Kyoto University’s Biwako Shuko no Uta 100th anniversary celebration

Unveiling the new song monument at Kyoto University. (記念碑除幕式)

京都大学「琵琶湖周航の歌」誕生百周年記念事業の報告

After the epic 100th anniversary celebration of Biwako Shuko no Uta in Shiga with a Lake Biwa rowing trip and concert in June 2017, it was Kyoto University’s turn to celebrate. On November 25, 2017, they unveiled a new song monument on campus and held a lecture session, music festival, and party. It was an all-day affair from 11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. coinciding with the university’s annual school festival called “November Festival.”

Biwako Shuko no Uta (Lake Biwa Rowing Song) was created in June 1917 by rowing club members (especially Oguchi Taro) at an old elite university called Daisan Koto Gakko (No. 3 High School, nicknamed “Daisanko” or “Sanko” 三高) which merged with Kyoto University in 1949. Kyoto University has since adopted the legacy of Sanko by absorbing the Sanko campus (now the Yoshida-South Campus right across from the Main Campus), the rowing club, and adopting Biwako Shuko no Uta as one of the university’s official songs.

The Kyoto University Rowing Club (KURC) has a very active and dedicated alumni association called Noseikai (濃青会), which means “Dark Blue Association,” named after the rowing club’s official color of dark blue. (Their oar blades are dark blue.) This association spearheaded the planning and execution of the university’s celebration of the song’s 100th anniversary and also greatly helped with Shiga’s 100th anniversary song celebration in June 2017 which included a four-day rowing excursion around Lake Biwa by KURC alumni. They also helped to raise funds to build a new song monument on campus. Much of the fund-raising was done by the university’s water sports clubs (rowing, yachting, canoeing, and swimming).


Video

I took photos and videos of Kyoto University’s celebration and compiled the highlights in a 66-min. video that includes English subtitles. The video includes excellent concert performances of Biwako Shuko no Uta and Lake Biwa Rowing Song by the Kyoto University Glee Club and Kyoto University Symphonic Band. There’s also flashback footage from the Lake Biwa rowing trip in June 2017.(京都大学「琵琶湖周航の歌」誕生百周年記念事業のダイジェスト版動画)

Video link: https://youtu.be/_b3WrfV0rMI

Quick Links(動画早送りリンク)
Song monument unveiling(記念碑除幕式): https://youtu.be/_b3WrfV0rMI?t=3m51s

Lecture (Iida Tadayoshi)(講演会): https://youtu.be/_b3WrfV0rMI?t=11m

Hitsuji-gusa (Glee Club): https://youtu.be/_b3WrfV0rMI?t=16m46s

Nara no Miyako (Glee Club): https://youtu.be/_b3WrfV0rMI?t=17m41s

Introduction of Okaya and Niigata guests: https://youtu.be/_b3WrfV0rMI?t=19m16s

Lecture (English version 英語版): https://youtu.be/_b3WrfV0rMI?t=22m21s

Thompsons’ message: https://youtu.be/_b3WrfV0rMI?t=27m41s

Lake Biwa Rowing Song (Glee Club): https://youtu.be/_b3WrfV0rMI?t=28m46s

Lecture (Murai Yoshiko 資料館): https://youtu.be/_b3WrfV0rMI?t=30m9s

Music festival(音楽祭): https://youtu.be/_b3WrfV0rMI?t=32m50s

Biwako Shuko no Uta (Symphonic Band): https://youtu.be/_b3WrfV0rMI?t=33m36s

Speeches (Kawazoe Shinsuke, Koshi Naomi, Hiraoka Shoshichiro): https://youtu.be/_b3WrfV0rMI?t=37m22s

Sanko Alumni and Himawari Choir: https://youtu.be/_b3WrfV0rMI?t=40m54s

Mandolin Guitar Ensemble Kaguya: https://youtu.be/_b3WrfV0rMI?t=48m23s

What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor (Glee Club): https://youtu.be/_b3WrfV0rMI?t=50m58s

Biwako Shuko no Uta (Glee Club): https://youtu.be/_b3WrfV0rMI?t=53m53s

Biwako Shuko no Uta audience finale: https://youtu.be/_b3WrfV0rMI?t=56m35s

Party(懇親会): https://youtu.be/_b3WrfV0rMI?t=1h2m26s

Acknowledgements: https://youtu.be/_b3WrfV0rMI?t=1h4m56s

If you don’t have time to watch the video, you can continue reading to see photos instead. Links to the respective video footage are also provided below.


New Biwako Shuko no Uta song monument at Kyoto University
京都大学の「琵琶湖周航の歌」記念碑
New song monument

Front side of the new Biwako Shuko no Uta song monument at Kyoto University.

Kyoto University’s 100th anniversary celebration of Biwako Shuko no Uta started with the unveiling of a new song monument on the Yoshida-South Campus (the former Sanko campus) at 11:00 a.m. on November 25, 2017. (Video here.) This campus is right across the road from the main campus (and main gate). (See map and directions below.) Built to commemorate the song’s 100th anniversary, the new song monument is a beautiful, double-sided, stainless-steel panel with a brushed-metal finish.

The front side has the Japanese lyrics (all six verses) overlaid on a recent photo of Kyoto University Rowing Club members rowing on Lake Biwa. The uncredited calligraphy of the Japanese lyrics on the song monument was done by Ichihara Atsushi (市原 厚), a KURC alumnus who has been publishing a kiri-e calendar for the song every year (sold at the Biwako Shuko no Uta Shiryokan song museum in Imazu). The lower part has a Japanese explanation about the song and a photo of Oguchi Taro (right) who wrote the lyrics and Yoshida Chiaki (left) whose melody was used for the song. This is my English translation of the explanation(記念碑の表面の解説の英訳):

Daisan Koto Gakko (No. 3 High School) rowing club member Oguchi Taro left in June 1917 (Taisho 6) on a fixed-seat boat to row around Lake Biwa. On the second day on June 28, they stayed at a ryokan in Imazu.

That evening, he composed a draft of a rowing song that started with “Ware wa Umi no ko” (We’re children of the lake). They sang it to the melody of Hitsuji-gusa (Water Lilies), a popular song at the time composed by Yoshida Chiaki. The melody matched the song well and they sang it together.

The song was well received at student gatherings. This is how Biwako Shuko no Uta became a college dormitory song of Sanko (Daisan Koto Gakko).

Today, the song continues to be sung by the university’s rowing club when they row around Lake Biwa and by many people at Kyoto University and class reunions.

Also, as a song expressing affection for Lake Biwa, the song is lovingly sung by people in Shiga Prefecture and across Japan.

To mark the 100th anniversary of Biwako Shuko no Uta, we built this monument here.

Heisei 29 (2017)

From the late 19th century, dormitories at Japan’s elite universities started a tradition of creating their own “dormitory songs” to be performed at their annual dormitory festivals. Dormitory boarders sang the song together at dormitory festivals and student gatherings. While most of these songs fell into obscurity, some dormitory songs like Biwako Shuko no Uta continue to be sung.

Rear side of the song monument.

Rear side with rowing map and English lyrics. 地図と英語歌詞

The rear side of the song monument shows a bilingual Lake Biwa map of the rowing route taken by Oguchi and his rowing mates in June 1917 and my Lake Biwa Rowing Song English lyrics (all six verses).

Members of the KURC alumni association (Noseikai) initially proposed building this song monument for the song’s 100th anniversary. There were already song monuments in Shiga and Okaya, Nagano Prefecture, but none at Kyoto University. So they thought the university should also have a monument.

The university agreed to have the song monument on campus, but it required the monument to also include English lyrics. At first, the alumni association wondered where they could obtain English lyrics, but they soon found my English version of the song. They contacted me in 2016 and asked for my permission to use my English lyrics. I said, “YES, YES!! Please do so!!” “You can use it for free! No charge!!” And so they did.

Kyoto University has been pushing to become more international and more attractive for international students. So they wanted a monument that international students could also understand. I was very impressed to hear this. A song monument in Japan with both Japanese and English lyrics must be extremely rare. I haven’t seen one until now.

The current Kyoto University President is Yamagiwa Juichi who speaks English. He has traveled the world to study primates and gorillas as a way to learn more about early humans and their evolution. So he’s very internationally oriented. Having someone at the top with an international outlook helps a lot.

I’m certainly very honored and delighted to see my English lyrics on a monument. Monuments are usually built to point out something (or someone) that is important. So monuments naturally attract people’s attention. It’s important for a monument to be easy to read and in a good location where people can see it. This new monument meets both of these conditions.

It was the Verse 1 song monument in Mihogasaki, Otsu that first piqued the interest of Iida Tadayoshi, the foremost song researcher (since 1974) who has written a few books about Biwako Shuko no Uta. And I also first learned about the song when I saw a statue of composer Oguchi Taro and a song monument in Okaya, Nagano Prefecture. So song monuments can be very worthy to have. I wonder if there’s any other song in Japan that has this many monuments for it in three prefectures.

I’m very hopeful that this new monument will pique the interest of both Japanese and non-Japanese students in the song and in Shiga. I believe the song’s story, background, melody, and vivid depiction of Shiga can fascinate any young mind. The monument also has a QR code that you can scan with your mobile device to access the rowing club’s official 100th song anniversary website where you can learn more about the song and watch song videos in both Japanese and English.

Map and directions to new song monument

Here’s a map of the exact location of the new song monument (and the other song monuments). Zoom in on Kyoto. From JR Kyoto Station, get out the Karasuma exit (Kyoto Tower side) and go to Bus Stop D2 to board bus No. 206 bound for Kitaoji Bus Terminal. Get off at Kyodai Seimon-mae (京大正門前). The ride takes about 35 min. The main campus will be across the street from the bus stop, and the entrance to the Yoshida-South Campus is across the road facing the main campus.


Lecture Session (記念講演会) (Video here)

After the unveiling of the song monument, we had lunch and moved to the Kyoto University Clock Tower Centennial Hall for an hour-long Lecture Session (including performances by the Kyoto University Glee Club) starting at 12:30 pm.

Iida Tadayoshi

Song researcher Iida Tadayoshi appeared on video as the keynote speaker. 飯田忠義 「琵琶湖周航の歌」研究家、元NHKチーフアナウンサー

The main speaker was song researcher Iida Tadayoshi. He is the foremost authority on the song. A lot of what we know about the song and the composers is due to his research. He talked about how the song was created by Oguchi Taro and how the Hitsuji-gusa melody by Yoshida Chiaki was adapted to it.

Due to health reasons, Iida sensei was unable to appear in person so he appeared in a video lecture. Video here. After his lecture, the Kyoto University Glee Club sang Hitsuji-gusa (Verse 1) composed by Yoshida Chiaki and Nara no Miyako (Verse 1) which was the song whose melody Oguchi originally considered using for Biwako Shuko no Uta. Video here.

my talk

Video message from Jamie and Megan Thompson.

I was the second speaker, taking about 10 min. to mainly show slides of people who helped and encouraged me before and after I finished writing the English lyrics. Since Jamie and Megan Thompson (who sang Lake Biwa Rowing Song) could not make it to Japan in Nov., I showed a one-minute video message in Japanese from them. Video here.

After my talk, the Kyoto University Glee Club beautifully sang the first verse of Lake Biwa Rowing Song. (Video here.)

Yoshiko

Murai Yoshiko talked about the Biwako Shuko no Uta Shiryokan.

The third and last speaker was Murai Yoshiko, the director of the Biwako Shuko no Uta Shiryokan song museum in Imazu. She used slides to explain about the museum near JR Omi-Imazu Station and encouraged everyone to visit. Video here.


Music Festival (記念音楽祭) (Video here)

After a 30-min. break, the Music Festival (Ongakusai) started at 2:00 p.m. in the same Clock Tower Centennial Hall (capacity 500) as the Lecture Session. Part 1 had the Kyoto University Symphonic Band, Kyoto University Glee Club, Himawari Choir (from Otsu), and Mandolin Guitar Ensemble Kaguya perform or sing Biwako Shuko no Uta and a few other songs.

Part 2 featured a 40-min. talk show by singer Kato Tokiko. The finale had all the performers appear on stage to sing Biwako Shuko no Uta together with the entire audience. The finale was led by Kato Tokiko and the music festival ended at 4:30 pm.

Kyoto University Symphonic Band opened the music festival with Fanfare and played Biwako Shuko no Uta. 京都大学吹奏楽団 Video here.

Short congratulatory speeches were also given by three dignitaries:

Shinsuke Kawazoe, Kyoto University Executive Vice-President (substituting for Kyoto University President Juichi Yamagiwa). 川添信介 京都大学理事・副学長(山極壽一総長の代理)Video here.

Otsu Mayor

Otsu Mayor Koshi Naomi mentioned that Otsu City Hall plays the song to signal the end of the work day, resulting in a decrease of overtime by almost 30%. Video here.

Takashima

Shoshichiro Hiraoka, Deputy Mayor of Takashima (substituting for Mayor Masaaki Fukui), promised to perpetuate the song to the next generation. Video here.

Sanko alumni sing with Himawari Choir from Otsu. 旧制第三高等学校OB + 大津市ひまわり合唱団 Video here.

Sanko alumni wave their school flag. The Sanko logo has a cherry blossom with three stripes.

Mandolin

Mandolin Guitar Ensemble Kaguya. マンドリンギターアンサンブル香久夜 Video here.

Mandolin

Mandolin Guitar Ensemble Kaguya. Great performance.

Kyoto University Glee Club sang What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor (video here) and Biwako Shuko no Uta (video here). 京都大学グリークラブ .

A short break after Part 1.

finale

Led by Kato Tokiko, everyone sang Biwako Shuko no Uta in the end. Video here.

Tokiko

Singer Kato Tokiko and Kada Yukiko on stage during the finale.


Party (懇親会) (Video here)

After the music festival, attendees had the option to attend the party from 5:00 pm to 7:00 pm on the 2nd floor of the Clock Tower Centennial Hall. This was when we could finally mix and socialize. It was nice meeting and talking with people from Oguchi Taro’s hometown and Yoshida Chiaki’s hometown and rowing club alumni. Very few women though.

Kada Yukiko gave a short speech at the start of the party.

Yacht

Yacht Club showed slides of KURC’s original boat house in Otsu.

alumni

Kyoto University Rowing Club alumni. These three tall men almost represented Japan at the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne.

everyone

In the end, everyone sang the song with Mandolin Guitar Ensemble Kaguya.

remarks

Noseikai chairman Yoshida Tamotsu gave closing remarks. “Nothing made me happier than rowing…” 吉田 保 京都大学ボート部濃青会 会長

The celebrations of Biwako Shuko no Uta’s 100th anniversary in Shiga and Kyoto were quite spectacular. It has spread awareness of the song as a precious hometown asset. Shiga has so few famous hometown songs, and even its most famous one is in danger of being forgotten since it’s not really taught in schools.

Where I come from, there are many, many beloved Hawaiian songs (and dances) that continue to be sung for generations. I cannot imagine growing up in a place that lacks popular hometown songs. It shapes your identity and affinity with your hometown. It would be a major cultural loss if Shiga allowed Biwako Shuko no Uta to fall into obscurity. It is by far Shiga’s most nationally famous song.

It’s comforting to see more people singing the song in Japanese or English. They are posting on YouTube. Anyone is welcome to sing the song in Japanese or English. I still wish John Denver lived long enough to record it. His voice matches the song extremely well.

Thank you to everyone who made the 100th anniversary celebration a great success.

本当に素晴らしい記念事業でした。皆さんお疲れ様でした。

Related video:

Related links:

感 謝
Acknowledgements

京都大学
山極 壽一 総長
川添 信介 理事・副学長
「琵琶湖周航の歌」誕生百周年記念事業実行委員会
京都大学ボート部
中村 佳正 京都大学ボート部長
京都大学ボート部 濃青会
吉田 保 京都大学ボート部濃青会会長
伊藤 七郎

旧制第三高等学校OB

小島 安紀子
尾城 徹雄
青野 正治

京都大学医学部ボート部・芝蘭会艇友会
京都大学ヨット部
京都大学カヌー部
京都大学水泳部・京泳会
ヨットクラブ神陵・京大神陵会

京都大学グリークラブ
京都大学吹奏楽団

その他の京都大学側の関係者・支援者

琵琶湖周航の歌資料館 全スタッフ(2004年以来)
澤田 浩(琵琶湖周航の歌資料館 元館長)
村井 佳子(琵琶湖周航の歌資料館 館長)
びわ湖高島観光協会

故 前田典夫(みちお)

琵琶湖周航の歌100周年記念事業実行委員会
嘉田 由紀子(代表)
加藤 登紀子
小坂 育子
北川 陽大(〜Lefa〜)

飯田 忠義

小口太郎顕彰碑等保存会(長野県岡谷市)
Naoko Nakamura
吉田ゆき (新潟)
ちあきの会

朗読劇団ムサシ(滋賀県高島市)
森本純一(代表)

中日新聞(滋賀版)
毎日新聞(滋賀版)
その他の報道陣

Jamie & Megan Thompson
日永 真梨子
菊井 了・近藤 ゆみ子(レイクリード)
Chikage Fujii(滋賀県湖南市)

その他の関係者・支援者・協力者・友人・親戚・ファン

小口太郎
吉田千秋

Lake Biwa Rowing Song mini concert in Imazu 2017


Video link: https://youtu.be/9G94IppUiiE

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of Shiga’s most famous and beloved song, Biwako Shuko no Uta (琵琶湖周航の歌), shiga-ken.com held a special mini concert in Imazu on April 16, 2017 with the cooperation of the Biwako Shuko no Uta Shiryokan song museum (琵琶湖周航の歌資料館) and Imazu Port in Takashima, Shiga Prefecture.

The highlight was twin sisters Jamie and Megan Thompson at Imazu Port singing Lake Biwa Rowing Song (English version of Biwako Shuko no Uta) to the accompaniment of Lake Biwa reed flutes (yoshibue) played by Lake Reed (レイクリード), a duo consisting of Kikui Satoru (菊井了) and Kondo Yumiko (近藤ゆみ子). The result was stupendous and oh so pretty, both in sight and sound on a beautiful day in front of a blue Lake Biwa at Imazu Port. Watch the 5-min. video embedded above and see for yourself.

It was only our second time to perform at Imazu Port. The last time was on June 3, 2006 when we first introduced and performed Lake Biwa Rowing Song in public. For this second time, I decided that instead of staging a repeat performance of what we did in 2006, we should do something different. Having Lake Biwa reed players join us was perfect. It turned out that it was the first time for Lake Reed to perform together with multiple singers.


Video link: https://youtu.be/PjnY67sIcqE

We also held an indoor mini concert at the Biwako Shuko no Uta Shiryokan song museum. The performance of Lake Biwa Rowing Song was repeated and followed by three pretty songs by Lake Reed. Watch the 23-min. video embedded above.

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Jamie & Megan Thompson together in Japan for the first time in 8 years.

Our mini concert turned out to be a media event with coverage by Asahi Shimbun, Chunichi Shimbun, Mainichi Shimbun, Sankei Shimbun, and Yomiuri Shimbun newspapers. I came prepared for the media with these T-shirts I designed and gave to Jamie and Megan to wear. I also gave them Biwa pearl necklaces (closeup photo below).

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Lake Biwa pearl necklaces.

I had these Lake Biwa pearl necklaces custom-made for this day. I found a freelance accessory maker in Otsu named “Malble” (pronounced like “Marble”) who was making earrings using this Lake Biwa-shaped, gold-colored accessory. It says, “Always With You.” (Like Lake Biwa is always with you.) I had her make these necklaces strung together with a medium-size Lake Biwa pearl. They came out very nice at reasonable cost.

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Rehearsing inside the song museum before going to Imazu Port.

Since summer 2016, prominent people and organizations in Shiga and Kyoto announced plans to hold Biwako Shuko no Uta 100th anniversary events in 2017. I also wanted to take part in these events.

So I asked Jamie and Megan (who sang Lake Biwa Rowing Song in English in 2006 while they were working in Japan as JET Program ALTs), if they could visit Japan in 2017 to participate in one of these anniversary events, especially in June (the song’s actual anniversary date) or November (Kyoto University’s main anniversary event).

It turned out that they both could make it to Japan only in April 2017. Since there were no anniversary events in April, we held our own commemorative mini concert on April 16. Couldn’t let such a rare trip to Japan by both sisters go to waste.

The performance at Imazu Port started at around 1:30 pm after all the cruise boats left Imazu Port. It was mainly for me to shoot videos for a music video (embedded at the top). The media also took photos and interviewed us under a somewhat hot sun. We then moved to the nearby Biwako Shuko no Uta Shiryokan song museum for an indoor mini concert and social gathering that lasted until about 4 pm.

The ever so helpful and cooperative Biwako Shuko no Uta Shiryokan song museum allowed us to use their room on the second floor for our indoor mini concert. They also secured permission for us to perform at Imazu Port.

I didn’t really publicize this event since it was intended for only friends and invited guests and the local media. However, during the 2.5 months of planning, the event started to take on a life of its own as it morphed into something more substantial. I knew things like this never go according to plan, so I remained flexible and played it by ear.

As I expected, we ran behind schedule and were unable to do a few things that I had planned. But all-in-all, our event turned out very well with great weather, no accidents or illnesses, great videos and photos, and everyone having a fun time. Many people also went on the 3:30 pm Sakura cruise to Kaizu-Osaki afterward. I’m glad that it was worth coming to Imazu which is quite far for most of us.

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Jamie and Megan talk with the press. Back of the T-shirt is the CD cover and “Children of the Lake” below it.

Talking to the press took longer than expected since so many of them showed up and they had lots of questions. They also kept asking for my age which I declined to say since it was irrelevant. (Japanese newspapers always like to state the age of the people they write about. It has never happened in my case though.)

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Biwako Shuko no Uta Shiryokan song museum, near Omi-Imazu Station. It has panel displays explaining the history and meaning of the song and a listening station where you can listen to many cover versions.

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Mini concert inside the song museum.

Our indoor mini concert started with Jamie and Megan singing Lake Biwa Rowing Song with Lake Reed playing Lake Biwa reed flutes.

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Lake Reed playing Lake Biwa reed flutes. They even brought a bundle of reeds (left) as a prop.

Lake Reed then performed three songs: Furusato (Hometown), Miyagete-goran Yoru no Hoshi wo (Look Up at the Night Stars), and Umi no Koe (Voice of the Sea). (Watch the video to hear them play.) They were brilliant. So pretty. Omi-Hachman resident Kikui Satoru was the person who actually invented the Lake Biwa reed flute in 2000. So he’s been playing it longer than anyone else in the world. We were so lucky to have him and his partner Kondo Yumiko perform for us. Everyone performed on a voluntary basis, no one got paid.

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Over 50 people attended our mini concert inside the song museum.

Mr. Kikui was also generous enough to bring 15 reed flutes to hold a sample lesson mainly for the kids who came. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time for it. Sounds like I have to plan a follow-up event to make it happen.

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Kiyora playing the shamisen.

Our third performer was Kiyora, a third grader from Moriyama. She played the famous cherry blossom song, “Sakura, Sakura” with her shamisen. As a beginner, she played quite well.

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Former Shiga Governor Yukiko Kada talks about the upcoming music festival in Otsu. Holding up the PR poster is Kitagawa Akihiro of ~Lefa~.

We were also honored to have former Shiga Governor Kada Yukiko attending our event. Being the president of Biwako Seikei Sport College in Omi-Maiko, she’s very busy. And yet, she made the time to hear us sing. We thank her for coming.

She and singer Kato Tokiko (who made Biwako Shuko no Uta a national hit in 1971) are organizing the 1st Biwako Music Festival (第一回びわ湖音楽祭) at Biwako Hall in Otsu on June 30, 2017. Tickets are still available as of this writing.

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Kitagawa Akihiro sings with Jamie and Megan.

Another special guest was Kitagawa Akihiro, vocalist and one half of the Nagahama-based duo ~Lefa~. Akihiro once studied in Canada, so he does have an interest in singing in English. He sang in English with Jamie and Megan impromptu. He has a very good voice, so I see great potential in him singing in English after I coach his pronunciation. It was the first time for me to meet Akihiro. I saw former Governor Kada’s Facebook video of him singing Lake Biwa Rowing Song in English so I invited him to our event. ~Lefa~ was formed in 2010 and they play all around Japan at shopping malls, local events, etc., and sing Biwako Shuko no Uta. They also often hold mini concerts at Biwako Shuko no Uta Shiryokan song museum. The other half of ~Lefa~ is guitarist and keyboard player Kono Hiroyuki.

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In the end, the few of us who didn’t go on the cherry blossom cruise to Kaizu-Osaki remained to sing Biwako Shuko no Uta in a circle.

We were running an hour late. Most of the audience left at around 3:20 pm to catch the Cherry Blossom Cruise for Kaizu-Osaki departing Imazu Port at 3:30 pm. So only about 15 of us remained until we ended at around 4 pm. Everyone burst into smiles and started clapping after we finished singing the song in Japanese. It’s such a heartwarming song, and being from Hawaii where we have many, many renown hometown songs, I’m so glad Shiga has such a song. It’s been 11 years since we announced the English version, but slowly and surely, I see it catching on.

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Set of six Lake Biwa Rowing Song postcards given as a free memento to all attendees.

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Chunichi Shimbun newspaper was one of five papers that covered us (April 17, 2017 issue).

Sakura cruises to Kaizu-Osaki

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Kaizu-Osaki is deservedly one of Japan’s 100 Famous Cherry Blossom Spots (さくら名所100選 according to the Japan Cherry Blossom Association). During the first half of April, four kilometers of cherry blossoms bloom along this lakeshore in northern Lake Biwa in Takashima.

During the peak bloom period in mid-April, the traffic along the lakeshore road is horrendous. Renting a bicycle at Makino Station and cycling to Kaizu-Osaki is recommended. Walking is also possible for people who don’t mind walking at least 40 min. from Makino Station.

On sunny days, it’s quite spectacular with the cherry blossoms against the blue lake and blue sky with Chikubushima island in the background. But watch out for the cars since much of the lakeshore does not have a walking path. The tunnels are also narrow. Use a flashlight or turn on your smartphone when walking or bicycling in the tunnels.

In mid-April 2017, I finally tried a different and much more pleasant way of enjoying the sakura along Kaizu-Osaki. I went on Biwako Kisen’s “Sakura Cruise” from Imazu Port for the first time on board the megumi trimaran (triple hulled for stable ride). It was only one of many “sakura cruises” or “sakura hanami boats” that swarm the area during the cherry blossom season. (“Sakura” means cherry blossoms.)

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Imazu Port for cherry blossom cruises to Kaizu-Osaki.

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megumi is powered by bio diesel fuel and solar and wind energy.

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Upper deck of megumi.

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Megumi’s indoor heated cabin with large picture windows.

Cruise operators Biwako Kisen (琵琶湖汽船) and Ohmi Marine (オーミマリン) both offer sakura cherry blossom cruises to Kaizu-Osaki during early to mid-April. Biwako Kisen has boats departing Imazu Port and Nagahama Port, while Ohmi Marine has boats going from Hikone Port and Makino Dock.

Both cruise companies have at least four boats daily, and they may schedule extra boats on peak weekends. The fare is around ¥3,000 to ¥3,500. I highly recommend going on a cruise that also docks at Kaizu-Osaki Port where you can get off the boat and walk around Kaizu-Osaki for about 30 min. before returning to the boat. Otherwise, other boats just cruise along Kaizu-Osaki without docking. Note that if the water is rough on windy days, the boat might not be able to dock.

From Imazu Port, the cruise that includes 30-min. docking at Kaizu-Osaki takes about 90 min. round trip. From Nagahama Port and Hikone Port, it takes about 2.5 hours.

The Biwako Kisen “sakura cruise” schedule is here.

The Ohmi Marine sakura hanami cruise schedule for Hikone Port is here and for Makino Dock here.

I was lucky to see the sakura in full bloom on a sunny afternoon. Here are some photos.

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Kaizu-Osaki in the distance.

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Getting closer to Kaizu-Osaki.

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Approaching Kaizu-Osaki Port where Osaki-dera temple is.

megumi at Kaizu-Osaki Port.

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Beware of heavy traffic when leaving the dock.

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Look for the pedestrian path.

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30 min. is not enough to walk the entire length of the walking path.

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We get another look at the sakura as we leave Kaizu-Osaki.

More photos of Kaizu-Osaki here.

Nagahama Hikiyama Matsuri 2017 Festival Schedule


Video link: https://youtu.be/3zYuarHUHXs

All 13 Nagahama hikiyama floats appearing in 2017! YOISA!!

Held annually on several days centering on April 15 by Nagahama Hachimangu ShrineNagahama Hikiyama Matsuri (長浜曳山祭) is a major float festival in Nagahama in northern Shiga Prefecture. The main highlight is child kabuki actors (boys age 5 to 12) performing on four ornate wooden floats. On Dec. 1, 2016 (JST), 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.” 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 normally would have to see the festival three years in a row. However, this year in 2017, to celebrate the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage designation, all 12 kabuki floats will make an appearance in the festival on April 15, the main festival day. But only four floats (Kasuga-zan, Kanko-zan, Gekkyuden, and Seikai-zan in 2017) will perform kabuki. The remaining eight non-performing kabuki floats will only be pulled to the Otabisho for display.

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).

In 2016, I photographed most of the festival events held during April 12–16. The video embedded above shows all the major festival events during this period. A few ceremonies and rituals are closed to the public.

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.

In 2017, Float No. 1 is Kanko-zan (諫皷山), Float No. 2 is Kasuga-zan (春日山), Float No. 3 is Gekkyuden (月宮殿), and Float No. 4 is Seikai-zan (青海山).

Here is the schedule of Nagahama Hikiyama Festival events in 2017 (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 1, 2017: Float Replacement Event (曳山交替式)
9:00 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.

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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.

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Before the kabuki makeup and costumes…

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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.:
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.

Being Float No. 1 is most desirable since they will perform first on April 15 and can go home early. They also get to host the Sanbaso prayer dancer which is the festival’s opening performance and prayer for an abundant harvest. 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)
6:00 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.)

In case of rain, the float will be covered with a tarp or moved to the shopping arcade for shelter.

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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.


April 14
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)
9:00 a.m. to noon: 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)
12 noon onward: 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.

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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
7:00 a.m.:
 Spring Festival Ceremony (春季大祭). A religious ceremony, not really for tourists.

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8:30 a.m.: Morning Kabuki Procession (Asa-watari 朝渡り) of child kabuki actors arrive at Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine. Colorful procession, but too early in the morning for spectators.

9:10 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.

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9:25 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).

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9:45 a.m.–1:45 p.m.: Kabuki at the Shrine (Hono kyogen 奉納狂言) has the four floats perform kabuki at the shrine in succession starting with Float No. 1. These performances are dedicated to the shrine. Each play is about 40 min. long. After a float finishes a kabuki performance, it leaves the 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.

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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.

Float No./Location1. Hachimangu2. Shrine path3. Kanaya Park4. Hikiyama Museum5. Arcade intersection6. Kurokabe Square7. Otabisho
Float No. 19:45–10:30 am12:00–12:45 pm2:00–2:45 pm4:00–4:45 pm
Float No. 210:55–11:35 am1:10–1:50 pm3:10–3:50 pm5:15–5:55 pm
Float No. 312:00–12:40 pm1:50–2:30 pm4:05–4:45 pm6:25–7:05 pm
Float No. 41:05–1:45 pm3:05–3:45 pm5:15–5:55 pm7:35–8:15 pm
*Times are approximate. Location numbers correspond to the numbers in the map below.

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April 15 Otabisho Events
In 2017, to celebrate the festival’s designation as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, all 13 Nagahama Hikiyama floats will appear at the Otabisho by evening. 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.

10 a.m. to 1 p.m.: The eight non-performing kabuki floats will arrive successively at the Otabisho parking lot to join the Naginata-yama guardian float (暇番山登り山). They will only be displayed and not perform any kabuki. It might be tricky to try and see these floats being pulled to the Otabisho while the four kabuki-performing floats are performing at the shrine and elsewhere at the same time. You won’t be able to see everything.

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. By 7:30 p.m. when Float No. 4 arrives, all 12 kabuki floats and the Naginata-yama guardian float will be on display at the Otabisho. A very rare occasion to see all the floats together. The last time they did this was in 2006 to celebrate the merger of Nagahama’s neighboring towns (Azai-cho and Biwa-cho). 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.

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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. In 2017, since there will be 13 floats, it might take longer for all the floats to leave.


April 16: After-Festival Kabuki (Goen kyogen 後宴狂言)
Morning (9:00 a.m.) to evening: Kabuki performances are given by the four floats in their respective neighborhoods in central Nagahama. They 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 between 7 p.m. and 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.

For festival details in Japanese, see or download the official festival guide book pdf.

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Festival information booth at the shrine.

Buddhist altars made in Shiga Prefecture

Butsudan woodcarver Mori Tesso in Maibara.

Butsudan woodcarver Mori Tesso in Maibara.

Updated: May 7, 2017

Shiga Prefecture has three handicrafts officially designated as a “Traditional Craft” by the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry (経済産業大臣指定伝統的工芸品). “Traditional crafts” as defined by the Japanese government are handicrafts used in everyday life that are largely handmade using traditional techniques and traditional materials. And they are made in a specific area.

Shiga’s three designated traditional crafts are Omi jofu hemp cloth (近江上布), Shigaraki pottery (信楽焼), and Hikone butsudan (彦根仏壇) or household Buddhist altars made in Hikone.

Japan has over thirty cities and areas that produce household Buddhist altars (“butsudan” in Japanese). Fifteen of them are officially designated as a “Traditional Craft Production Area” (伝統的工芸品産地指定) by the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry. These areas include the cities of Yamagata, Kyoto, Kanazawa, Niigata, Osaka, Nagoya, Hiroshima, and Hikone. They all have been making butsudan since the Edo Period. In 1975, Hikone butsudan became Japan’s first butsudan to be officially designated as a “traditional craft.”

Hikone butsudan is thus one of Shiga’s signature products. However, Shiga actually has two traditional butsudan manufacturing areas. Besides Hikone butsudan made in Hikone and MaibaraHama butsudan (浜仏壇), commonly called “Hama-dan” (浜壇) which is short for “Nagahama butsudan,” is made in Nagahama, Maibara, and Hikone. Although Hikone butsudan is more famous nationally due to its official designation, Hama-dan is not inferior in any way. Interesting how the Hikone butsudan and Hama-dan production bases are right next to each other, but they have different origins, histories, and designs. Since there is virtually zero English information about Hama-dan, this article will also shed some light on Hama-dan.

butsudan

Hikone butsudan and certified craftsman.

butsudan

Hama-dan Buddhist altar in Mori Tesso’s home. Guess how much it cost? (Read below.)

Chube'e

Buddhist altar room in Itoh Chube’e Memorial House in Toyosato.

Traditional butsudan are like miniature Buddhist temples in Japanese homes. They are more common in rural (old) Japanese-style homes (with tatami mats) than in urban condominiums/apartments. A Japanese-style home may even have a Buddhist altar room called butsuma (仏間) designed for a large butsudan to fit into an alcove.

Japanese families keep a butsudan to memorialize and pray to deceased family members and ancestors. Photos of the recently deceased or small vertical tablets (ihai) inscribed with their names may adorn or complement the butsudan along with various Buddhist implements (candle holders, rice offering holders, incense burner, bell, etc.). They all direct attention to the butsudan’s central figure that is usually a Buddha statue or scroll. While praying in front of the butsudan, a family member might even “talk” or “report” to the deceased about their lives and achievements.

During the obon season in mid-August and on the anniversary of a family member’s passing, the family may hire a Buddhist priest to conduct a memorial service in front of their household Buddhist altar. The butsudan thereby unifies and bonds living family members as it reminds them of their common ancestors. And it’s much more convenient than going to the gravesite to pray to the deceased.

The practice of keeping a Buddhist altar at home is unique to Japan. They don’t do it in other Buddhist countries like Thailand. It supposedly began in the Kamakura Period (1185–1333), but it didn’t spread until the Edo Period in the 17th century. When Christians were being persecuted in Japan, butsudan is said to have spread among families who wanted to show that they were not Christian. However, fewer and fewer modern homes in Japan today are designed to have a butsudan, so fewer and fewer families buy and keep a butsudan.

Butsudan is not to be confused with kami-dana (神棚) which are household Shinto altars (miniature Shinto shrines). Keeping a household altar is a common practice in both Buddhism and Shinto. But butsudan and kami-dana altars look totally different and serve different functions.

Kami

Kami-dana household Shinto altar in a Hino merchant’s home.

dana

Kami-dana for sale.

The household Shinto altar is generally less ornate (mostly bare wood) and smaller than butsudan and are mounted high on a shelf toward the ceiling. It is usually dedicated to a local Shinto god or the god of one’s profession. Household members commonly pray to kami-dana for family safety, good health, and business prosperity. Kami-dana is quite common among business owners.

In a nutshell, butsudan are dedicated to the deceased, while kami-dana are dedicated to the living. Also, you don’t have to be Buddhist to keep a butsudan nor a Shinto believer to have a kami-dana. A home may even have both, as many Japanese worship or respect both Buddhism and Shinto. Families commonly hold both Shinto weddings and Buddhist funerals even though Shinto funerals and Buddhist weddings are perfectly fine. Even professional sumo wrestlers commonly have Buddhist funerals (sumo is a Shinto sport). When it comes to religion in Japan, things are not so black and white.

Besides serving spiritual and family functions, the traditional butsudan is a major assemblage of intricate, elaborate, and ornate artwork. It provides the livelihoods of highly-skilled traditional craftsmen and artisans required to make a butsudan. There are at least seven types of traditional craftsmen involved in making a butsudan: Cabinet maker (kiji-shi 木地師) who makes the wooden exterior cabinet, inner altar builder (kuden-shi 宮殿師) who makes the butsudan’s inner sanctum complete with a temple-like roof, woodcarver (chokoku-shi 彫刻師) who carves the transoms and Buddha statue, lacquer painter (nuri-shi 漆塗り師) who lacquers the cabinet, gold leaf gilder (kinpaku-oshi-shi 金箔押し師), metallic ornament maker (kazari-kanagu-shi 錺金具師) who makes metallic fittings and ornaments, and maki-e artist (makie-shi 蒔絵師) who creates lacquer decorations with sprinkled gold powder. The butsudan parts are then assembled by the butsudan shop that received the customer’s order. The best traditional craftsmen can also be certified with the official title of “Traditional Craftsman” (伝統工芸士) from the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry.

Installing a metallic fitting on Hikone butsudan.

Attaching a metallic hinge on Hikone butsudan door.

butsudan

Hikone butsudan is very gold.

Hikone butsudan is classified as a kin-butsudan (gold Buddhist altar 金仏壇) in reference to the abundant use of gold leaf (made of 95%+ pure gold). Like Kanazawa butsudan in Ishikawa Prefecture (famous for gold leaf) and Kyoto butsudan, Hikone butsudan looks very gold and is regarded as a high-end butsudan. The lacquer is glossy and the wood is usually hinoki cypress, zelkova (keyaki), or Japanese cedar.

Hikone butsudan originated in the mid-Edo Period (17th-18th centuries). Traditional craftsmen such as cabinet makers, lacquerware artists, and metallic ornament makers who had produced samurai swords, helmets, armor, etc., switched to making Buddhist altars as a peaceful pursuit during the peaceful Edo Period. It started with a lacquerware merchant who made a butsudan after learning from Kyoto butsudan sometime during 1624-44. As household Buddhist altars became more common, the Hikone daimyo (Ii Clan) officially sanctioned and protected the butsudan makers’ livelihoods. Many of these craftsmen lived in the Nanamagari area (七曲がり) of Hikone where a number of butsudan craftsmen and shops still remain while other craftsmen are scattered about in Hikone. In Nanamagari, you can visit butsudan shops and perhaps see an artisan at work or take a workshop in one of the butsudan crafts. In autumn, they hold the Nanamagari Festa (七曲がりフェスタ) with butsudan craftsmen demonstrating their art and offering hands-on lessons for the public.

With the backing of the local daimyo, Hikone’s butsudan industry developed into an efficient production system and became one of Hikone’s major traditional industries. After World War II, Hikone butsudan makers established their own guild and product inspection system to improve and assure the quality of their products. Traditional butsudan are usually signed and dated by the maker or artisan.

Hikiyama

Nagahama Hikiyama festival float (Shojo-maru).

chidori

Hama-dan has a top-edge, bare wood transom and inner roof with three triangular chidori-hafu. The roof’s center is similar to the roof of Nagahama Hikiyama Festival floats.

Meanwhile, Hama-dan Buddhist altars have kind of a confusing history since there was the original Izumi-dan (和泉壇) which has since been grouped together with Hama-dan. Technically, Izumi-dan and Hama-dan have separate lineages and both still exist, but I’m told Izumi-dan is quite rare now due to its high price range and it has since been commonly called Hama-dan. Izumi-dan has a unique kind of sculpture or style that a butsudan expert can distinguish from a Hama-dan. Izumi-dan is named after a prominent Nagahama carpenter and woodcarver named Fujioka Izumi (藤岡 和泉 1617–1705) who specialized in carving lotuses and clouds. He gained fame after creating highly-rated woodcarvings for Izumi Shrine in Nagahama. He made butsudan as well.

Izumi favored making butsudan with less gold leaf and more bare wood than Hikone butsudan and Kyoto butsudan. For example, the wood-carved transom (sama) on the altar’s top edge is bare wood and not gold like on Hikone butsudan. He used zelkova (an expensive and durable wood) for the transom and hinoki cypress for the cabinet and included much maki-e lacquer art.

Another distinctive feature is the Hama-dan’s inner altar roof. It looks a like castle roof with multiple ridges and decorative triangular gables called chidori-hafu (千鳥破風). They make the butsudan look very dignified.

Izumi’s descendants/associates also made the first hikiyama floats for the Nagahama Hikiyama Matsuri in the 18th century when kabuki became popular. The design of the hikiyama floats was modeled after the Izumi-dan Buddhist altars. In the photos above, you can how the roof design of the hikiyama float and butsudan are similar. Hikone butsudan has a different type of inner roof.

The Fujioka family helped to build and maintain the ornate Nagahama hikiyama floats. However today, the Fujioka family is no longer in this business and the floats are maintained by butsudan craftsmen.

Despite the different designs of Hikone butsudan and Hama-dan, both types can be configured to suit any Japanese Buddhist sect. Although the Jodo Shinshu Sect favors gold butsudan (like Hikone/Kyoto butsudan), a Jodo Shinshu family can still use a Hama-dan instead. I’m told that most Jodo Shinshu families in Nagahama and Maibara have a Hama-dan. (The butsudan in my home in Shiga is a Hama-dan as well.) Hama-dan is also reputed to be bigger than Hikone butsudan. Although I’m sure a (rich) customer can custom order a Hikone butsudan in any large size. I’m told that Hikone butsudan has a nationwide market base, while Hama-dan customers are mainly limited to northern Shiga.

Even though they are neighbors, it’s nice that Hikone butsudan and Hama-dan have retained their unique characteristics all these centuries. They also share some of the craftsmen who make butsudan parts for both Hikone butsudan and Hama-dan.

Mori Tesso in his workshop.

Mori Tesso in his workshop.

Mori Tesso and a dragon.

Mori Tesso and a dragon.

In September 2015, we visited one such craftsman, a very accomplished and versatile 70-year-old woodcarver (and painter) named Mori Tesso (森 哲荘) who lives and works in Kami-nyu (上丹生) in the city of Maibara. Out of the seven traditional butsudan craftsmen, I was most interested in the woodcarvers. After all, they make the Buddha statues that become the focal point of the butsudan. An online search led me to Mori Tesso at Mori Chokokusho (森彫刻所), a modest woodcarving studio next to his house. He has been a woodcarver in Kami-nyu for 55 years since age 15, right after junior high school. I got an exclusive interview and tour of their studio.

Kami-nyu is a small, rural enclave of butsudan craftsmen in a quiet, mountainous neighborhood in the Samegai area (on the way to the trout farm). There are cabinet makers, woodcarvers, gold leaf gilders, lacquer painters, etc. To have all these traditional craftsman in one place is quite rare in Japan. They make butsudan parts for both Hikone butsudan and Hama-dan, although such work has decreased dramatically.

Kami-nyu’s history goes back to the Tempyo Period (729–749) when a clan related to the Imperial Court lived in this area. Through their connections, they were exposed to cultural information and techniques from Korea and China. Kami-nyu thereby developed as a center of highly refined culture. In the early 19th century, two Kami-nyu teenage lads, 14-year-old Ueda Yusuke (上田勇助), who was the son of a shrine/temple carpenter, and friend Kawaguchi Shichiemon (川口七右衛門), spent 12 years in Kyoto to learn traditional woodcarving. When Yusuke came back to Kami-nyu, he worked as a woodcarver for local temples. Since the area was mountainous with little farmland, people in Kami-nyu made a living cutting trees and making woodcarvings for temples, shrines, and festival floats.

In the late 19th century (mid-Meiji Period), Yusuke’s son and successor (Yusuke II) ventured to make woodcarvings for Hama-dan, further refining his skills. Other butsudan craftsmen from different disciplines also started to settle in Kami-nyu. Kami-nyu thereby transformed from a woodcarvers’ neighborhood into a traditional crafts village that continues today. It’s a family business or cottage industry and most everything is handmade. They work separately, but as a team. There are no large, mass production factories. (Yusuke’s current descendants are no longer woodcarvers.)

Kami-nyu has a few butsudan shops (仏壇店) where you can custom order a butsudan to suit your budget and preferences. Many customers have their traditional butsudan custom-made. The shop will then mobilize and coordinate the traditional craftsmen in Kami-nyu to make the butsudan parts to be assembled by the shop.

Although the Kami-nyu craftsmen’s mainstay used to be making butsudan parts, their numbers have sadly shrunk dramatically due to a lack of work. The surviving ones now do mostly other work, any type of job that matches their skills (and fees). It could be a transom in a new house, restoration or repair work for temples, shrines, large altars, butsudan, kami-dana, and festival floats. They are highly versatile craftsmen.

Mori Tesso shows a drawing of a carving to be made for a roof part.

Mori Tesso shows a drawing of a carving to be made for a roof part.

Mori Tesso is a second-generation Kami-nyu woodcarver taking after his late father Hideo (秀男) who started the family trade. He was pretty much forced into the profession by his father who insisted that there were skills that can only be acquired at a young age. Tesso originally did not care so much for woodcarving and wanted to continue on to high school instead. However, after learning the craft from his father and older brother Nozomu, Tesso came to love woodcarving and feels fortunate to have pursued it. Look at his works and you will see that he is very good.

Hideo, born in 1900, apprenticed under a butsudan woodcarver in Kyoto after elementary school. He eventually became a master woodcarver. The post-war years were tough for him as people were too poor to buy butsudan. Old butsudan were often sold to feed the family.

As Japan recovered and people could afford to buy butsudan again, Hideo worked in Kyoto and trained many apprentices including his elder son Nozomu who started in 1951 after junior high school. Nozomu has been carving for over 60 years and lives in Kami-nyu.

Buddha

Butsudan Buddha statue carved by Mori Hideo.

Unfortunately, Hideo died at age 64, only three years after Tesso started carving. Tesso was quite saddened by his father’s passing and started dabbling in drawing and painting. But after getting married in 1973, he buckled down and pursued butsudan woodcarving seriously for a steady income. It takes at least 10 years to master the craft, and another 10 years to become a more versatile woodcarver.

He soon had two sons, Yasuichiro (靖一郎) and Tetsuo (徹雄), both of whom became woodcarvers themselves. Yasuichiro started training under his father and Uncle Nozomu at age 20 after graduating from a junior art college. Younger son Tetsuo apprenticed under his Uncle Nozomu as a woodcarver after high school. Both Yasuichiro and Tetsuo have been been carving for over 20 years now, so both are already master woodcarvers. Like his father, Yasuichiro has been certified by the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry as a Traditional Craftsman for Hikone butsudan (彦根仏壇伝統工芸士). (There is no such certification for Hama-dan.) The two sons were not home during our visit so I didn’t get to meet them.

chisels

Mori Tesso and some of his many chisels.

The Moris live along the river flowing through Kami-nyu and Samegai. Their immediate neighbor is another craftsman and there is also butsudan shop right nearby. Their woodcarving studio is in a separate building next to their home. The studio is a fairly spacious room for three woodcarvers to work. They all face a window so they can look outside once in a while. Tesso carves while sitting at a low table which is actually a thick plank of wood. He sits on the floor, but his legs stretch out into a sunken pit. He has many little drawers for an arsenal of many different chisels. Kami-nyu is a quiet and relaxing place to do intricate work.

He showed us a variety of wood sculptures. He sketches the carving on the wood or paper, then makes a rough carving with a hammer and chisel. The final stages are fine carving. If there is a human face, he carves it last, as it is the most difficult part to carve. They don’t use sandpaper, etc., to smooth the surface either. It’s all smoothed with a chisel. This skill itself takes a few years to master.

Besides butsudan carvings, the Moris carve sculptures for shrines and temples (roof beams, transoms, etc.), wooden signboards for businesses, wooden picture frames, and festival floats. They can basically carve whatever the customer wants. They also repair butsudan sculptures. They do have ready-made sculptures for sale, but it seems that they mainly produce custom orders.

Tesso is a very, very versatile artist. He can carve all kinds of things. Just look at their website gallery for samples of their work. They also sell their work online via Yahoo Japan. An incredible variety. The Mori family also carved part of the impressive woodcarving mural displayed at Maibara Station’s east entrance. The mural shows Maibara’s major sights like Mt. Ibuki (top center) and Mishima Pond carved in wood.

Mural at Maibara Station by Kami-nyu woodcarvers.

Mural at Maibara Station by Kami-nyu woodcarvers.

After showing us his workshop, he brought us into his home where we saw a large Hama-dan in his Buddhist altar room (top photo). He made the butsudan with all the woodcarvings except for the Buddha statue that was carved by his father. Tesso told me that one customer saw this butsudan and immediately decided that he wanted one exactly like it. So Tesso had one made exactly like it. The cost? Ten million yen (!).

Indeed, high-end (i.e. large size and ornate), traditional butsudan can cost more than the top-of-the-line Mercedes-Benz luxury car (S-Class). On the other hand, there are also simplified and compact butsudan called “modern butsudan” (モダン仏壇) which cost a lot less than traditional butsudan. Modern butsudan are basically wooden cabinets sans woodcarvings and major artwork. Average size models (about 60 cm high) can cost around ¥150,000 or more, but when you throw in the standard implements (rice offering holders, candle holders, bell, etc.) and Buddha figure or scroll, it can total around ¥300,000 or more. Modern butsudan are geared for city dwellers and condos where space is limited.

Also, there is a lot of imported butsudan (or parts) from countries like China and Vietnam where labor is much cheaper than in Japan. Imported butsudan started to spread in Japan from the 1990s. They now account for about 70 percent of the butsudan sold in Japan.

Tesso tells me that these imported butsudan pose the biggest challenge or competition to the traditional craftsmen. Sadly, the number of traditional butsudan craftsmen has decreased significantly and the Moris no longer carve for butsudan that much. He says that they have been adapting and adjusting to such market conditions. Traditional craftsmen in Japan are now basically relegated to the high-end market. They are also supported by purists who still favor “Made in Japan” butsudan and other crafts, citing subtle differences in the artwork of imported models. For example, dragon sculptures on imported butsudan may look too “Chinese.” Some butsudan shops proudly indicate that their butsudan are “Made in Japan.” Otherwise, we cannot tell if it is imported or not.

Modern

Even modern butsudan are quite diverse. These are 50-60 cm tall.

During a quick tour of butsudan shops in Tokyo, I was surprised to see so many modern and imported butsudan. Even though the modern ones are more suited for urban families and Western-style homes, it’s still sad to see how the traditional butsudan are being squeezed out. The lower prices of modern/imported butsudan are no doubt very tempting for the average worshipper.

People in the market for a butsudan have a very, very wide selection. Whether it’s traditional or modern, large or small, cheap or expensive, or plain or ornate. Unlike electrical appliances, cars, and furniture, there are no corporate brands of butsudan. There are only traditional regional brands and anonymous brands (modern or imported). Hikone butsudan and Hama-dan are no doubt among Japan’s elite butsudan that can last for generations.

Even if you’re not Buddhist/religious or have no plans to buy a butsudan, I hope this article makes you appreciate the fine artwork that goes into a traditional butsudan and piques your interest to try and identify any butsudan you might sooner or later see in Shiga.

*Special thanks to Mori Tesso for showing us his workplace and sculptures and to Yasuichiro for answering my supplemental questions.

Major references for this article:

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