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 nearbyits medieval charm and picturesque setting, took us completely by surprise!

View towards the Sakurayama Hachimangu Shrine
Sakurayama Hachimangu Shrine. Dating back to the 4th century, this shrine was enlarged in 1683.

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.

The Yatai displayed in the main street
A Kami (temple deity) procession

Long narrow streets crisscrossed the town, interspersed with bridges and numerous smaller shrines and traditional timber homes.

An art gallery in a traditional building

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!

Endearing flautists entertaining the crowds!
The Yatai Gumi and their families, awaiting the return of their Yatai.

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.

A bronze horse in the square

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

Hoteitai and the two ‘child’ dolls on his shoulder. Note the fine details on garments, the little doll’s gold brocade slippers and the chest hair!!

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.

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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!

Related articles: The Takayama Hachiman Matsuri

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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

54 thoughts on “The Karakuri Marionettes Of Takayama

  1. Madhu, I’ve unfortunately been too busy lately to have forays into the blogosphere, but I’ve now been enjoying your posts from Japan. How long were you there?

  2. Love the pictures, Madhu. 🙂 Japan (especially its rural areas) is in my want-to-see list and your account of your travel is such a pleasure to read.
    I am glad too that you chose not to gloss over the hidden environmental issue in the hoteitai tradition. Like your other readers, I hope that the use of balleens will soon go the way of dinosaurs.

  3. Oh no, at first I was going to write how beautiful they are and then I read about the baleen and that ruined it for me. Such a pity. I know traditions are important, but so is the planet and all of its inhabitants.

  4. I can feel the culture through your photos, Madhu! It takes me straight back to our visits years ago! Never chanced upon Tacayama – but it looks like such a stunning and festive sanctuary!

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