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Recently inducted into the UNESCO Intangible Heritage List, along with The Tsuchizaki Shinmei Shrine Festival in Akita City and the Hanawa Festival in Kazuno City, the Kakunodate Festival is a float festival located in Semboku, Akita. Floats are crashed into each other in a huge display and are pulled into each other by people on the ground over and over again, while flute players and taiko drummers keep constant music flowing from within the wooden vehicles. Youths on top of the hikiyama floats use their lanterns and chants to guide the pullers and pushers on strategy. The victorious floats earn the right of way to continue, but the loser turns tail. Floats continue moving down the street until they meet another, and yet another battle starts.
The awe and spectacle of the sport has pushed Kakunodate Festival easily into my top list of favorite Akita Festivals.
I arrived on the very last day, September 9, to Kakunodate, arriving a few hours earlier to find parking. Some of the streets were blocked off for the festival, and food stalls were already out. Activities on the streets were sparse around 5:30, but moving towards late 6PM, people began streaming out and crowding the area. The weather was perfect, though – I wasn’t sweating like at Kanto.
After walking around a bit and perusing the stalls, I encountered a pair of floats facing each other. They were about to fight! ….or so I thought. The wait for the big battle ended up being about an hour long, in which the members of each team discussed strategy and prepared the floats for rope-pulling and crashes. People were starting to crowd around the float, finding the best spots for watching the show. Since we had gotten there fairly early, we had front row seats. As a result, the wait was long and arduous, but worth it in the end.
The first crash of the floats is the most magical moment. A loud bang reverberates in the air as the two wooden structures crash against each other. The shouts of the men on board the floats, combined with the sounds of the taiko drums and flute, makes for a cacophony of noises designed to instill in spectators and float-pullers alike a sense of amusement and wonder. The two men standing on the very top of the float were precariously holding on while waving their lanterns back and forth, signaling to their team members on the ground when and how to pull the ropes that drag the floats into one another. One man, who seemed to be the leader, was very obviously used to the game and walked around in a casual fashion on top of the moving float, unafraid of being crushed by the one being pulled into his own.
Multiple times, one of the floats rolled down the street, only to be met again by the other that chased it down. It was getting further and further away from view. In between the chase sessions, long scene of pulling ropes played out. With, unfortunately, no movement from the floats being pulled – so it was actually a pretty bland scene. This lasted for an hour or two before I decided to move on to the next one. I was chasing after the perfect clash to film.
The next and last fight I saw was on a very narrow street. The wait seemed even longer than the last, although an old woman rolling her babahera cart through a parted crowd in such a narrow alleyway made for an amusing situation.
When the floats started fighting, though, the thrill began. The bang wasn’t as loud or as dramatic as the first, but the rest of the fight was much better. Close quarters meant the teams had to be very careful not to bump into the crowds and the floats were always corrected back into position. It was easier to see the movement of the floats, straining to slide one way or the other, with the only way to move backwards or forwards. I could have watched that second one for a long time, but it was getting late. So I left before 11PM, and before watching a float win, but the experience was thrilling.
The last day of the Kakunodate Matsuri seems to be when locals hold the actual float fights. The other days are specifically tailored to tourists who come, so fights are scheduled. On the last day, floats only fight if they really do happen upon each other. They aren’t scheduled, but a board is erected in a public area, with figures of floats constantly moved on it, indicating where floats were at that particular point in time and if they were currently in battle. Ones facing each other were about to start a fight. The festival lasts until late past midnight on the last night and many people take the first train back in the morning. The Kakunodate Matsuri is held annually from September 7-9. The nearest station is Kakunodate Station on the Tazawako Line. Kakunodate Station may also be reached by Akita Shinkansen.