Golden Week is Japan’s spring vacation from late April to early May with a string of national holidays. April 29 is Showa Day, May 3 is Constitution Day, May 4 Greenery Day, and May 5 Children’s Day.
It is prime time for matsuri festivals in Japan and Shiga has a load of them. There are so many matsuri in Shiga during this time that it took me at least 4 or 5 years to see most of them because many are held at the same time. You really have to decide which one to see.
Here is a collection of my video clips (in varying quality) of Golden Week festivals I recommend seeing. A wide variety for sure.
April 29: Sakata Shinmeigu Yakko-buri Procession (坂田神明宮の蹴り奴振り) in Maibara reenacts the procession of Lord Ii Naonobu from Hikone when he came to worship at Sakata Shinmeigu Shrine (坂田神明宮) in 1733 in Maibara. The men walk with a stylized, kicking action. It starts with a Shinto ceremony which includes dancing by shrine maidens. Starts at 2 pm at Sakata Shinmeigu Shrine near JR Sakata Station (Hokuriku Line). Photos | Website | Map
April 29:Kusatsu Shukuba Matsuri (草津宿場まつり) celebrates Kusatsu’s history as a stage town on the Nakasendo and Tokaido Roads. Numerous events and activities are held such as flea markets, street & stage performances, and Japanese dances. The main highlight is the Kusatsu Jidai Gyoretsu procession of people dressed in historical costumes from 11:45 am (from city hall) to 3:40 pm (Kusatsu Station East Exit). Near JR Kusatsu Station. Photos | Official site | Map
April 29:Kaizu Rikishi Matsuri (海津力士まつり) features men dressed as sumo wrestlers (rikishi) carrying two mikoshi portable shrines around their respective lakeside neighborhoods near JR Makino Station in northern Takashima. They wear kesho mawashi ceremonial aprons. They jostle the mikoshi during the day from 1 pm to 3 pm, and then from 5 pm. At around 8 pm, they proceed to Kaizuten Jinja Shrine for the festival climax with lit torches. Be aware that the festival goes on until after 10 pm which may be past your last train home. Also, if you’re walking back to Makino Station from the shrine, be careful as part of the highway has no sidewalk. Bring a flashlight (or lit-up smartphone) so the cars (and big trucks) can see you on the road at night. Otherwise, it’s very hazardous. Photos | Website | Google Map
May 3:Hino Matsuri (日野祭) in Hino is the largest festival in eastern Shiga Prefecture and one of Shiga’s grandest float festivals. Sixteen ornate floats and three portable shrines are paraded through the streets and gather at Umamioka Watamuki Shrine amid festival music of flutes and taiko drums. It’s all day long from morning till late afternoon when the floats leave the shrine. The three portable shrines are taken across town to the Otabisho and back. They also hold a festival eve on the evening of May 2. Buses run from Hino Station to Umamioka Watamuki Shrine. If you have time, I also highly recommend taking the bus from Hino Station to Shakunage Gorge (しゃくなげ渓) for a relaxing nature stroll in a gorge adorned with shakunage (rhododendron), Hino’s official flower. Photos | Website | Google Map
May 3:Kenketo Odori (ケンケト踊り) at Takigi Jinja Shrine (龍樹神社) in Tsuchiyama, Koka is a dance performed by eight boys aged 7 to 12. The dance was originally started to ward off calamities. The boys wear tall peacock feathers on their heads. Starting in the early afternoon at the shrine, the delightful dance is a National Intangible Folk Cultural Property. From Kibukawa Station (JR Kusatsu Line and Ohmi Railways), catch the Aikuru Bus and get off at Higashi Maeno. The shrine is a short walk toward the river. Photos | Website | Google Map
May 3: The Kenketo Festival (ケンケト祭り) is held at few Shinto shrines in Ryuo and neighboring Higashi-Omi. It is mainly a naginata (pole sword) dance and procession by boys dressed in costume. They travel to these different shrines and perform, but the main venue is Suginoki Shrine in Yamanoue, Ryuo town, Shiga. Photos | Google Map
May 4: The Shichikawa Matsuri (七川祭) at Oarahiko Shrine in Takashima features a procession of yakko-furi laborers carrying archery targets (photo), yabusame horse runs, and a portable shrine procession. This is the largest festival in the Kosei area (western Shiga) and the only one featuring horses in Kosei. Attracts a good crowd. The shrine is near Shin-Asahi Station (JR Kosei Line), but renting a bicycle at the station is recommended. Photos | Website | Google Map
May 4:Omizo Matsuri (大溝祭) has five ornate floats pulled around the neighborhood of JR Omi-Takashima Station (JR Kosei Line). The festival eve on May 3 has the floats festooned with paper lanterns as they are pulled around in the evening. On May 4, they pull the floats around during the day and gather at Hiyoshi Jinja Shrine. When entering the shrine, they dramatically run while pulling the float. Photos | Website | Google Map
Video link: https://youtu.be/r_FYQwW_l-4
May 4:Iba-no-saka-kudashi Matsuri (伊庭の坂下し祭) held by Sanposan Shrine in Higashi-Omi, Shiga Prefecture is an unusual festival with three portable shrines hauled down a steep mountain (Kinugasa-yama) for about 500 meters. It doesn’t sound that far, but it’s all steep, rocky terrain. The mikoshi bearers can easily get injured. This is also one of the hardest festivals to view. You have to climb up this steep, rocky mountain and perch on a ledge. One earthquake and you can fall. The locals have an easy time climbing up the mountain though, even with kids. Photos | Website | Google Map
May 4: Shinoda Hanabi in Omi-Hachiman. Intangible Folk Cultural Property.
May 4:Shinoda Hanabi (篠田の花火) is a super spectacular and artistic fireworks display at Shinoda Shrine in Omi-Hachiman. Torch fireworks, Niagara Falls, and panel-type fireworks provide an explosive, close-up experience. For people who cannot wait till summer to see fireworks. Beware of a forest of camera tripods and photographers in front. Get there early if you want to take good shots. Not recommended if you don’t like sudden and loud explosions. Intangible Folk Cultural Property. Walk from Omi-Hachiman Station. Photos | Website | Google Map
May 4: The Misaki Shrine Fire Festival (御崎神社 火まつり) in Aisho climaxes with a towering clump of bamboo set afire to create a fire column well over 10 meters high. It starts at 7:30 pm when people carry 2-meter long torches from their homes to the shrine. A taiko drum is also carried and beaten. Very dramatic (no marshmallows). The shrine is a 20-min. walk from JR Inae Station. Photos | Website | Google Map
May 5:Hyozu Matsuri (兵主祭) is Shiga’s preeminent mikoshi (portable shrine) festival with 35 mikoshi paraded around Hyozu Taisha Shrine in Yasu. Two of them are carried only by spunky young women called “Ayame,” meaning iris flowers. Very colorful and lively festival as they frequently stop, yell, and hold up the mikoshi high in the air. Beware that it can be dusty on the gravel paths. Other mikoshi are carried by children and men. Photos | Website | Google Map
May 5: The Sushi-kiri Matsuri (すし切りまつり) sushi-cutting festival at Shimoniikawa Shrine in Moriyama has two young lads very stylistically and meticulously cutting funa-zushi fermented fish (crucian carp native to Lake Biwa) as an offering. All throughout, they are verbally heckled by some men. Not visually spectacular, but unusual and intriguing. The best part is at the end when they give free morsels of funa-zushi to spectators. Shiga’s best-known delicacy from Lake Biwa. From Moriyama Station, take the bus and get off at Shimoniikawa Jinja. Photos | Website | Google Map
May 5:Naginata Odori Matsuri (長刀踊り まつり) at Ozu Jinja Shrine (小津神社) in Moriyama consists of colorful dances and music by children, taiko drumming, a naginata dance and acrobatics by boys using a pole sword. They conduct a roundtrip procession from Ozu Shrine to Ozu Wakamiya Shrine. A great variety of eye candy for Children’s Day. Photos | Website | Google Map
May 5:Sekku Matsuri Festival (苗村神社 節句祭) at Namura Shrine in Ryuo is for horse lovers. After children carry around a portable shrine, yabusame horseback archery is held in front of the shrine gate. Several horses make their runs, but only one of them shoots arrows at the targets. A good excuse to visit this shrine noted for its elegant-looking, thatched-roof main gate and Nishi Honden hall which is a National Treasure. The shrine’s architecture is from the Kamakura Period. Photos | Website | Google Map
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.)
Imazu Port for cherry blossom cruises to Kaizu-Osaki.
megumi is powered by bio diesel fuel and solar and wind energy.
Upper deck of megumi.
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.
All 13 Nagahama hikiyama floats appearing in 2017! YOISA!!
Held annually on several days centering on April 15 by Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine, Nagahama 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.
April 9: Senko-ban Visitation (線香番) Festival officials visit the four floats’ kabuki practice halls to watch a kabuki rehearsal and time the performance. Before clocks were invented, they used a burning incense stick (senko) to measure the kabuki play’s length. This is also when the parents see their sons perform for the first time. However, the actors do not wear the makeup and costumes yet. This ceremony is not open to the public since the practice hall will be filled with the boys’ parents and relatives.
April 9–12: Hadaka-mairi Shrine Worship(裸参り) From 8:00 p.m. every night on these four days, scantily-clad young men (wakashu 若衆) from the four floats gather at their respective kabuki practice hall and parade to Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine where they pray and purify themselves by running around a well and splashing themselves with the cold well water. They pray for a successful festival, healthy actors, and to draw a favorable lot on April 13 that determines the order of the floats’ performances. They all want to be Float No. 1 which performs first and goes home first on April 15 (main day).
From Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine, they march through Otemon-dori shopping arcade to Hokoku Shrine across town where they pray and splash in a well again. On their last worshipping day on April 12, Otemon-dori shopping arcade has festival musicians and representatives from non-performing floats (i.e. those not performing in the festival this year) to greet the wakashu men. They play festival music (called shagiri 囃子) and offer cups of sake (rice wine) to the wakashu leaders and Kujitori-nin. They shout “Yoisa! Yoisa!” the whole time and drink a lot of sake.
You will notice that they wear different colored headbands. The young man wearing a red headband is the Kujitori-nin (籤取り人) who will draw the lot at the lot-drawing ceremony on April 13. The men wearing a blue headband are the guards (警護) who direct the wakashu. The men with a white headband are the rank and file. When a float’s wakashu pass by another float’s wakashu, a scuffle may break out since they are rivals in drawing lots. Quite a spectacle at both shrines and in-between.
April 12: Portable Shrine Procession (Mikoshi togyo 神輿渡御)
From 6:30 pm, men carry a mikoshi portable shrine from Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine to the Otabisho rest place across town while shouting, “Yoisa!” They go through the Otemon-dori arcade and a few side streets. Along the way, festival musicians from other floats greet the portable shrine (no sake is served). Nagahama Hikiyama Matsuri’s festival music is called shagiri (しゃぎり) instead of hayashi (囃子). The portable shrine was made in 1676 by Fujioka Kanbe’e (藤岡甚兵衛) with donations from shrine parishioners. The Fujioka family was a renown woodcarver and Buddhist altar maker in Nagahama.
The portable shrine brings the deity closer to the people and chases away evil spirits. They occasionally raise the portable shrine to wish happiness and safety to the people around it. The portable shrine arrives at the Otabisho at about 7:30 pm. The Otabisho is a rest place for the god traveling in a portable shrine. The portable shrine remains in the Otabisho until April 15 evening.
April 10–12: Public Kabuki Practice(公開稽古) Only during these three days, each float’s kabuki practice hall is open to the public. You can watch the boys (mostly age 5 to 10) practice their kabuki play usually once in the morning, afternoon, and evening. The practice hall is typically a small community center in the float’s neighborhood. It has a large room with a makeshift kabuki stage in the same size as on the float. (For practice times and locations, see the official festival guide book in Japanese or ask the tourist information desk at Nagahama Station.)
Anybody can watch them practice without any reservation or admission fee, but they do not wear the kabuki makeup and costumes (no dress rehearsals). They have been practicing every day since March 20 (spring vacation), so by this time, they have mastered their roles quite well. They receive some fine-tuning during this time.
When you watch them practice so hard (sometimes they even break down and cry), you will come to appreciate how much work it takes to put on a kabuki play. You can also see what the boys really look like without the kabuki makeup. Then when you do see them in kabuki makeup (from April 13), you will be amazed at their transformation.
Before the kabuki makeup and costumes…
And after the kabuki makeup and costumes.
The kabuki play is directed by three instructors called San’yaku (三役): The choreographer, tayu narrator, and shamisen player. The choreographer casts the actors’ (yakusha) roles usually according to their physical attributes. The choreographer is usually an experienced kabuki actor and directs the actors’ movements and voice. The tayu narrates the story in a highly stylized manner like in kabuki. The shamisen player provides the only music played during the kabuki performance.
Since 1990, the Nagahama Hikiyama Cultural Association (長浜曳山文化協会) has been working to train local artists to become tayu narrators and shamisen players in the festival. In 2016, for the first time, all four floats had at least one locally-trained tayu narrator or shamisen player. Previously, they were all from outside Shiga.
Each performing float also publishes its own festival program booklet or brochure introducing the float and kabuki actors in Japanese. (If it has English, it’s usually not very good.) You can buy one for cheap at the practice hall.
*Tip: On April 12, you can see three different festival events: Kabuki practice during the day, the portable shrine procession from 6:30 pm, and the hadaka-mairi shrine worshippers from 8 pm.
April 13 The main events on this day are the lot-drawing ceremony and the first kabuki performances in full costume for the public held in the evening.
Taiko Drum Call (起し太鼓): Before dawn at all float neighborhoods, a small team walk around and beat a taiko drum as a wakeup call.
Sacred Staff Receiving Ceremony (御幣迎えの儀) 7:00 a.m.: Representatives (including the Sacred Staff Messenger age 5–7) from the four floats go to Nagahama Hachimangu to receive their sacred staff (zigzag paper streamers) to be mounted on their floats.
Lot-Drawing Ceremony(Kujitori-shiki 籤取り式の儀)
1:00 p.m.: 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.
Sanbaso dancer (三番叟)
About the Sanbaso dancer
Float No. 1 receives the honor of hosting the Sanbaso dancer. The Sanbaso dances on Float No. 1 before the float’s kabuki play and he is the first performer on April 15 (main festival day) at the shrine. He holds a bell tree shaped like a ripe rice plant and performs prayer dances for a rich harvest.
The Sanbaso performs two short dance segments. The first segment is Momi-no-dan (stomping segment) where he waves his sleeves and stomps on the ground like he is preparing the ground for planting. He also does the “crow jump” (karasu-tobi) by jumping three consecutive times.
The second segment is Suzu-no-dan (bell segment) when the Sanbaso shakes his bell tree and mimes the planting and growing of rice. His costume has a crane design and his high cap has tiger stripes and a red sun on both sides.
The Sanbaso is a well-known dancer in Noh and kabuki. He comes from a Noh prayer dance called Okina (翁) dating from the 14th century as a religious ritual. Okina has three dancers praying for longevity, peace, endless joy, prosperity, and rich harvests. Sanbaso is the third dancer in Okina which is traditionally performed on auspicious and celebratory occasions like New Year’s and at the beginning of the day’s Noh or kabuki program. This is why he always appears first on the main festival day. The Sanbaso dances each time the float performs during the festival days. The boy playing the Sanbaso is recruited from the public in Nagahama and he is around age 10. He has his own choreographer, tayu narrator, and shamisen player. Ciick here to see the Sanbaso video clip.
The day before the main festival day is also a busy day. Lots to see/photograph.
Kabuki Performance in Local Neighborhoods (自町狂言) 9:00 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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
Performing at Kanaya Park.
After performing at the shrine, each float will move across town mainly along Otemon-dori road (shopping arcade, Kurokabe Square, etc.) to the Otabisho rest place. Along the way, they will stop and perform kabuki three more times with the last performance at the Otabisho by Float No. 4 held from 7:35 p.m. to 8:15 p.m. The map below has a red line indicating the float route on April 15 and the kabuki performance spots (1 to 7) along the way. To enlarge the map, click here.
2. Shrine path
3. Kanaya Park
4. Hikiyama Museum
5. Arcade intersection
6. Kurokabe Square
Float No. 1
Float No. 2
Float No. 3
Float No. 4
*Times are approximate. Location numbers correspond to the numbers in the map below.
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.
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.
Ten years after the grand 400th anniversary of Hikone Castle in 2007, Hikone is at it again, albeit on a smaller scale. This time, it’s for the castle’s 410th anniversary (彦根城築城410年祭). The celebration is from March 18 to December 10, 2017. It marks the anniversary of the completion of the castle’s main tower (tenshukaku or tenshu) in 1607. (The castle itself was completed much later in 1622.)
I went to see it a few days after it started. It’s basically a series of special exhibitions held in three castle buildings. Compared to 10 years ago, they have a lot more English captions. It’s part of Hikone’s push (since 1992) to have Hikone Castle designated as a World Heritage Site. The English is not perfect, but better than nothing.
It’s strange that they have English explanations in the exhibitions and videos, but no English in their PR materials and PR website for the 410th anniversary. (Usually it’s vice versa: PR info in English, but no English captions.) They even created a slick Japanese PR video that went viral even in Japan’s English-speaking world, but without any followup in any foreign languages. Such a pity. And so, I’m writing this overview of the 410th anniversary because no one else has done so in English.
Hikone Castle’s 410th anniversary exhibitions (and videos) are inside these three castle buildings: Kaikoku Kinenkan museum, Tenbin Yagura Turret, and Nishinomaru Sanju-yagura turret (photos below). The other castle buildings such as the main castle tower and Hikone Castle Museum have nothing related to the 410th anniversary. They remain the same as usual. There’s no new mascot either. The city is already happy with the nationally famous Hiko-nyan, a holdover from the 400th anniversary 10 years ago. That must’ve reduced the anniversary’s cost to the city.
On June 4, 2017, as part of the 410th anniversary, the Blue Impulse aerobatic team of the Japan Air Self-Defense Force performed in the skies of Hikone.
On Blue Impulse day, Konki Park near the castle where they had a stage and food booths. Lines for food were ridiculously long. Dusty too. Good view of the castle (toward the right). but the planes never flew near the castle.
Blue Impulse drawing in the sky above Hikone.
Cherry blossoms in the sky!
Thank you Blue Impulse for performing in Shiga for the first time.
Special edition Hikone Castle admission ticket sold only on June 4, 2017, Blue Impulse day.
There’s no extra fee to see the 410th anniversary special exhibitions and videos. You just pay the normal castle admission of ¥1,500 which includes admission to the castle, Hikone Castle Museum, Kaikoku Kinenkan museum, and the adjacent Genkyuen Garden. If you want to skip the Hikone Castle Museum, the admission is ¥1,000. Allow at least 2 to 3 hours to visit the castle, museums, and garden. Note that the Genkyuen Garden pond is being repaired in March–April 2017 so the water might be drained.
Hikone Castle is a short walk from JR Hikone Station (JR Tokaido/Biwako Line), an easy day trip from Kyoto, Nagoya, Fukui, and Gifu.
Kaikoku Kinenkan museum. Entrance is on the other side.
Kaikoku Kinenkan museum (開国記念館) is one of the first buildings you will see and pass by when you reach the castle from Hikone Station. It’s in the reconstructed portion of the Ninomaru-Sawaguchi Tamon Yagura Turret. It’s modern on the inside. Instead of entering this museum first, it might be better to enter it last on the way back to the train station.
Besides regular exhibits (like a scale model of Hikone Castle town), Kaikoku Kinenkan museum’s special exhibition is about the NHK Taiga Drama TV series that featured the Ii Clan (mainly Ii Naomasa or Ii Naosuke) from 1963 to 2017 (大河ドラマに見る井伊家 —「花の生涯」から「おんな城主 直虎」まで—). It is in tandem with the current NHK Taiga TV drama series, Onna Joshu Naotora about Hikone Castle founder Lord Ii Naomasa’s adoptive mother Ii Naotora (1536?–1582) who was a 16th century female daimyo and castle lord in Iinoya, Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture. The room has panel displays, videos, and costumes and implements used in past Taiga Dramas. Nothing is in English.
The NHK Taiga Drama is a year-long, weekly TV program dramatizing historical events and figures in Japanese history. It covers a different historical theme (usually feudal/samurai-related) every year and it’s one of Japan’s most popular TV programs since 1963. The places featured in the Taiga Drama usually see an increase of tourists, and so all those places very much welcome and celebrate the free publicity. Naotora centers on Hamamatsu, Shizuoka, but it also covers Hikone since it also features her adopted son Ii Naomasa (井伊 直政 1561–1602). Naomasa became one of Tokugawa Ieyasu’s top generals and founded Hikone Castle. You could call him the “Father of Hikone.”
Because of Naomasa’s closeness and loyalty to Ieyasu in winning the pivotal Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 that unified Japan, the Ii Clan enjoyed a prominent role in the Tokugawa government for generations until the 19th century. They also had a domain and residence in Edo (now Tokyo).
Besides Naomasa, the second-most prominent family member was Ii Naosuke (井伊 直弼 1850–1860). Naosuke was the Tokugawa government’s Chief Minister (Tairo) who was the de facto head of the national government (the shogun was only a figurehead). He favored and concluded commercial treaties with the Western powers and thus broke Japan’s isolation from the world. Foreigners were then allowed to trade with Japan and take up residence in cities like Yokohama and Hakodate. Naosuke was later famously and brutally assassinated in 1860 near Edo Castle by samurai radicals from Mito (Ibaraki Prefecture) who sought to oust the foreign “barbarians.”
Because of this, the cities of Mito and Hikone had bad blood between them for many years until they officially reconciled in 1968 and became Friendship Cities.
Statue of Ii Naomasa in front of JR Hikone Station.
Kaikoku Kinenkan’s most interesting special exhibit was the complete 45-min. black-and-white video of the very first NHK Taiga Drama episode from Hana no Shogai (A Flowering Life 花の生涯) that aired in 1963. The series was about the life of Ii Naosuke up until his assassination, starring kabuki actor Onoe Shoroku II (1913–1989) as Naosuke. Titled Aoyagi no Ito (青柳の糸), this is the only episode from this series that was preserved. Unfortunately, the videotapes of the other episodes were erased (overwritten) as the series progressed. NHK could not afford to save the videotape for each episode so they reused the videotape. (Videotape was very expensive in those days and reruns were not part of their vocabulary yet.)
Apparently, this first episode is available on DVD, but there are no English subtitles. I asked the museum staff about what this first episode was about, but they didn’t know. They scurried around in the museum and asked other staff, but no one knew. I don’t think they took the time to even watch it. (They are probably security staff rather than docents.) Hopefully by now, they have watched it and are prepared to tell you (in Japanese) what it’s about. (As I left the museum, I told them, “Study harder please.”)
After the Kaikoku Kinenkan museum, you will pass by the Umaya Horse Stable and a gift shop. The horse stable, open to the public with a fake horse inside, is also a National Important Cultural Property and one-of-a-kind in a Japanese castle.
Cross the wooden bridge over the moat and you’ll see the castle ticket office and Hikone Castle Museum. Show your ticket and go up the wide stone steps. You’ll soon see the impressive stone wall and bridge of the Tenbin Yagura turret.
Tenbin Yagura Turret. Entrance is on other side.
Near Tenbin Yagura is this explanatory sign with a mistranslation. 天秤櫓の「天秤」は「天秤ばかり」ではなく、「天秤棒」のことである。この説明看板の英文に誤訳あり。
Tenbin Yagura is named after the luggage-carrying shoulder pole depicted on this traveling Omi merchant.
The Tenbin Yagura Turret (天秤櫓), a National Important Cultural Property, is the second special exhibition venue for the 410th anniversary. It’s Hikone Castle’s second-most famous and important building. It has a pair of two-story watchtower turrets. They look almost identical and symmetrical, but they are not. “Tenbin” in this case does not refer to a balance scale as mistranslated in the explanatory sign. It actually refers to its similarity to a shoulder pole or carrying pole with luggage on both ends (called tenbinbo 天秤棒).
Many movies and dramas have been filmed around this historic building. To enter, you have to take off your shoes.
Inside Tenbin Yagura.
The exhibits in the Tenbin Yagura change every few months. The following describes the exhibits shown until July 2. From July 8 to Sept. 18, it will show exhibits related to the Battle of Sekigahara in Gifu in conjunction with the new movie. And from Sept. 23 to Dec. 10, it will show an exhibition called “Hikone Art Castle.”
Until July 2: The Tenbin Yagura is showing has four large video monitors for a special video exhibition titled, Hikone and the World During the Edo Period As Seen Through Ii Clan Treasures (井伊家 家宝の魅力と江戸期の世界). Instead of displaying actual items, you only see video images of it. The good thing is that most everything has English captions.
Screen showing Hikone Byobu amid glare.
Hikone Byobu annotation appears when you move the magnifying glass with your finger.
One video monitor shows the Hikone Byobu folding screen (彦根屏風) in detail. The Hikone Byobu is a 17th-century National Treasure painting on gold leaf. It shows a fashion-leading pleasure quarters scene in Kyoto. Shiga Prefecture has only four paintings that are National Treasures, and this is one of them and the only non-religious one. The others are all religious paintings owned by temples like Miidera.
The six-panel byobu is dated to be from the Edo Period’s Kan’ei era (1624-44). It measures 271 cm wide and 94 cm high. Since it was kept by the Ii Clan for generations, the screen is nicknamed “Hikone Byobu” even though the painting is not related to Hikone. The city of Hikone owns the byobu (since 1997).
The byobu’s National Treasure acclaim comes from the highly skilled and meticulous painting style and the myriad of people, fashion, and objects depicted from that era. Extremely fine lines and dots are painted for the hair, kimono patterns, etc. You’ll need a magnifying glass to see all that intricate detail.
And this is exactly what the video monitor provides. It has a touchscreen virtual magnifying glass which you can move around on the painting displayed on the video screen. Use your finger to move the magnifying glass to magnify any part of the painting. When you move the magnifying glass over a point of interest, a pop-up caption appears to explain it in Japanese and English. It works well, but the English is a little sloppy. (The photo above shows “quiet” misspelled.) There’s also lots of glare from the windows facing the video monitors, making it hard to read. The video monitor has only two magnifying glasses so only two people can use it at the same time.
The major disadvantage of this video display is that it shows the byobu painting completely flat. This byobu was actually designed to be viewed not as a flat painting, but as a folding screen with its characteristic zig-zag panels facing inward or outward. The people were painted to match the respective panel’s angle. The optical illusion shows people on adjacent panels angled or facing toward each other. Pretty neat.
You can see this angle effect on the genuine Hikone Byobu displayed at Hikone Castle Museum from mid-April to mid-May every year. This year, it will be exhibited in the museum from April 14 to May 16, 2017. Read more about the Hikone Byobu here.
Another video monitor shows treasures of the Ii Clan such as Noh masks and a palanquin. A third video monitor shows various Hikone sarasa (更紗) chintz fabrics owned by the Ii Clan.
An adjacent room has a larger video monitor showing a short video about how Japan was depicted in old maps drawn by Europeans during the Edo Period and how the Ii Clan viewed the world outside Japan. This video has English subtitles.
Note that the special exhibition inside Tenbin Yagura ends on July 2, 2017. I hope someday we will be allowed to go up the two turret towers as well. They are still closed to the public.
From the Tenbin Yagura, there are some more steps toward the main castle tower.
Choshoan tea house next to the bell.
Gracious tea host inside Choshoan tea house.
On the way to the main castle tower (tenshu), you can take a tea break at this small tea house called Choshoan (聴鐘庵). For ¥500, you can try matcha tea and a small confection. It’s operated by members of a tea school started by castle lord and tea master Ii Naosuke. At 12 noon and 3:00 p.m., you’ll hear the big “Time-Signal Bell” ringing right outside. The tea house was originally the bell ringer’s rest house.
After having tea, go up just a few more steps and go through the Taikomon Gate to finally see the main castle tower, a National Treasure.
Hiko-nyan near the main castle tower at 1:30 p.m.
At 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. near the main castle tower and at 3 p.m. outside Hikone Castle Museum, you can see Hiko-nyan, Hikone’s nationally famous official mascot posing for tourists for 30 min. He is basically a white cat with a horned samurai helmet modeled after Naomasa’s helmet. Modeled after the beckoning cat, Hiko-nyan was created for the 400th anniversary in 2007. Back in 2007, the crowds came to see Hiko-nyan rather than the castle or the 400th anniversary exhibits.
Hikone Castle’s tenshu main tower.
If it’s not crowded (no people outside waiting in line), you can go up to the top of the tenshu (tenshukaku) main castle tower in a short time after going up a few steep stairs. (Take off your shoes when entering.) There’s no balcony outside, but the window views are nice. Hikone Castle’s main tower recycled parts of Otsu Castle and was brought here in 1606 and completed in 1607. However, the entire castle wasn’t completed until 1622 after 20 years of construction. Since Hikone Castle was regarded as a strategically important castle to fend off any rebellious opposition from western Japan, its construction was a national project with labor and materials coming from other castles. However, the Edo Period was largely peaceful and Hikone Castle was never attacked.
Hikone Castle has one of the five main castle towers in Japan that is original and designated as a National Treasure. The others are Himeji, Matsumoto, Matsue, and Inuyama Castles. One reason why Hikone Castle’s main tower is a National Treasure is because it has many different types of roof features on one building (photo above). Its survival among the thousands of castles that have come and gone in Japan over the centuries is quite miraculous. What with feudal wars, lightning-caused fires, earthquakes, Meiji Era decimation of feudal castles, and World War II bombings, Hikone Castle is still standing.
Hikone Castle’s main tower and plum blossoms in March.
Although the tenshu main tower was the most prominent building, the daimyo castle lord did not live in it. It was mainly a glorious symbol and storehouse for samurai armor and other artifacts of past Hikone daimyo. The castle lord’s residence (reconstructed as Hikone Castle Museum) was the palace at the foot of the mountain.
After visiting the main tower, walk behind on the left to a park-like area anchored by the L-shaped Nishinomaru Sanju-yagura turret (西の丸三重櫓) on the far end.
Nishinomaru Sanju-yagura turret faces the lake.
You can also go up the three-story turret.
Nishinomaru Sanju-yagura turret is the third and last venue of the 410th anniversary exhibitions. It is said to have been the tenshu castle tower of Odani Castle in Nagahama. To enter, take off your shoes.
Inside Nishinomaru Sanju-yagura.
The first room has large panels explaining about other Japanese castles like Edo, Wakayama, Fukuoka, Yashimanoki, Iinoya, and Takamatsu which is Hikone’s sister castle since 1966. No English here. These panels will be displayed until July 9. From July 13 to Dec. 10, this building will show scale models of Japanese castles.
In the back room is a makeshift theater. Nishinomaru Sanju-yagura’s main highlight is a 10-min. fictional CG anime about the design and construction of Hikone Castle, centering on the architect, Yasozaemon. English subtitles provided, but not perfect. For example in the video, naiko (内湖) was translated as “Lake Naiko.” It’s not the name of any lake, it’s just a generic word for an attached lake on the fringe of Lake Biwa.
There will be a Part 2 video about the building of Hikone’s castle town that will be shown at from Aug. to Dec.
More short videos of castles.
There’s also a smaller video monitor showing short videos of other castles. Most impressive was the CG animation of what Azuchi Castle may have looked like. Super gorgeous castle. It’s so sad it was attacked and set afire three years after it was completed.
After seeing the exhibits and video, go up the three-story turret tower via steep stairs.
Top floor of the three-story Nishinomaru Sanju-yagura.
View of the lake from the top of the three-story turret.
Nishinomaru Sanju-yagura turret has the closest views of the lake. No balcony, but windows are open (if it’s not raining).
All these 410th anniversary special exhibitions and videos are good, but probably do not live up to the hype and viral PR video. The special exhibitions might not be a must-see, but Hikone Castle is a must-see. if it will be your first visit to Hikone, the special exhibitions will add a nice touch.
After Nishinomaru Sanju-yagura, visit Genkyuen Garden by taking the quiet stone steps down to Kuromon Gate (follow the sign). The garden doesn’t have anything related to the 410th anniversary. Be aware that the garden pond is being repaired so the water might be partially drained as of March and April 2017. (Not very photogenic without the pond water.)
I hope this post will help you understand the 410th anniversary and castle better.