Hiraoka Matsuri: A Japanese Festival

The beating of drums can be heard from miles away. Dozens of men chant and carry around a taikodai, a mobile drum platform as heavy as a car. It’s to celebrate the local god’s birthday, and it’s quite a spectacle to behold.

This festival was in Hiraoka, my girlfriend’s hometown. Each taikodai represents a different section of her hometown, so they are all uniquely decorated, and carried only by residents of that part. Taikodai roughly translates to “drum platform,” conveyed on large logs and housing, of course, a big drum in the center, where several men also sit and beat on it. They parade up and down the pathways of Hiraoka Shrine, to the adulation of many townsmen and women alike, who’ve been attending this festival since they were children.

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It was Packed with a capital P– shoulder-to-shoulder wherever you went. There were at least a dozen taikotai, and as each one went down the street, the other residents would follow. There were designated leaders on both sides, and when they blew their whistles the men would turn the entire thing around. Wow, was it impressive! You can tell just how heavy these are, from how much you can see the carriers struggling. It’s so miserable that it’s tradition to get drunk, because how else can you carry a freaking car on your shoulder? On top of that, the shrine grounds were built into a hill, so you get to see them do a half-drunken, completely human-powered, about-face turn on a 30-degree incline! More than once, some men would lose their footing and they would sway side to side, pushing the crowd into each other and almost knocking over food stalls. It was awesome.

Speaking of food stalls, if you will allow the comparison, a lot of the festival reminded me of LA County Fair, or American county fairs in general. There were whole grilled squids, takoyaki (fried balls of batter with octopus, topped with Kewpie mayonnaise and a teriyaki-like sauce), okonomoyaki (savory cabbage pancakes, usually with pork, squid, and a fried egg), yakisoba (stir fried noodles in soy sauce), karaage (Japanese-style fried chicken), freshly-baked rice crackers, castella (Japanese sponge cake), taiyaki (fish-shaped pastries often stuffed with sweet beans or custard) and hell, even corn dogs and French fries. Point is, there was a heck of a lot of traditional Japanese comfort and junk food, and there were even booths to catch goldfish and various games like shooting galleries.

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Of course, it is all to honor the local god to whom Hiraoka Shrine is home. A dazzling spectacle, steeped in hundreds of years of tradition.

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A closeup of Rika’s hometown taikodai.

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