Otsu Matsuri karakuri puppets
Video link: http://youtu.be/52tjGe470eA
In 2018, the Otsu Matsuri Festival will be held on Oct. 6th and 7th, 2018 (Sat. and Sun.).
Embedded above is my acclaimed video of Otsu Matsuri (大津祭) filmed on Oct. 12-13, 2013. It’s about 28 min. and the most comprehensive English video about the festival. It includes the Yoimiya festival eve and the festival’s main day. The video spotlights the karakuri mechanical puppets. I also got on-camera comments from foreign participants (mostly American, including Shiga’s JET Programme teachers and interns from Michigan who were in Otsu in autumn 2013).
Otsu Matsuri is an annual festival of thirteen ornate floats (called hikiyama) held in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture during the weekend before the second Monday of October. It is a festival of Tenson Shrine in Otsu.
It’s not known for certain when the festival started, but there is a historical record indicating that the festival started having a float(s) around the late 16th century or early 17th century about 400 years ago. In 1596, a neighborhood salt vendor named Jihei (塩売 治兵衛) wore a tanuki mask and danced during a Tenson Shrine festival. People liked his dancing so much that they built a float two years later and Jihei danced on it. Him dancing on the festival float continued for over ten years after which his old age prevented him from continuing. A tanuki karakuri puppet was then used in his place on the float.
More floats were added and a total of 13 or 14 floats were originally built during a period of 141 years from the 17th to 18th century. Each one belongs to a different neighborhood in central Otsu. The floats are wooden, about 6 to 7 meters tall, and has three large wooden wheels instead of four (like Kyoto’s Gion Matsuri floats). They are gorgeously outfitted with intricate wood carvings, tapestries (from China, Korea, and even Belgium), paintings, and other art work. Art museums on wheels.
One highlight of the floats and festival are the traditional karakuri mechanical puppets. Each float has elaborate karakuri puppets depicting a scene from a Noh play or Chinese legend/myth. Although the characters and stories are well known in Noh or Chinese mythology, you would have to know the Noh story or Chinese legend/myth to understand it. The puppet performances are short, lasting only a minute or two. This post gives a synopsis of the stories behind the karakuri puppets on all thirteen Otsu Matsuri floats.
Saturday is the Yoimiya (宵宮) festival eve when the thirteen floats are displayed and paraded around their respective neighborhoods in the afternoon. The floats are then festooned with paper lanterns. From 6 pm to 9 pm, the paper lanterns are lit and festival musicians play on or next to the floats. The sound of flutes, taiko drums, and bells fill the air. Also, the karakuri puppets are removed from the floats and displayed in homes on the street. You can see them up close. Since all the floats are clustered along the streets near JR Otsu Station, it’s easy to see all of them. Not crowded at all.
On Sunday the next day, the Hon-matsuri (本祭) is the main festival day. The thirteen floats are paraded in central Otsu from 9 am to 5:30 pm. The procession starts at Tenson Shrine and the floats stop often to give karakuri puppet performances. The procession is led every year by the Saigyo-zakura Tanuki-yama float with a stuffed tanuki (raccoon dog) on the roof serving as the festival guardian. The order of the other floats is determined by drawing lots. So every year, the order of the floats in the procession (junko 巡行) is different.
Another highlight is the floats throwing chimaki which are small bundles of straw. A chimaki supposed to ward off bad luck, so we all want to catch one. You hang it above an entrance or under the eaves. They also throw small hand towels (tenugui). All the chimaki were blessed by Tenson Shrine. The chimaki lasts for one year after which you supposed to return it to the shrine to be burned during the Dondo-yaki Festival.
It’s not crowded at Otsu Matsuri so it’s easy to move around and take pictures and videos. To help you better understand and enjoy the karakuri puppet performances, I’ve written a synopsis of the karakuri puppets in alphabetical order according to the float’s name. (Sometimes even the Japanese explanation is not so complete.)
Next to the float’s name, the year it was first built is in parenthesis. The Video link will jump to the respective float’s karakuri performance in my Otsu Matsuri video embedded above.
Gekkyuden-zan (1776) 月宮殿山／上京町
From the Noh play Tsurukame (Crane and Turtle), praying for and celebrating national peace and stability. While celebrating spring, the Chinese emperor at his palace receives well-wishers for his longevity. Then a female wearing a crane crown and a male with a turtle crown start dancing in front of the Chinese emperor to celebrate his longevity. Feeling happy, the emperor also starts dancing.
Genji-yama (1718) 源氏山／中京町
Lady Murasaki Shikibu is writing The Tale of Genji (Genji Monogatari) at Ishiyama-dera temple in Otsu. The doll wears a 12-layer juni-hitoe kimono and the float’s design is reminiscent of the Heian Era (794-1185). Little figurines emerge from the Ishiyama rock and circle around the front before disappearing back into the rock. They are seawater salt bearers, an ox carriage, pokkuri clog bearer, and umbrella bearer. This is a rare Otsu Matsuri float to have an Otsu-based story. In 2008, it celebrated the millennium anniversary of The Tale of Genji. Video
Jingu Kogo-yama (1749) 神功皇后山／猟師町
Before going to battle, Empress Jingu in the 4th century fished for sweetfish in Nagasaki as fortunetelling to see if she would be victorious. She was actually pregnant and after the battle, she safely gave birth in Kyushu to Emperor Ojin. This float is therefore associated with safe childbirths. The karakuri shows Empress Jingu using her bow to write kanji characters on a large rock. The characters magically appear one after another. Hailed as a unique karakuri when it first appeared in the Edo Period. Video
Kakkyo-yama (1693) 郭巨山／後在家町・下小唐崎町
Kakkyo (Guo Ju in Chinese) was one of the twenty-four Chinese filial exemplars. He lived in poverty with his elderly mother, wife, and son. The elderly mother had to sacrifice some of her meals so her grandson could eat. After some discussion, Kakkyo and his wife decided that they could always have another child, but his aged mother could never be replaced. So they decided to bury (kill) their son to save the aged mother. However, as Kakkyo was digging a burial hole, he found a pot of gold as a gift from Heaven. He then was able to provide for his whole family. The karakuri shows Kakkyo digging a hole with a hoe and finding a pot of gold while his wife holds their son to be buried. Video
Komeikisui-zan (1694) 孔明祈水山／中堀町
During China’s Three Kingdoms period, Zhuge Liang, chancellor of the state of Shu Han, fought Cao Cao, the chancellor of the state of Wei. Zhuge Liang looked at flowing water and prayed to the water god to wash away the enemy’s huge army. He thereby emerged victorious. The karakuri shows Zhuge Liang opening a folding fan to beckon the water which then erupts and flows down. Video
Nishinomiya Ebisu-yama (1658) 西宮蛭子山／白玉町
The karakuri shows Ebisu, the god of fishermen, good luck, and business prosperity and one of the Seven Gods of Good Fortune. He is typically shown holding a fishing pole in his right hand and holding or fishing for sea bream (tai, an auspicious fish). Merchants also pray to him for business prosperity. Nishinomiya Shrine in Hyogo Prefecture is the headquarters shrine for worshipping Ebisu. The karakuri shows him fishing for sea bream. In the end, the fish is fished out and tossed into a basket held by another puppet. Fun to watch whether it hits or misses the basket. Video
Ryumon Taki-yama (1717) 龍門滝山／太間町
The karakuri is based on the Chinese myth saying that a carp that climbs up the Dragon Gate waterfall on the Yellow River in China will turn into a dragon and fly away. In China, this legend symbolizes perseverance and achievement such as success in passing civil service examinations. The dragon is a symbol of power and good fortune. This carp karakuri puppet is Japan’s oldest, dated 1762. The float’s rear tapestry is an Important Cultural Property depicting the Sack of Troy in Greek mythology. Video
Saigyo-zakura Tanuki-yama (1635) 西行桜狸山
This float is always first in the procession. The roof has a stuffed tanuki (raccoon dog) to lead the procession every year as the festival guardian. The float is associated with the wooden tanuki mask worn by salt vendor Jihei who started the festival. His original tanuki mask is displayed during the Yoimiya festival eve.
In 1596, salt vendor (shiouri 塩売) Jihei (治兵衛) wore a wooden tanuki mask and danced during a Tenson Shrine festival. People liked his dancing so much that they built a float two years later and Jihei danced on it. This was the beginning of the Otsu Matsuri.
Jihei danced on the float for over ten years before his old age prevented him from continuing. A tanuki karakuri puppet was then used in his place on the float.
The float is named after Saigyo Hoshi (1118-1190), a famous traveling poet and Buddhist monk. The karakuri is based on Saigyo’s poem and Noh play called Saigyo-zakura. When the old sakura tree next to Saigyo’s hermitage in Oharano in Nishiyama, Kyoto blooms in spring, his lone admiration of the flowers is disturbed by an endless stream of noisy people gawking at the flowers.
In a poem, he blames the tree for attracting such people. He then sleeps under the moonlit flowers. In his dream, the spirit of the cherry tree appears as a distinguished old man. The spirit tells Saigyo, “The noisy people is not the tree’s fault. All it does is bloom. The annoyance is within your heart.” The cherry tree spirit then tells Saigyo about other cherry blossom spots and dances to celebrate the flowers. The spirit disappears into the tree when Saigyo awakes. Video
If you visit Oharano in Kyoto, you can see the third generation of Saigyo’s sakura tree at Shojiji temple (勝持寺).
Seiobo-zan (1656) 西王母山／丸屋町
Seiobo is the Chinese goddess Xi Wangmu living on the mythological Kunlun Mountain. She floated down and danced for Emperor Wu of Han who desired longevity. She offered him a longevity peach from her peach orchard that flowers and bears fruit only once every 3,000 years. Only one peach would ripen. When the peach is split open, a peach boy appears. The float is nicknamed, Momo-yama (momo means peach). A life-size replica of this float, complete with karakuri puppets, is displayed at the Otsu Matsuri Hikiyama Museum (free admission) in the Maruya-cho shopping arcade (the neighborhood where Seiobo-zan belongs). Video
Sesshoseki-zan (1673) 殺生石山／柳町
The karakuri is from the Noh play Sessho-seki. Tamamo-no-mae was a beautiful courtesan favored by the emperor. But she actually was a nine-tailed fox with golden fur and was out to kill the emperor for an evil daimyo. Her guise and plot was exposed by astrologer Abe no Yasuchika and she escaped eastward to Nasu, Tochigi. Although she was killed, her spirit possessed a stone that killed travelers who touched it. Priest Genno appeased her spirit with Buddhist rituals and she was exorcised from the stone. The karakuri shows Priest Genno who split the killing stone in two and court lady Tamamo-no-mae’s face switching to a fox.
Shakkyo-zan (1705) 石橋山／湊町
Named after the Noh play Shakkyo (Stone Bridge). Tendai monk Jakusho was in the Chinese state of Song and entered Mt. Tiantai. When he was about to cross the difficult stone bridge leading to the Pure Land of Manjusri Bodhisattva, he sees a red-haired Chinese lion frolicking with peony flowers. The lion was the messenger of Manjusri Bodhisattva. Tendai Buddhism (headquartered at Enryakuji) was founded by Saicho after he visited Mt. Tiantai. Video
Shojo-yama (1637) 猩々山／南保町
The float is named after the famous Noh play Shojo. Takafu (Kofu), who lived near the Yangtze River in China, had a dream telling him that selling saké would be profitable. He followed this advice and his saké sales went well. However, one customer who came every day never got drunk no matter how much he drank. Being curious, Takafu asked the customer for his name. After replying that he was Shojo who lived in the sea, he left.
Later on a beautiful moonlit night, Takafu brought some saké to the riverside and waited for Shojo. From the waves, Shojo appeared and they drank the saké together and danced. Shojo praised Takafu’s virtue and rewarded him with a cask that never ran out of saké.
The karakuri shows saké seller Takafu pouring saké for Shojo, an alcohol-loving, legendary sea creature with a red face and red hair. Shojo then drinks the saké. Video
Yutate-yama (1663) 湯立山／玉屋町
The float’s architecture is modeled after Tenson Shrine, and the karakuri puppets reenact the shrine’s yudate Shinto ritual. One of the more dynamic karakuri performances. On the right, a senior priest first waves a wand for purification. In the center is a female shaman who soaks bamboo grass in a large pot of boiling water and sprinkles it on people. A shrine maiden in red also dances. People who get sprinkled by the boiling water will be blessed with a good harvest, recovery from sickness, business prosperity, etc. Here’s a short video clip of Yudate performed at Taga Taisha Shrine. Video
Hopefully this karakuri rundown will help you understand and enjoy the festival and karakuri puppets more. Wish I had time to explain about the floats’ tapestries and other art work too, but that will have to occupy a separate post.