Streets filled with Magic
The two day Takayama Spring Festival was almost worth the ticket to Japan alone. It's rated as one of the three most beautiful festivals in Japan. According to the Internet, accommodation books up months in advance, and I couldn't find anything online. I was on the verge of skipping the festival, when thanks to a disorganised and odd gold-toothed monk responsible for bookings at the Tenshoji-in youth hostel, I was able to get my own room for both nights at the last minute.
There is a spring festival and an autumn festival, which have been taking place for at least several hundred years. Special yatai – elaborate parade floats – are brought out of storage for the festival. Eight of them were lined up in one street in the old town, with four others in the square. They are tall two tiered structures with black lacquer and gold plates, incredible wooden carvings of dragons, lions and fish jumping off the sides, with thick brocade embroidered fabric, mirrors, painted wood and tapestries – exquisite artistry on display.
To me they looked like they'd just time-travelled from the past, with a sparkle of magic still around them. Looking at them lined up together I could picture them in the Japan of days gone past – rolling down dirt streets without electricity, treasures unveiled to the awe of the peasants.
Three yatai in the main square featured Karakuri ningyo or marionette performances depicting Japanese fairy tales. The first shows a young boy who puts on the mask of an old man. The second and most thrilling was the story of a young boy who meets an old man and brings him home to take care of him. The old man drinks a lot and is bad-tempered – in a dream the boy realises that the old man is really a dragon spirit, so he puts the man in a box when he is drunk and carries him to an island to leave him there. When the old man awakes alone on the island his dragon spirit emerges. I'm not sure about the moral of this story (don't help old people?) but the third was so saucy it was banned for decades. A young girl is dancing a lion dance and suddenly a lion emerges from under her kimono. Powerful stuff!
In addition to the marionette performances there was a parade each day with lion dancers, towns people dressed in traditional costumes playing reed flutes and drums, carrying portable shrines – it was large and impressive. I saw this parade after following a small splinter parade group of 20 people who were about 15 minutes ahead of the rest, and who got lost up a side street while I and two other tourists were following them.
After this there was the night festival – when the all floats were strung with paper lanterns and wheeled through the streets of the old town, with small children seated on the floats playing flutes. Aside from the crowds of pushy Asian tourists – outnumbering the Westerners, it was a beautiful sight.