A great day trip from Kyoto is to Nagahama and it’s even better if you can time it to be there on the 15th of April for the annual Nagahama Hikiyama festival (matsuri). It’s a float festival where Kabuki theatre is played out by local boys aged between 5 and 12. Kabuki is traditionally only acted by men (boys) and this festival is no different, even the female roles are played by the boys.
We’d expected a schoolyard performance but the whole event was extremely professional, the floats meticulously maintained and the boys took it all very seriously with no scripts or prompting. I was so impressed, their parents and the town of Nagahama should be so proud of their efforts and ability.
The show is held in the Nagahama Hachiman Shrine in the morning. Following that, throughout the day the floats are pulled through the narrow streets stopping in various spots for the show to continue on. The Hachiman-gu shrine has a history that goes back over 1000 years old and the festival itself has its own history linked to Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Japans second great unifier.
Hideyoshi is said to have presented the gold dust that decorates the 12 festival floats to the people of the castle town as part of a celebration. The floats are extremely ornate with detailed carving, tapestry and gold leaf work. There is a museum in town where you can see some of the floats on display during the rest of the year but seeing them out in use during the festival was fantastic. If you can’t make it to this one it’s well worth getting to at least one festival in Japan where the floats are pulled through the streets, it takes some serious teamwork and strength.
The Kabuki itself is of course all in Japanese but you almost forget that as you watch the show. The atmosphere, costumes, opulence of the floats and acting made it well worth taking the trip even without understanding a word of what was going on.
One of the things I like best about this festival is that Nagahama is off the major tourist circuit so even during the festival we only saw a handful of other western visitors in town. This means that the locals engage with you a lot more, which is a fun part of travelling in another country even when the language barrier limits the depth of the conversation.
I guess because it was a little unusual I also got singled out by a couple of determined Japanese gentlemen with expensive camera equipment who asked my husbands permission to photograph me against the backdrop of the town. It was funny but a little awkward, I’m gawky in front of the camera at the best of times, I like to be the one with control of the shutter.
Nagahama is a really pretty town and famous for its glasswork, while you are in town wander through Kurokabe square and take a look at the small shops and temples. A traditional meal here is served in a hotpot style, many of the local restaurants seemed to offer it and it was flavoursome and warming, even in spring it can be a bit chilly.
Back out the other side of the train station towards lake Biwa is the castle and park. Cherry blossoms are a feature in season and while the castle is a replica it’s a great backdrop to the blossom and hanami parties that were going on.
The celebrations were quite a bit more casual here which I guess is typical of a small town anywhere, we particularly enjoyed the smaller children running around and playing with the fallen blossom while the teenagers had a sing-a-long under the trees.
Nagahama is about 75 kilometres out of Kyoto on the eastern side of Lake Biwa. If you have a JR Pass or are willing to take the Shinkansen combined with a local train it will take about 45 minutes, alternatively, take a combination of the special rapid and local train and it will take about an hour and 10 minutes.
The scenery of the lake and passing through rural towns is really beautiful. When we went in wintertime there was quite a bit of snow on the ground as we passed through making it look like a perfect picture postcard. It’s worth remembering you are travelling directly inland towards the centre of the country so it is significantly cooler, where areas like Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo rarely get snow, in Nagahama in February the paths were kept clear but there was snow on the ground and piled at the side of the path.
If you go to the festival in spring however the weather will be mild and it should coincide with some good cherry blossoms in the parks.
Have you been to a festival in Japan? What did you enjoy most about it?