo bon dance, stage entertainment, etc.) held at the Yasugawa River Shinzui Koen park (野洲川親水公園).
More info: 湖南市観光協会 Phone: 0748-71-2157 http://www.burari-konan.jp/
–Aug. 7, 2018–
♦ Biwako Dai-Hanabi Taikai at Hama-Otsu and Nagisa Park in Otsu, 7:30 pm – 8:30 pm
This is the big one, but a steep admission (around ¥4,400, even for children above age 3) is charged in prime viewing areas along Hama-Otsu. Hama-Otsu Port will be totally walled off so you cannot see the fireworks from the street. Viewing areas along Nagisa Park that used to be free are no longer free. They will have about 29,000 paid seating along the shore. It will be terribly crowded with people (about 350,000). Spectacular show (and cost), but have fun trying to get home via the tiny nearby train stations or gridlocked roads afterward. Foul weather will postpone it to Aug. 10. Map
More info: びわ湖大花火大会実行委員会 TEL: 077-511-1530 https://hanabi.walkerplus.com/detail/ar0725e00765/
–Aug. 16, 2018–
♦ Somagawa Natsu Matsuri near Kibukawa Station, Koka
Fireworks are part of the summer festival with taiko drummers and lantern floating on the river. Held annually on Aug. 16. 杣川夏まつり
More info: 甲賀市観光協会 Phone: 0748-65-0708
–Essential Vocabulary– hanabi (花火) – fireworks hanabi taikai (花火大会) – fireworks (sometimes a contest) Natsu Matsuri (夏まつり) – Summer festival noryo (納涼) – Enjoying the cool of a summer evening (at a river, park, etc.)
Tour guide Seita Mori (right) amid terraced rice paddies in Hata, Takashima.
by Philbert Ono, photos courtesy of Seita Mori and selected by Philbert Ono
It’s about time I introduce YUtour (悠ツアー), a licensed tour guide service for foreign tourists in Shiga Prefecture run by my friend MORI Seita (森 聖太) in Otsu. YUtour is a one-man operation with Seita-san as YUtour’s one and only English-speaking guide. All indicators (such as TripAdvisor comments) show that he is doing an outstanding job. And after having a long lunch with him the other day in Otsu, I believe it.
YUtour’s guided tours in English focus on the rural areas, ecotourism and nature, and traditional crafts of Shiga. He takes guests mainly to Otsu (Mt. Hiei, Sakamoto, Ogi, and Katata), Takashima (Harie and Hata), Shigaraki (pottery and Miho Museum), and Omi-Hachiman (Okishima island and traditional boat rides). If you look at the YUtour website, you can see “Ready-made tours” with a set itinerary and pricing, and “Tailor-made tours” to other areas in Shiga upon request. Most of the tours are day trips from Kyoto, and Seita usually meets his guests at Kyoto Station at the tour’s start. He takes mostly individuals, couples, or small groups, but can also handle larger groups.
Seita (in front) in Nakajima, Harie.
Why take a guided tour instead of touring by yourself?
When touring rural areas where public transportation is limited, English information is scarce, and where people don’t speak English, a guided tour in English makes it much easier.
The guide can introduce you to local people (farmers, potters, craftsmen, etc.) so you can talk to them and ask questions. It makes your visit more enjoyable and educational. When it comes to outside visitors, rural folks always appreciate some kind of introduction. Just a simple introduction by someone they know is all it takes for them to open up their world, culture, and lifestyle to you. With the right connections, people in Shiga can be very friendly to foreigners. And Seita is that connection.
Pottery lesson in Shigaraki.
Calligraphy brush makers in Takashima.
Kabata water basin is used to wash or chill fruits and vegetables. Carp also eat food scraps from washed dishes.
YUtour’s most popular destinations are Harie (homes with “kabata” kitchen basins spewing natural spring water), Hata (farming community with terraced rice paddies), Shigaraki pottery centers, and Miho Museum. YUtour uses public transportation as much as possible so visitors can also experience what locals do. But if necessary, they will use a taxi or mini bus (for large groups). About 40 percent of YUtour customers are from the U.S., followed by Australians and Europeans. English-speaking tourists from Asia also take his tours.
Since YUtour is a small operation, Seita makes the tours a lot more personal, personable, and flexible than with large tour operators. He tells me that he never gets tired of taking people to the same places and explaining the same things over and over. It’s because his guests are all different and they all have different interests, questions, and opinions and he enjoys talking to them. Seita learns a lot from them as well. So it’s a very interactive tour and not just a one-way lecture about this and that. I asked him what was the most common comment he gets from his visitors to Shiga: “So peaceful here!” Yep, laid-back Shiga is definitely a refreshing and relaxing break from the craziness and crowds of Kyoto.
Cycling through rice paddies in Adogawa, Takashima.
Hand paddling a boat through reeds in Lake Nishinoko, Omi-Hachiman.
Old reeds around the lake are burned in early March to make way for new buds.
Seita started YUtour in 2012 as part of his noble mission to help revitalize rural communities. Bringing foreign tourists was one way to do it. The “YU” (悠) in YUtour means “leisurely” in Japanese. I believe YUtour was the first professional tour guide service to start up in Shiga exclusively for foreigners. When I first heard about it, I didn’t think it would be so viable since Shiga is so little known overseas.
Indeed, Seita did struggle to get customers during his first year in business. But he stuck with it and over the years, YUtour gradually became a very active and in-demand service. It has gained more customers as word spread, and it’s now on track for further growth. The increasing number of inbound tourists to Japan has also helped, and Seita is also seeing repeat customers. He is most busy in spring and fall when he can be booked for at least half the month. Least busy are the winter months.
He has also been spotlighted in local Japanese newspapers and NHK Otsu TV news in 2017. I’m so glad to see him come this far to establish a niche for himself in Shiga. It takes a lot of dedication and determination and he loves what he’s doing. Seita also works part-time as a research assistant at Kobe University, so he does have a side job to fall back on when YUtour is not so busy.
Seita (left) helps to clean waterways in Harie.
I met Seita-san for the first time about a year ago when I invited him to one of my events. We didn’t have time to talk then, so we finally met up again over lunch in Otsu earlier this month.
I could quickly tell that he was a dedicated, upright professional and very community-oriented and knowledgeable about Shiga. He is a licensed tour guide for foreigners (通訳案内士) which means he passed a difficult national exam for testing one’s English ability and knowledge of Japan. It’s surprising to hear that he has never studied or worked abroad, so his English was mostly self-taught. To get up to that level without living abroad (or being married to a native English speaker) is pretty amazing for a Japanese person. (Japan’s English education program in public schools has largely been a failure for decades, with the vast majority of students still unable to converse in English even at college age. Japan’s low-quality English found everywhere in tourism brochures, official websites, signs, etc., also does not help.)
He also has a Ph.D degree, so we had very intelligent conversations (in Japanese). Besides me interviewing him, we also discussed tourism issues in Shiga and Otsu.
On NHK TV in July 2017, Enryakuji spokesman commented on their English weakness.
One thing we talked about was Enryakuji Temple. Enryakuji recently admitted on NHK TV that they were not good at English PR. I told Seita that Enryakuji should just ask its overseas Tendai Buddhist temples to help produce English materials. I’m sure they would gladly help their headquarters temple produce the English for PR brochures, official website, and directional signs. They are native English speakers who know the religion and terminology, so they are very qualified to do it. When it comes to English PR, Enryakuji is way behind Koya-san in Wakayama Prefecture. Seita showed me the excellent English website for Kumano Kodo. Something that Enryakuji, Otsu, and Shiga could learn from.
Seita and I also agreed that Otsu’s push to develop Chuo-Odori road between Otsu Station and Lake Biwa for tourists is not so promising since there’s nothing at the end of the road (except for a hotel). Yes, there’s Lake Biwa, but there are other more convenient roads leading to the lake.
Otsu recently made a snazzy, eye-catching video just to promote that it’s only “9 minutes by train from Kyoto.” This should’ve been “Only 9 minutes TO Kyoto” instead. Have tourists stay in Otsu to visit Kyoto, rather than tourists staying in Kyoto to visit Otsu. People who lodge in Otsu drop more money than people who just visit Otsu, right? Otsu often serves as backup accommodations for people who can’t find hotel rooms in Kyoto anyway. So a “9 minutes TO Kyoto” campaign would have been more practical. Vice versa is a lot harder—getting tourists staying in Kyoto to visit central Otsu.
Theoretically, being so close to Kyoto might sound good, but it can also be disadvantageous. Tourists who want to get away from Kyoto may think Otsu is too close and prefer to venture further away. This may explain why Harie and Shigaraki (both taking at least an hour from Kyoto) are more popular to visit from Kyoto.
Well, I still give credit to Otsu for at least trying and coming up with ideas. But as I told Seita, I think Otsu is stuck in a hard place. It doesn’t have a trademark attraction like Hikone Castle in Hikone. Yes, there’s Enryakuji (World Heritage Site), but it’s almost part of Kyoto and most people go there from Kyoto. Otsu has other important Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, but people who want to see temples/shrines might as well stay in Kyoto. There’s Lake Biwa and lake cruises, but the lake is not unique to Otsu. Otsu has a lot of things, but nothing stands out. So it lacks a strong and unique identity attractive to tourists.
Pottery kiln in Shigaraki.
And Shigaraki (in Koka), despite its fame and popularity with foreigners, still has no official tourism website in English. (Google Translate doesn’t count.) Selling their wares to foreigners should really help (especially with the Tokyo Olympics coming up). The Shigaraki pottery association should create an English website. Shigaraki hardly has info in English except for Miho Museum and the Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park.
Too many people working in Shiga tourism still don’t understand the power and worldwide reach of the Internet and how a little language can go a long way. It’s hard to believe that there are still volunteer tour guides (mostly retirees) in Shiga who do not even use the Internet. (No emailing, no messaging, and no Web browsing.)
Anyway, I had a good discussion with Seita-san and we’ll be keeping in touch. YUtour provides a very valuable and rare service in Shiga. I think Seita represents Shiga very well as a grassroots cultural ambassador spreading the word about Shiga. I find him to be very friendly and affable. He is another example of how even one person can make a big difference in Shiga. It’s not snazzy videos nor slick brochures. It’s the word of mouth that counts the most and Seita Mori is on the front line for that.
To book a tour, go directly to the YUtour website. As of this writing, YUtour is not available for booking at travel sites like Expedia.
(Main highlight dates in red, times are approximate)
April 7 (Sat.), 10 am–3 pm: At Hikiyama Museum, exhibited floats to be replaced. Details here.
April 9th–12th, from 8 pm: Hadaka-mairi worship at Nagahama Hachimangu and Hokoku Shrine. Details here.
April 10th–12th: Child kabuki practice open to the public. Details here.
April 12, from 6:30 pm: Portable shrine procession from Nagahama Hachimangu to Hokoku Shrine and Otabisho. Details here.
April 13, from 5:30 pm: Child kabuki performances in local neighborhoods. Details here.
April 14, 9:30 am to 1 pm: Child kabuki performances in local neighborhoods. Details here.
April 14, 1 pm to 4 pm: Float procession to Nagahama Hachimangu. Details here.
April 14, at 7 pm: Child kabuki evening procession from Nagahama Hachimangu to Hikiyama Museum. Details here.
April 15 (Main day): Child kabuki performances all day at Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine (10 am to 2:15 pm), Otemon Arcade, and Otabisho (4 pm to 8:15 pm). Details here.
April 16, 9 am to 9 pm: Child kabuki performances from 9 am to evening in local neighborhoods. Details here.
—Tips for seeing the Nagahama Hikiyama Festival—
When you arrive at JR Nagahama Station, you should go to the tourist information center outside the turnstile and ask what time and where the floats will perform kabuki. If you will see the festival on April 15, the main day, you can conveniently see all four floats perform kabuki in succession (40 min. each) at Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine from 10 am to 2:15 pm. If you arrive Nagahama later in the day, you can see all four floats perform in succession at the Otabisho (large parking lot) near Nagahama Station from 4:00 pm from 8:15 pm.
You can also walk between Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine and the Otabisho (see map below), especially along Kurokabe Square and the Otemon shopping arcade where the floats will pass or perform in the afternoon. You can see the floats up close (artwork, etc.) while they are parked.
Each of the four floats will perform kabuki four times on April 15 for a total of 16 kabuki performances. So there will be a kabuki performance once or twice every hour from 10 am to 7:35 pm. You can easily see one or more kabuki performances somewhere in central Nagahama during this time.
Be aware that it is “standing room only” for all kabuki performances. It can be tiring to watch all four kabuki performances while standing. You could bring a collapsible chair, but people standing in front of you will block your view. (Although a limited number of paid seating is available at Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine, they sell out quickly.) If you plan to see the festival in the evening, the temperature can get much cooler so bringing a jacket is advisable.
About Nagahama Hikiyama Matsuri
All festival events are within walking distance from JR Nagahama Station on the JR Hokuriku Line. Since there’s no detailed festival information and schedule in English from official sources, I provide this festival schedule in English based on official festival information and my recommendations. With a little knowledge of what’s what and what’s going on, I’m sure you’ll be able to enjoy this festival much more after reading this post.
There are 12 kabuki floats (called hikiyama) with a kabuki stage and one “guardian” float named Naginata-yama with no stage. Every year, only four of the kabuki floats perform kabuki at the festival. Three groups of four kabuki floats take turns appearing in the festival each year so each float group appears (performs kabuki) every three years. The same four floats appear together each time. Only the Naginata-yama guardian float appears in the festival every year, but does not perform kabuki. To see all 12 kabuki floats, you would have to see the festival three years in a row.
Although April 15 is the main festival day (called Honbi 本日), there is a slew of festival events and kabuki performances before and after this day. If you can’t make it to Nagahama on April 15, you can still see kabuki performances on April 13 (evening), 14 (morning), and 16 (all day).
My video embedded above shows all the major festival events during this period. A few ceremonies and rituals are closed to the public. On Dec. 1, 2016, Nagahama Hikiyama Matsuri was inscribed as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity as one of the 33 “Yama, Hoko, and Yatai float festivals in Japan.”
Another thing to know is that the four kabuki-performing floats draw lots to determine the order of their performances. Being Float No. 1 is most desirable since they get to perform first on April 15 (main festival day) and can end early and go home early. They also have the honor to host the Sanbaso prayer dancer who performs before their kabuki play.
The four Nagahama Hikiyama floats appearing in April 2018 and their kabuki plays and performance order are as follows:
According to legend, when Toyotomi Hideyoshi was the lord of Nagahama Castle, his first son Hashiba Hidekatsu was born in the early 1570s. To celebrate his son’s birth, Hideyoshi gave gold dust to the townspeople. The people used the gold to make a wooden float to celebrate the son’s birth. Hideyoshi paraded the float at Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine. This was the start of the Nagahama Hikiyama Matsuri. This legend is often told, but it is not true.
Nagahama Hikiyama Festival originated from an annual samurai procession held by Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine founded in 1069 by the famed samurai Minamoto no Yoshiie (1039-1106). The shrine worships Hachiman (Emperor Ojin), the divine guardian of samurai.
In the late 16th century, daimyo Toyotomi Hideyoshi relocated the shrine to make way for his Nagahama Castle on the shore of Lake Biwa. At the same time, Hideyoshi rebuilt Nagahama Hachimangu that had been ravaged by war. The shrine’s annual samurai procession dedicated to Minamoto no Yoshiie was also resurrected with Hideyoshi’s samurai retainers.
By the 18th century well after Hideyoshi’s death, the samurai procession became more elaborate with wooden floats being added. When kabuki became popular in the 18th century, Nagahama’s townspeople thought about staging kabuki on the floats. They asked the prominent carpenter and woodcarver family of the late Fujioka Izumi (1617–1705) to design a float having a kabuki stage. The early floats were much simpler than today’s floats. The Fujioka family went on to design and build many of the floats. The idea of staging kabuki on festival floats spread from Nagahama to float festivals in nearby prefectures like Gifu.
Nagahama Hikiyama Matsuri Festival Schedule of Events in 2018
Here is a detailed schedule of Nagahama Hikiyama Festival events in 2018 (times are approximate, and delays may occur). Also see the festival map toward the end of this post. The photos are screenshots from my video embedded above. Click on the photo to see the respective video segment.
April 7, 2018: Float Replacement Event (曳山交替式) 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.: The hikiyama floats exhibited in the Nagahama Hikiyama Museum will be pulled out and taken back to their neighborhoods to prepare for the festival. Then the four floats appearing in next year’s festival will be brought into the museum to be displayed.
April 9: Senko-ban Visitation (線香番) Festival officials visit the four floats’ kabuki practice halls to watch a kabuki rehearsal and time the performance. Before clocks were invented, they used a burning incense stick (senko) to measure the kabuki play’s length. This is also when the parents see their sons perform for the first time. However, the actors do not wear the makeup and costumes yet. This ceremony is not open to the public since the practice hall will be filled with the boys’ parents and relatives.
April 9–12: Hadaka-mairi Shrine Worship(裸参り) From 8:00 p.m. every night on these four days, scantily-clad young men (wakashu 若衆) from the four floats gather at their respective kabuki practice hall and parade to Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine where they pray and purify themselves by running around a well and splashing themselves with the cold well water. They pray for a successful festival, healthy actors, and to draw a favorable lot on April 13 that determines the order of the floats’ performances. They all want to be Float No. 1 which performs first and goes home first on April 15 (main day).
From Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine, they march through Otemon-dori shopping arcade to Hokoku Shrine across town where they pray and splash in a well again. On their last worshipping day on April 12, Otemon-dori shopping arcade has festival musicians and representatives from non-performing floats (i.e. those not performing in the festival this year) to greet the wakashu men. They play festival music (called shagiri 囃子) and offer cups of sake (rice wine) to the wakashu leaders and Kujitori-nin. They shout “Yoisa! Yoisa!” the whole time and drink a lot of sake.
You will notice that they wear different colored headbands. The young man wearing a red headband is the Kujitori-nin (籤取り人) who will draw the lot at the lot-drawing ceremony on April 13. The men wearing a blue headband are the guards (警護) who direct the wakashu. The men with a white headband are the rank and file. When a float’s wakashu pass by another float’s wakashu, a scuffle may break out since they are rivals in drawing lots. Quite a spectacle at both shrines and in-between.
April 12: Portable Shrine Procession (Mikoshi togyo 神輿渡御) From 6:30 pm, men carry a mikoshi portable shrine from Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine to the Otabisho rest place across town while shouting, “Yoisa!” They go through the Otemon-dori arcade and a few side streets. Along the way, festival musicians from other floats greet the portable shrine (no sake is served). Nagahama Hikiyama Matsuri’s festival music is called shagiri (しゃぎり) instead of hayashi (囃子). The portable shrine was made in 1676 by Fujioka Kanbe’e (藤岡甚兵衛) with donations from shrine parishioners. The Fujioka family was a renown woodcarver and Buddhist altar maker in Nagahama.
The portable shrine brings the deity closer to the people and chases away evil spirits. They occasionally raise the portable shrine to wish happiness and safety to the people around it. The portable shrine arrives at the Otabisho at about 7:30 pm. The Otabisho is a rest place for the god traveling in a portable shrine. The portable shrine remains in the Otabisho until April 15 evening.
April 10–12: Public Kabuki Practice(公開稽古) Only during these three days, each float’s kabuki practice hall is open to the public. You can watch the boys (mostly age 5 to 10) practice their kabuki play usually once in the morning, afternoon, and evening. The practice hall is typically a small community center in the float’s neighborhood. It has a large room with a makeshift kabuki stage in the same size as on the float. (For practice times and locations, see the official festival guide book in Japanese or ask the tourist information desk at Nagahama Station.)
Anybody can watch them practice without any reservation or admission fee, but they do not wear the kabuki makeup and costumes (no dress rehearsals). They have been practicing every day since March 20 (spring vacation), so by this time, they have mastered their roles quite well. They receive some fine-tuning during this time.
When you watch them practice so hard (sometimes they even break down and cry), you will come to appreciate how much work it takes to put on a kabuki play. You can also see what the boys really look like without the kabuki makeup. Then when you do see them in kabuki makeup (from April 13), you will be amazed at their transformation.
Before the kabuki makeup and costumes…
And after the kabuki makeup and costumes.
The kabuki play is directed by three instructors called San’yaku (三役): The choreographer, tayu narrator, and shamisen player. The choreographer casts the actors’ (yakusha) roles usually according to their physical attributes. The choreographer is usually an experienced kabuki actor and directs the actors’ movements and voice. The tayu narrates the story in a highly stylized manner like in kabuki. The shamisen player provides the only music played during the kabuki performance.
Since 1990, the Nagahama Hikiyama Cultural Association (長浜曳山文化協会) has been working to train local artists to become tayu narrators and shamisen players in the festival. In 2016, for the first time, all four floats had at least one locally-trained tayu narrator or shamisen player. Previously, they were all from outside Shiga.
Each performing float also publishes its own festival program booklet or brochure introducing the float and kabuki actors in Japanese. (If it has English, it’s usually not very good.) You can buy one for cheap at the practice hall.
*Tip: On April 12, you can see three different festival events: Kabuki practice during the day, the portable shrine procession from 6:30 pm, and the hadaka-mairi shrine worshippers from 8 pm.
April 13 The main events on this day are the lot-drawing ceremony and the first kabuki performances in full costume for the public held in the evening.
Taiko Drum Call (起し太鼓): Before dawn at all float neighborhoods, a small team walk around and beat a taiko drum as a wakeup call.
Sacred Staff Receiving Ceremony (御幣迎えの儀) 7:00 a.m.: Representatives (including the Sacred Staff Messenger age 5–7) from the four floats go to Nagahama Hachimangu to receive their sacred staff (zigzag paper streamers) to be mounted on their floats.
Lot-Drawing Ceremony(Kujitori-shiki 籤取り式の儀)
1:00 p.m.: This ceremony is held to draw lots to determine the order of the four floats’ kabuki performances. Being Float No. 1 is most desirable since they get to perform first on April 15 (main festival day) and can end early and go home early. They also have the honor to host the Sanbaso prayer dancer who performs before their kabuki play.
At Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine, four unmarried lads representing the four floats wear a red headband (like they did at the Hadaka-mairi) and sit in front of the shrine priest inside the worship hall. They are the lot drawers (Kujitori-nin).
Four pieces of paper are written with float numbers one to four. Each piece of paper is crumpled into a ball and placed on a tray as a lot to be drawn. There is a tray for each lot, and each lot drawer selects and carries back a tray. While sitting together, they all open their paper lots at the same time to see who is Float No. 1, 2, 3, and 4.
The Lot-drawing ceremony is not for the public since the shrine’s worship hall is too small to allow the public inside to see the ceremony. However, you can see them from outside celebrating (throwing the lot drawer into the air, etc.).
April 13 Kabuki Performance (十三日番) 5:30 p.m. to around 8:30 p.m.: The four floats hold their first public kabuki performances in full makeup and costume in their respective neighborhoods. (For exact performance times and locations, see the official festival guide book in Japanese or ask the tourist information desk at Nagahama Station.) Each float will perform kabuki only once or twice this evening.
In case of rain, the float will be covered with a tarp or moved to the shopping arcade for shelter.
Sanbaso dancer (三番叟)
About the Sanbaso dancer
Float No. 1 receives the honor of hosting the Sanbaso dancer. The Sanbaso dances on Float No. 1 before the float’s kabuki play and he is the first performer on April 15 (main festival day) at the shrine. He holds a bell tree shaped like a ripe rice plant and performs prayer dances for a rich harvest.
The Sanbaso performs two short dance segments. The first segment is Momi-no-dan (stomping segment) where he waves his sleeves and stomps on the ground like he is preparing the ground for planting. He also does the “crow jump” (karasu-tobi) by jumping three consecutive times.
The second segment is Suzu-no-dan (bell segment) when the Sanbaso shakes his bell tree and mimes the planting and growing of rice. His costume has a crane design and his high cap has tiger stripes and a red sun on both sides.
The Sanbaso is a well-known dancer in Noh and kabuki. He comes from a Noh prayer dance called Okina (翁) dating from the 14th century as a religious ritual. Okina has three dancers praying for longevity, peace, endless joy, prosperity, and rich harvests. Sanbaso is the third dancer in Okina which is traditionally performed on auspicious and celebratory occasions like New Year’s and at the beginning of the day’s Noh or kabuki program. This is why he always appears first on the main festival day. The Sanbaso dances each time the float performs during the festival days. The boy playing the Sanbaso is recruited from the public in Nagahama and he is around age 10. He has his own choreographer, tayu narrator, and shamisen player. Ciick here to see the Sanbaso video clip.
The day before the main festival day is also a busy day. Lots to see/photograph.
Kabuki Performance in Local Neighborhoods (自町狂言) 9:30 a.m. to 1 pm: Morning performances of kabuki plays are held by the four floats in their respective neighborhoods. The floats perform once or twice in the morning. For exact times and locations, see the official festival guide book in Japanese or ask the tourist information desk at Nagahama Station.
Floats Proceeding to Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine(Noboriyama 登り山) 1 pm to 4 pm: After they finish their morning kabuki performances, the four floats proceed from their neighborhoods to Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine. Float No. 4 arrives at the shrine first, followed by the others in reverse numerical order. All four floats arrive at the shrine by 4 p.m. It’s a spectacle to watch them pull the floats through the streets and the shopping arcade as they shout “Yoisa! Yoisa!” It’s a stop-and-go process. Meanwhile, the Naginata-yama float is pulled from its storehouse across town and arrives at the Otabisho rest place at 4 p.m. It is the only float that does not go to the shrine.
About the Naginata-yama “Long Sword Float” (長刀山／小舟町組)
This is the only float with no kabuki stage, an Imperial-style carriage with only three wheels. Carries banners and long swords. A ceremonial and “festival guardian” float appearing every year on April 14-15 only at the Otabisho. It does not go to Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine. Built in 1775 with Chinese lion sculptures on four sides. It’s a nice float, but does not attract the crowds. It’s a quiet float.
After the Sword Procession on April 15, red banners are hoisted on the float. Before Float No. 1 arrives at the Otabisho in the late afternoon, Naginata-yama’s red banners are replaced by white ones bearing the Minamoto Clan’s crest. The float’s caretaker is the Naginata-gumi association from the lakeside Kobuna-machi neighborhood (小舟町 now in Asahi-cho) where Minamoto Yoshiie landed for his victory march to Nagahama Hachimangu.
Evening Kabuki Procession(Yu-watari 夕渡り) 7:00 p.m.: Evening procession of all the child kabuki actors in full costume walking from Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine to Nagahama Hikiyama Museum through Otemon-dori shopping arcade. It starts with actors from Float No. 4, then No. 3, 2, and 1. Occasionally, the actor will stop and pose for photographers. Each actor is escorted by an adult relative (usually the father) holding a paper lantern and wooden placard indicating the actor’s name, age, and kabuki character. The procession includes festival musicians (no floats). A real crowd pleaser for locals and tourists alike.
All the kabuki actors (and stagehands) are treated like royalty during the festival. They receive gifts from relatives and friends and are very much pampered by their parents for undertaking such a difficult and rigorous task of kabuki acting. (A few of them even do it more than once.) The mothers have to make sure they don’t get sick or catch cold. This childhood experience stays with them for life and many of them come back to Nagahama to help out with the festival. In recent years, the floats have had difficulty recruiting kabuki actors (and musicians) since there are fewer kids in their neighborhoods.
April 15: Main festival day (Honbi 本日) The festival’s peak day with kabuki performances here and there in central Nagahama from 9:45 am to 8:15 pm. The four floats start at Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine where they perform in succession. Then they start moving toward the Otabisho and perform three more times at multiple locations (see map below). Before and after the kabuki performances, there are other processions and ceremonies. Note that the floats can be prone to be late (especially in the evening), so the time schedule is only approximate.
Before dawn: Taiko Drum Call (起し太鼓) at all float neighborhoods.
April 15 Events at Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine (Times are approximate.)
7:00 a.m.:Spring Festival Ceremony (春季大祭). A religious ceremony, not really for tourists.
8:30 a.m.:Morning Kabuki Procession Arrival (Asa-watari 朝渡り) of child kabuki actors arrive at Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine. Colorful procession, but too early in the morning for spectators.
9:20 a.m.:Sword Procession (Tachi-watari 太刀渡り) of sword bearers arrives at Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine after going through Otemon-dori arcade. Led by a golden sacred staff, this procession reenacts the Hikiyama Matsuri’s original samurai procession before floats were added. Young men wear ceremonial aprons (similar to sumo wrestlers) and young boys wear samurai armor and a long naginata sword (2–3 meters long). They depict Minamoto no Yoshiie’s victory march to the shrine after he won the Gosannen War (1080s) in the Tohoku Region. Minamoto no Yoshiie was a famous samurai who founded Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine in 1069.
By the 16th century, Nagahama Hachimangu was ravaged by civil war, so Nagahama Castle Lord Toyotomi Hideyoshi moved and rebuilt the shrine at its present location further inland. He also used his own samurai retainers to restart the shrine’s annual festival procession dedicated to Minamoto no Yoshie.
The Sword Procession is conducted by the Naginata-gumi group which also pulls the Naginata-yama float. It has the Matajirohama beach (又次郎浜) where Minamoto no Yoshie landed for his victory march to the shrine.
After resting at the shrine for a short period, the Sword Procession goes to the Otabisho to mount their long swords on the Naginata-yama float.
9:35 a.m.: Okina Maneki (翁招き) is an opening ritual held in front of Float No. 1 to mark the start of kabuki performances. A long bamboo pole attached with a wooden placard is waved to the shrine and to Float No. 1 as a signal to start the festival and the festival music begins. Float No. 1 is then moved into position for the first kabuki performance (opening with the Sanbaso dancer).
10:00 a.m.–2:15 p.m.:Kabuki at Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine(Hono kyogen 奉納狂言) has the four floats perform kabuki at Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine in succession starting with Float No. 1. These performances are dedicated to the gods. Each play is about 40 min. long. After a float finishes a kabuki performance, it leaves shrine and goes to the next performance location on the way to the Otabisho. The next float is then moved into position in the shrine to give its kabuki performance. So there is a break time between performances.
If you want to see all the kabuki plays on the four floats, one option is to stay at the shrine to see all of them. But it’s standing room only, so you may get tired standing for that long. There is paid seating, but they require advance tickets (costing a few thousand yen) sold in Feb. and usually sell out quickly. If you sit on the ground, you won’t be able to see the float since everyone is standing in front of you.
You can just watch one or two floats at the shrine, take a break, and watch the other floats at other locations and times. For kabuki performance times at the shrine and elsewhere, see the table below. All four floats will also perform at the Otabisho later in the afternoon and evening (also standing room only).
Each float has five to seven kabuki actors and one or two stagehands. There used to be more actors like 10 or more per float, but there are fewer kids now. It’s also quite expensive to rent the kabuki costumes. Since each kabuki float performs every three years, that’s how long they have to raise money for the festival.
Although watching the kabuki is impressive without even understanding it, you would enjoy it more if you knew the kabuki story. Most of the kabuki plays are well known and you may be able to find an English synopsis online if you know the kabuki play’s title in Japanese or English. Sometimes the kabuki play includes something about Nagahama.
*The order of the floats’ performances is decided on April 13 by the Kuji-tori ceremony (籤取り式の儀) where they draw lots to see which float is No. 1, 2, 3, or 4.
Performing at Kanaya Park.
After performing at the shrine, each float will move across town mainly along Otemon-dori road (shopping arcade, Kurokabe Square, etc.) to the Otabisho rest place. Along the way, they will stop and perform kabuki three more times with the last performance at the Otabisho by Float No. 4 held from 7:35 p.m. to 8:15 p.m. The map below has a red line indicating the float route on April 15 and the kabuki performance spots (1 to 7) along the way. To enlarge the map, click here.
2. Shrine path
3. Kanaya Park
4. Hikiyama Museum
5. Arcade intersection
6. Kurokabe Square
Float No. 1
Float No. 2
Float No. 3
Float No. 4
*Location numbers correspond to the numbers in the map below.
April 15 Otabisho Events The Otabisho (御旅所) is a small shrine building on a large parking lot near Hokoku Shrine (short walk from JR Nagahama Station). It is where the portable shrine rests during its journey away from Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine. (The time schedule below is only approximate. Delays may occur. If you are visiting on a day trip and plan to stay until the end, be sure to check the time of your last train home.)
4:00–8:15 pm: Successive kabuki performances are held by the four floats as they arrive at the Otabisho one by one. Float No. 1 should arrive at 3:30 p.m. and start performing kabuki at 4 p.m. The last float (Float No. 4) is scheduled to finish its kabuki performance at 8:15 p.m. The kabuki actors are whisked home right after their performance. They don’t stick around for the latter events. They are exhausted and need to sleep and be ready for the next day.
9:00 p.m.: Portable Shrine Procession (Mikoshi togyo 神輿渡御)
After all the floats finish performing at the Otabisho, a short Shinto ceremony is held and the portable shrine that was brought to the Otabisho on April 12 is taken out and carried around the Otabisho a few times before it goes back to Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine. Note that it can get chilly this late in the evening, so dress warmly.
9:30 p.m.: Returning Floats (戻り山)
The floats start to leave the Otabisho to return to their neighborhoods. Naginata-yama is always the first float to leave, followed by Float No. 1 and the other three floats in order. The last Float No. 4 might leave as late as 11 pm. The floats go back to their neighborhoods.
April 16: After-Festival Kabuki (Goen kyogen 後宴狂言) 9:00 a.m. to 8:40 pm: Each of the four floats will perform kabuki three times this day in their respective neighborhoods in central Nagahama. They will also perform on stage at the Nagahama Bunka Geijutsu Kaikan hall for a paying audience from 10:55 a.m. Each float’s final performance of the festival is called senshuraku (千秋楽). It starts from 7:30 p.m. or 8 p.m. (For exact times and locations, see the official festival guide book in Japanese or ask the tourist information desk at Nagahama Station.) Expect to see some tearful kids and relieved parents after the last show is over.
April 17: Sacred-Staff Returning Ceremony (御幣返しの儀) 8:00 am: Representatives (including the Sacred Staff Messenger around age 5–7) from the four floats go to Nagahama Hachimangu to return their sacred staffs (zigzag paper streamers) that were mounted on their floats. Not much for tourists.
For more information about the Nagahama Hikiyama Festival in English, including the festival’s origins, history, and all the floats, watch my YouTube video (embedded above). I don’t mean to brag, but it’s the world’s most comprehensive video about the festival in English. Being 91 min. long, it’s a long video, but you’ll learn a lot and enjoy the festival a lot more by knowing more about it and knowing what to expect.