Yamakasa (山笠)

A "yamakasa" refers to a ceremonial implement used in shrine festivals, the form of which is similar to that of a mikoshi (portable shrine carried in festivals) or a dashi (float). It is used mainly in rites and festivals in the northern part of Kyushu, and the term 'yamakasa' is also used as an abbreviation for it. The term 'yamakasa' is often abbreviated to 'yama' in daily conversation.

Summary

The name 'yamakasa' is believed to have spread from the Hakata Gion Yamakasa Festival. The origin of the word is unknown. The style of yamakasa has been changed several times in Hakata. At present, there is a diversity in the styles of yamakasa after it was spread to other regions in each phase of development and it was further developed individually in each region. In addition, people in some regions borrowed only the name 'yamakasa' from the Hakata Gion Yamakasa Festival for a ritual utensil used in their festivals, although these utensils themselves did not originate from Hakata.

Many yamakasa are built before a festival each year, and dismantled soon after it ends. It is likely meant to ward off evil gathered during a yamakasa parade. Yamakasa have this in common with yamahoko floats of the Gion Festival in Kyoto. However, some yamakasa are permanently exhibited at places such as tourist resorts, facilities for the preservation of yamakasa.

Decoration Styles

There are various styles of yamakasa decoration, and some yamakasa combine several styles. Decoration styles differ from region to region, even if the yamakasa are classified as the same type. Some types of yamakasa differ in styles from area to area, even if the areas belong to the same region.

Sasa Yamagasa

A simple yamakasa made by placing bamboo on a shrine, Shinto altar, etc., which is carried and moved at festivals.

One theory has it that the Hakata Gion Yamakasa Festival originated from the fact that people walked in procession, carrying a segakidana (a rack on which foods are offered during a service for the benefit of suffering spirits). Therefore, the sasa yamagasa is said to retain the features of the earliest form of yamakasa.

In some cases, it is regarded as a form of a yamakasa, the shape of which is changed several times during a festival. There are only few festivals in which the yamakasa retains the shape of a sasa yamagasa to the end.

Nobori Yamagasa

A yamakasa to which several nobori (flags, banners, streamers) are attached. Yamakasa with a high proportion of nobori decorations are called nobori yamakasa, although their styles differ widely, and include a style with nobori surrounding the shrine, a style with nobori fixed to top of the float, etc.

A moving nobori yamagasa decorated with dolls is drawn in a painting which depicts the Hakata Gion Yamakasa Festival in the early Edo period.

Iwa Yamagasa

A decorated yamakasa used to display a scene with dolls and a landscape made by placing ornaments such as those representing rocks, streams and yakata (yamakasa decoration in the shape of a house).

It was designed by yamagasa eshi painters in Hakata. The frame is made of timber, on which ornaments are placed close together.

Iwa yamagasa are also used in regions other than Hakata. However, a yamakasa of the Kanda Yamagasa Festival is also called an iwa yamagasa, because components called iwa (rocks) are attached to it. The latter iwa yamagasa of the Kanda Yamagasa Festival differs in appearance from the former iwa yamagasa.

Ningyo Yamakasa

A yamakasa decorated with dolls. Iwa yamagasa are also decorated with dolls, which are also placed on some nobori yamagasa. However, ningyo yamakasa often refers to a yamakasa with a composition in which dolls play an especially important role.

Chochin Yamakasa

A yamakasa with many chochin (paper lanterns) placed in shapes such as a square pyramid, a right-angled parallelepiped or a plane. They are moved mainly at night, and there are many chochin yamakasa that are moved in a different form during the daytime.

Groups

In terms of the styles for decorating a yamakasa with dolls, a yamakasa may be called 'XX-kei Yamagata' (XX Group Yamagata) where 'XX' refers to the name of a place which is believed to be the origin of a type of yamakasa with particular features.

Hakata Group

A yamakasa used in the Hakata Gion Yamakasa Festival. It was differentiated into two types, namely, kazari yamakasa (a decorated yamakasa) and kaki yamakasa (a yamakasa to be carried), during the Meiji period.

A Hakata-kei Yamakasa (Hakata Group Yamakasa) refers to a yamakasa that has the same style as a present-day kazari yamakasa.
It was originally moved during a festival, and is also called 'Hakata-kei Iwa Yamakasa'
A scene is displayed by placing ornaments depicting rocks and streams, a yakata and dolls all over the yamakasa. This type of yamakasa is made to be viewed mainly from the front and the rear sides. Its form is generally well-known. When yamagasa eshi painters originally drew preliminary sketches, ornaments and dolls were asymmetrically arranged on the basis of their viewpoints about landscape composition. However, after the differentiation into two types of yamakasa, doll makers came to arrange ornaments instead of painters. Therefore, a new viewpoint about composition has been introduced. At present, in some yamakasa, important dolls are placed in the middle, around which other dolls and ornaments are placed symmetrically.

A Hakata-kei Kaki Yamakasa refers to a yamakasa that has the same style as a present-day kaki yamakasa. Its form is also generally well-known. However, it is peculiar because the ornaments consist only of one doll and its attachments. It is used only in regions which are closely related to the Hakata Gion Yamakasa Festival in particular, or in regions where people began to hold a yamakasa festival after the differentiation into two types in Hakata. When people lowered the height of a yamakasa in many other regions, they kept its main feature, that is, the construction of a scene by decorating it with a yakata, ornaments expressing landscape elements such as rocks and several dolls. They changed the shape of the yamakasa by reducing the height but keeping the other features unchanged.

Tsuyazaki Group

A yamakasa in the same style as seen in the present-day Tsuyazaki Gion Yamakasa Festival. It is similar to that of a Hakata-kei Kazari Yamakasa except its height which is shorter than that of the latter kazari yamakasa, and is moved during the festival in the same way as a kaki yamakasa. The ornaments are arranged asymmetrically.

Nogata Group

A yamakasa in the same style as seen in the present-day Nogata Gion Yamakasa Festival. A main hall placed in the middle of the yamakasa is surrounded by dolls so that they can be seen from the front and the rear sides. The decoration extends transversally with ornaments and dolls which are placed in a largely symmetrical arrangement.

This type of yamakasa can often be seen in Chikuho region.

Hita Group

A yamakasa in the same style as seen in the Hita Gion Matsuri Festival. Compared with other types, the main feature of this yamakasa is that it is made to be seen from all sides. Current examples include a scene constructed by placing dolls at the front of this yamakasa. However, some insist that originally no dolls were placed on these yamakasa. Instead of dolls, a glittering curtain (miokuri, or "seeing off") is attached to the rear of the yamakasa.

In Hita, the formal name of this ritual utensil is 'yamahoko.'
But the utensil of the same group is also called 'yamakasa' in some regions.

Hamasaki Group

A yamakasa in the same style as seen in the present-day Hamasaki Gion Yamagasa Festival. This yamakasa, which is classified as an iwa yamagasa, shares common features with yamakasa of the Hakata group, which include decorations such as a yakata, ornaments representing rocks and streams, and dolls, as well as the fact that it can be seen from the front and the rear sides. It features characteristic decoration that emphasizes the length by using yaridashi (ramal components fixed to columns of a yamakasa) and a lower shelf. There is a rule to attach yaridashi alternately from side to side, and the ornaments are arranged asymmetrically. This type of yamakasa can be often seen in the northern part of Saga Prefecture.

Moving a Yamakasa

There are various ways of moving a yamakasa.
They can be broadly classified into the following types:

Kaki Yamakasa

A yamakasa which is carried and moved by people bearing it on their shoulders by means of poles. This type of yamakasa is often moved in such a way as to avoid vertical vibration as much as possible. Unlike a mikoshi, it is not shaken up and down wildly during a parade except in some particular places.

Hiki Yamakasa

A yamakasa with wheels to be moved by towing. There are various forms of float.

Some hiki yamakasa have carrying poles at the front and rear, making them look like kaki yamakasa at first sight.

Kazari Yamakasa

Unlike a kaki yamakasa or a hiki yamakasa, a kazari yamakasa is not moved, but it is only displayed as a decoration. There are no criteria that define a kazari yamakasa by the amount of decoration. The name 'kazari yamakasa' can be used to mean 'a decorated yamakasa' in some cases.

Kodomo Yamakasa

It is dangerous for adults and children to move a yamakasa together because children differ from adults in physique and physical strength. It is physically impossible for adults and children to carry a kaki yamakasa together if they differ in shoulder height. For this reason, kodomo yamakasa are moved separately from actual yamakasa in many festivals so that children can become familiar with a festival by participating from a young age, which contributes to the training of successors for the festival.

In some regions, the clothing and participation of children are regulated in the same way as those of adults as much as possible in order to train children as successors. However, in some cases, adults carry a kaki yamakasa, while children pull a hiki yamakasa. Children wear different clothes from those of adults in some regions. Practices therefore vary from region to region. For details, refer to the section for each yamakasa.

Many amateur photographers who took pictures in Hakata or Iizuka where parade participants wear a fundoshi shimekomi (loincloth), enter photography contests or upload them to ordinary websites, weblogs, image boards and so on. However, on the other hand, there is no end of sinister cases in which photographers behave improperly, upload pictures to unwholesome image boards, or reproduce them from normal websites without permission. For this reason, taking pictures is prohibited or restricted in some regions.

Iizuka Gion Yamagasa Festival

Each town has a kodomo yamakasa for this festival. While adults carry a kaki yama (kaki yamakasa), children pull a hiki yama (hiki yamakasa). Children do not wear a fundoshi shimekomi, but a hantako (male underwear) or sportswear and a mizu happi (happi coat). Kodomo yamakasa lessons are held separately. In these lessons, children carry a kaki yama as adults do. They also wear the same clothes as adults, namely a fundoshi shimekomi and a mizu happi.

Clothing

Since the Meiji period there has been a rule in Hakata that a kakite (carrier) must wear a mizu hanten (traditional short coat as worn at festivals) and a fundoshi shimekomi. In other yamakasa festivals in Fukuoka City, its outskirts, and Saga Prefecture, a kakite must wear a mizu happi and a fundoshi shimekomi as a rule. But carriers in many other regions do not wear a fundoshi shimekomi anymore, so now wear steteko (men's underwear). Festivals in which a kakite wears a fundoshi shimekomi became the minority, while a kakite must wear a suteteko in festivals in Kitakyushu City, the most part of Chikuho, and Oita Prefecture as a rule. In Hakata, Hamasaki, or Ashibetsu in Hokkaido, a shimekomi, which can be also called a mawashi in regions except Hakata, refers to a sailcloth (a thicker cotton cloth, which is softer and thinner than a mawashi (sumo wrestler's belt)) with a width of 44cm (18cm for children) and a length of 5m. In Iizuka, a shimekomi refers to a sarashi (bleached cloth) with a length of 5 m. Each type of shimekomi is worn by tightening in the same way as a mawashi for a sumo wrestler. But a maedare (an apron) is often worn in front.

Festivals with Yamakasa

Yamakasa are used in many Gion Festivals held from June to July in various regions in the northern part of Kyushu. Yamakasa are also used in some Kunchi autumn festivals. Sizes of festivals, types of yamakasa, and the methods of moving a yamakasa vary from region to region. The regional culture is displayed in each festival, which is the pride of the local people.