The Karakuri Marionettes Of Takayama
We arrived late. And in the race up to the night festival and back, we left with little or no impression of this historic market town, in the heart of the larger Takayama city.
On our return the next morning, after a night at an Onsen nearby, its medieval charm and picturesque setting, took us completely by surprise!
Presiding over the centre from a considerable height, was the 4th century Sakurayama Hachimangu shrine. And parked on the main street down below, were the 10 Yatai, looking none the worse for last evening’s exertions.
Although over run by local tourists, here to witness the Matsuri, the photo ops were endless. And not surprisingly, I got separated from my group a number of times. They seemed to just vanish into thin air every time I stopped to peer into my view finder!
Around midday the crowd surged forward towards the shrine and I followed in its wake, certain that my sister and friends, without the distractions of gathering blog fodder, were already up there.
Tucked into a corner of the packed quadrangle, was the eleventh Yatai – the Hoteitai – that was to be the stage for the Karakuri Ningyo, a mechanical marionette performance, dedicated to the Kami or residing deity of the shrine.
And waving out to me, from a vantage point she wasn’t about to give up even to go look for a missing sibling, was my exasperated sister 🙂
We learnt that the wooden marionettes are attached to 36 invisible strings which pass along a trough in the projecting arm. These are connected to push rods inside the float that are manipulated by nine skilled puppet masters.
The three main puppet characters are the Hoteitai (the God of Fortune) and two ‘child’ dolls – a boy and a girl, all garbed in gorgeous silk brocade. The complex acrobatics of the little dolls atop trapeze like bars, and the leap onto Hoteitai’s shoulders elicit approving cheers from the audience. Once they attain their perch, Hoteitai’s fan splits open with a bang, and a Nobori flag unfurls bearing the message “Flaunt not your high virtues and knowledge, share them with the masses”
Like all temple related puppet and dance shows across Asia, this story is replayed year after year, and to the same reverent attention and applause! Took me back to the mesmerising Yakshagana and Bhoothakola performances of my childhood and the oft repeated myth and folklore passed down through uncounted generations.
While the skill of the Karakuri puppeteers was thrilling to witness, a little known fact about the puppets, that I unearthed after my return, tainted my memory of the event.
The springs that ensure the smooth, lifelike movements of their limbs I discovered, are made from the baleen of critically endangered Right Whales, as they have traditionally been since the Edo period. No metal or plastic substitutes can reproduce the same fluidity of movement, nor can one made from any other whale baleen!
Following is the summation of an article from the Japan Whaling Association website:
“I heartily sympathize with the people working devotedly for the continuation of whaling. I wish to encourage them to keep up with their efforts. This time, we could manage to repair the important national cultural property in Takayama. But there is no guarantee that we can secure whale baleen in the future. Substitute springs made of steel or plastics will deprive us of one of Japan’s traditional cultures.”
I am a great fan of the Japanese passion for perfection. But in this instance, the less subtle movements of the Karakuri Ningyo would be a very minor compromise.
Related articles: The Takayama Hachiman Matsuri