The Takayama Hachiman Matsuri

No temple festival in India is complete without a procession of the temple chariot around town. Like the Rath Yatra of Lord Jagannath in Puri for example…..that incidentally gave the English language the word ‘Juggernaut’!

Originating in the early 17th century, as thanksgiving for a good harvest, and to mark the onset of winter, the Takayama Hachiman Matsuri is also a ‘temple car’ festival. Taking place annually on 9 & 10 October, this autumn festival, is considered one of three most beautiful festivals in Japan, along with Kyoto’s Gion Matsuri and the Chichibu Matsuri in Saitama.

Lion dance performed by local children

But looking at scores of people sitting on kerbs and patiently awaiting the start of the festivities, this seems a far cry from the assault on the senses that is an Indian religious celebration!

A haunting flute like melody and the banging of drums, herald the arrival of the first floats, and the buzz of anticipation heightens. But it is still so amazingly calm and orderly, as it can perhaps, only be in Japan!

And then the procession begins.

Close-up of Gojintai yatai

Eleven gorgeously hand crafted Yatai (floats) having wound their way across town, finally sail into view. Each a testimony to the superior craftsmanship of this ancient town. Each decorated with intricate wood carving and exquisite silk drapery. Each topped with unique gilded crests, whose meanings we were hard-pressed to decipher…I spotted a phoenix here, a golden turtle there! Every single Yatai decked in myriad lanterns, bathing the onlookers in glowing cascades of amber light.

The Jimmatai Yatai, with the Karakuri Ningyo (marionettes) on top

There are no barricades, and yet not one person steps out on to the street, or disturbs the proceedings in any way, until the whole procession comes to a halt right in front of us. No screaming, no jostling, no fear of pickpockets even! That the audience mostly comprises local tourists is likely one of the reasons 🙂

These original Yatai – designated Japan’s cultural patrimony – have been handed down from generation to generation for centuries, and are now owned by groups known as Yatai Gumi, who passionately maintain them in pristine condition.

And after hauling them through the main streets of Takayama in their distinctive costumes and amidst much fanfare, the Yatai Gumi apparently serenade their individual Yatai, back into their respective Yatai Gura (storehouses) with a special tune, unique to Takayama and sung only at the night festival.

We celebrate Deepavali in India today, and it is serendipitous that the subject for my entry for Frizztext’s story challenge ‘T’ was a colourful festival!

Wishing all my Indian readers, a magical and joyous festival of lights!

Stay tuned for a peek into the amazing Karakuri (marionette) performance in front of the Hachiman shrine on day 2 of the Takayama autumn festival. But not until I return home from our extended weekend with the children, and have had time to recover from the overdose of festive cheer (read artery clogging ‘Mithai’) 🙂

Related articles:
The Karakuri Marionettes Of Takayama
Other Posts On Japan

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Madhu is an Interior designer turned travel blogger on a long sabbatical to explore the world. When not crafting stories on The Urge To Wander, she's probably Tweeting @theurgetowander or sharing special moments on

94 thoughts on “The Takayama Hachiman Matsuri

    1. The floats move on wheels Frizz. It seemed pretty effortless, although that could be deceptive, with an equal number of persons pushing and pulling at the same time.

      1. thanks, now I saw the wheels! wonderful light effects – we have in Germany the yearly ritual of St. Martin who is riding a horse, followed by children with lanterns – the finish, surrounding a big fire: knight St. Martin spends a half of his warm coat and some bread

    1. Yes it was TBM! The floats were displayed along the main street the next morning, but the procession at night was a lot more atmospheric.

  1. It was interesting to read your side note on no jostling – would definitely make for a more enjoyable experience.

    1. Oh yes, especially since our last trip was to South America where we were expected to be constantly on guard!

    1. You would love it Boomie 🙂 They have a similar Spring festival on April 14th and 15th, in case you can’t make it in October. It is good that their dates are fixed unlike ours based on the Lunar calendar.

    1. Aah, kind of overdosed on the Mithai Kasturika! That is the worst part of Deepavali for a person with little self control when it comes to sweets 🙂 Hope you had a blast.

  2. What a colourful sight, Madhu. Your photos are really good, showing all the detail. So much work must have gone into these floats, and as you say, passion too. Thanks for sharing. Wonderful post. 🙂

    1. Glad you enjoyed this AD. All credit to the camera. I could never have taken these night shots with my old point and shoot 🙂

  3. Gorgeous colour, costumes and light! Street parades seem dull and boring here by comparison – maybe it’s the weather!

    1. Perhaps the energy levels rise with the heat 😀 Like ours here in India! Takayama is up in the hills and has distinct winter and summer seasons though.

    1. It was! But walking around the old town next morning – some of my ‘couple’ shots were from that day – was even more enjoyable.

  4. Gorgeous shots, as always! All the great details are remarkable. The calmness and uniformity can only be seen and experienced in Japan.

    1. Thank you Amy. We constantly marveled at their calm, polite behaviour! Can’t be good for stress, all that internalising 🙂

    1. Thank you Gilly. Guess you are right. This was beautiful, but not as much fun. Ours are more full bodied like our food 😀

  5. Wow … fantastic photo and a great story being told again. Just love the journey you take me on through Japan, the old and the new … those Yatai’s must weight some kilos and the guys that carry them don’t seem that strong.

    1. Thank you Viveka. Love having you join me on the journey 🙂
      The Yatai move on wheels, so I don’t think much carrying is involved.

  6. Thanks for glimpse of a wonderful Japanese festival, imagine those Yatai being cared for over the centuries, to be brought out and celebrated once a year … it must be important for the maintenance of Japanese life … such order, precision, attention to detail! Blessings for Deepavali, i wil light my candles here too 🙂

    1. Thank you Dadirri, that is so sweet of you 🙂
      Yes it is fascinating to think that these are the same floats that were pulled around town so many hundred years ago!

  7. It is such a joy to read your blog and learn so many new things. Great photos.

  8. I love any event that proceeds in an orderly fashion! This procession must have been a wonderful thing to experience, Madhu.

    1. It was Elisa. While our festvals are as colourful and full of energy and perhaps a lot more fun, the hassle of navigating the unruly crowds of revellers is very offputting.

  9. The first thing I have to say is brava – such beautifully clear night shots, Madhu! And to think you once claimed you couldn’t do night photography 🙂

    It’s so interesting how people in different cultures act out their reverence and awe and wonderful to think how such manifestations are all part of the same human emotions. Yet here we see, in the fabrication (and maintenance, obviously) of such intricate structures a level of devotion equal to the frenzied outpourings from our part of the world. The carts are extraordinarily beautiful – bright and colourful – and the participants (all male, Madhu?) in their traditional garb takes us back to ancient Japan – yet still firmly anchored in today in their simplicity and familiar ‘Japanese’ shapes.

    Belated happy Deepavali to you all.

    1. You remembered! The credit goes entirely to the new camera 🙂 And you noticed the all male participants! I thought I spotted a young girl in the close up of one of the Yatai’s, but that could be an exception. It would in any case be considered sacrilegious to allow a mere woman to handle temple proceedings even in India!
      Thank you for the Deepavali wishes and for sharing your thoughts 🙂

      1. So, I’ve forgotten – your new camera is what? Did you use a tripod? Really, those night time images are terrific testament to the camera if not.

        I’m so enjoying your Japanese trip – thanks for taking me along for free!

        1. No tripod, I was finding the extra bulk of the camera heavy enough! I found myself a lamppost to steady myself and just hoped for the best 🙂 Tried a few with the point and shoot and they turned out as bad as before. The camera is a Nikon 5100 and I am still feeling my way around it, but getting there hopefully.

  10. Madhu…what a treat to see this! They are simply gorgeous…and the thought that they’ve been handed down for centuries…just boggles my mind! Incredible artistry and craftsmanship. I wonder how heavy they are. I love the light that glows in the night from these lovely creations. Wonderful post and fabulous images! Thanks!

    1. Thank you Judy. I have photos of the Yatai from the next morning, when they were on display along the main street, in which the details are clearer. Having a hard time choosing which ones to include without cluttering up the post 🙂

    1. A far cry from our festivals right Deepa? I wonder whether ours have become worse because of the involvement of politicians and local goons. The smaller village festivals at home used to be delightful when I was growing up. Noisier, but not the crazy, frenzied chaos of today! Or perhaps it is just that we have way more people now 😀

      1. I think its just way too many people now. And because of the jostling crowds, our kids are missing out on some of these great festivals (rathyatra- cant even imagine it) or even going to some temples (like tirupathi), it would be pure torture 🙂

    1. I noticed how much lighter they were compared to our solid wood chariots. Quite like their earthquake proof houses 🙂 Thanks for stopping by IT.

  11. Your pictures are beautiful… Like you I observed the orderliness of people in Japan… On the daily commute trains in Tokyo, space can get tight and hairy but not elsewhere in the city and not in Kyoto where the pace is a tad slower… 🙂

    1. Thanks Eliz.
      I have been reading horror stories about groping and harassment of women in the subway trains of Tokyo! We did use the subway, but it wasn’t too crowded on those days. The busier sections are supposed to be so jam packed, I heard they have ‘pushers’ to shove people in!! Very politely of course 🙂

  12. What a magical visual treat ! I so love you and what your eyes bring to the rest of us mortals ! Keep shooting, it’s inspirational (to me!), dear Madhu ! XX

    1. You are too generous Shaheen! I just aim and shoot and show you what I see, no special skills involved at all. But thank you nevertheless for the sweet compliment 🙂

  13. Breathtaking photography and a beautiful narration of the annual festival. This post is has done full justice to the rich Japanese culture.

    Thank you Madhu!

    1. Oh thank you Dilip. More on the puppet show coming up! Felt like I couldn’t stop clicking, so you are forgiven in advance if you get bored 🙂

  14. Nothing like a night festival of lights. So magical and mesmerizing to watch. Before you even mentioned anything I noticed how not one person crossed the line…but watched while keeping their distance. So very orderly. Happy Deepavali to you.

    1. Quite unusual even in the west isn’t it? I have seen a lot of tourists flout rules during the Sema in Turkey or a Tango in BsAs or even clamber over ruins that are off limits. These people are amazing! Wonder whether they behave the same way when they travel! Thank you for the Deepavali wishes Lynne. We spent a fun few days with the kids 🙂

  15. I realise I am a week behind everyone else… but these shots are stunning, Madhu!! This is the Japan that so many of us dream about, with the glowing lanterns, the marionettes and the distinctive red colour! I too thought that the floats were carried, not wheeled along – clever how they painted the wheels black, they seem to disappear into the road!

  16. These photos are so glorious, Madhu! I’ve only seen photos of festival floats in daylight. These at night are absolutely magical.
    I also found interesting and entertaining your account of the differences between a festival procession in Japan and in India. Both exactly what I would expect!
    A very happy Diwali to you!

  17. Lovely! And how colourful. These pictures remind me of the Lunar New Year parade that happens in San Francisco.

  18. The Jimmatai Yatai’s my favourite…more homesickness for Japan! It’s so nice to ride along on your travels with you. Thanks for the ticket 🙂

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