Inuyama April Festival – centuries of tradition come alive

Inuyama sits on the river Kiso which is lined with cherry trees and has one of the five castles designated as a National Treasure in Japan. But neither of these sights were why we were spending three nights there. We wanted to see and experience the Inuyama Festival which is held each year at the beginning of April. It started in 1635 and has been evolving since, but the main procession consists of thirteen beautifully decorated three storey giant floats that are pushed by teams of men through the town up to the shrine to be blessed. Turning and manoeuvring them involves a lot of muscle and as each float successfully negotiates a turn, the crowd applauds. Children dressed in the most spectacular costumes sit in the floats, playing recorders or beating drums.

So we left our hotel early and walked along the banks of the Kiso up to the castle eager to see the floats in action. We were not disappointed.

Soon, we saw the first float in the distance on the Main Street leading to the castle and the shrine. People jostled even at that early hour to get photos of it as it came near. The black lacquer, red awnings, golden trims on the children’s costumes gleaming in the sunshine.  The second float was in the shape of a boat with a cockerel’s head at the front.

The teams pushing the floats were also in costume but theirs were faded from many washings and the number of differently coloured scarves tied round their waists signified how many times they had taken part in the festival. Soon we saw them in action as the first float had to turn left to go to the area where they all gather before getting blessed at the shrine. The man in charge as the front claps two blocks together when it is time for them to push and the huge wheels make a grinding noise as all three storeys shudder and the float turns. It must be a bit frightening for the children inside the float.

There were photographers everywhere, from local news teams, professionals, go-pro addicts, grannies on phones especially if their grand children were on the floats and even the team members pushing snapped pictures when the floats stopped as they queued up to take their turn going into the main square. The pushers were in great spirits, grinning at anyone taking their picture and looking forward to enjoying the beers and snacks in the little backup carts that came behind each float.

The children were captivating, but difficult to photograph as they were under awnings that shaded them at the back of the floats. They had their backs to us to show of their costumes to best advantage, but I wanted to see smiles and costumes. Once the floats were parked in the display area, the children were lifted down on to their fathers shoulders for photgraphs and then carried through the streets.

The floats all gather in the square for everyone to admire, the pushers celebrate with beer and then later in the afternoon, they make a return journey, but this time stopping to be blessed in front of the shrine and the top tier of the float draws back its curtains to reveal mechanical puppets which are operated by people hiding beneath them. A musical group headed by two dancing lions parades with them down the street. Each float goes then to its specially designed ‘garage’ which are located all over the town. There it is covered with 365 lanterns ready for the evening’s display.

The atmosphere is wonderful. The streets are full of people, lots of families with young children and because there are thirteen floats and the organisers keep the crowd moving, there is plenty of room for everyone to see and to get quite close to take pictures. Street food is everywhere and it is difficult to resist. We tried takoyaki, octopus in balls of batter and sweet buns. We avoided the chef with the cigarette dangling as he cooked!

The atmosphere at night is different. The lanterns glow with the candles and the turning of the floats is even more dramatic. We saw only one lantern fall though. There are lots of sideshows to keep the children amused. We watched one toddler trying very hard to catch a goldfish!

A very memorable weekend of tradition, colour, people and food.

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