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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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./Location||1. Hachimangu||2. Shrine path||3. Kanaya Park||4. Hikiyama Museum||5. Arcade intersection||6. Kurokabe Square||7. Otabisho|
|Float No. 1|
|10:00–10:45 am||12:00–12:45 pm||2:00–2:45 pm||4:00–4:45 pm|
|Float No. 2|
|11:15–11:55 am||1:15–1:55 pm||3:15–3:55 pm||5:15–5:55 pm|
|Float No. 3|
|12:25–1:05 pm||2:25–3:05 pm||4:25–5:05 pm||6:25–7:05 pm|
|Float No. 4|
|1:35–2:15 pm||3:35–4:15 pm||5:35–6:15 pm||7:35–8:15 pm|
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.
For festival details in Japanese, see or download the official festival guide book pdf.