Culture

Our Easter Hat Parades Have Nothing On Japan’s Hanagasa Festival

Brought to you by Japan National Tourism Organization

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Mention hat parades to Australians, and it’ll conjure images of fluffy felt chickens, chocolate eggs, and pink ribbon hot-glued to a bonnet – depending on the person, they might remember some tears and tantrums, too. It’s all a far cry from Yagamata’s Hanagasa Festival, which, frankly, puts even our best and brightest parades to shame.

Over three days in August, one million people line Yamagata’s city centre each year to watch 1000-plus people dance for hours on end. Synchronised to the drop, each group – sometimes up to 200 people each – perform the same dance steps again and again, most twirling around their identical bamboo hats.

 

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The same folk song, the Hanagasa Ondo, blasts on repeat over the parade’s co-opted kilometre strip of road. Even if your Japanese is the furthest from strong, it’s an undeniable ear-worm, a flourish of bells and flutes flooded from overhead speakers, met with live taiko-drumming from parade participants. Before long, you’ll be singing along to its kakegoe, aka refrain, a jolting yell of “yassho makasho!” from the dancers, which, seemingly, means little other than the energy it possesses of itself.

Small variations in the three-and-a-half hour parade keep things hypnotic, as does the enthused crowd, itself an attraction. Floats carrying local celebrities and community figures drive by; small groups of men carrying pole lanterns fill the space in-between parade groups, twirling their tinsel-adorned lanterns and throwing them to each other in a well-rehearsed routine.

Beginning only in 1963, Yagamata’s Hanagasa Festival has become one of Japan’s most distinct parades. While still honouring its original purpose – a celebration of the region’s historic role in Japan’s textile industry, represented by the faux red safflowers on most hats, fans and decorations – the festival has evolved over the years.

 

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While the parading elderly might stick to a classic hat-twirl choreography, school children and work teams often mix it up, incorporating all manner of moves. Given the sweltering heat, a dab here or a pom-pom routine from school cheerleaders adds a welcome breath of fresh air.

Street hawkers and vendors sell merchandise, frozen-treats and ice-cold beer throughout, too. All-in-all, it might be the most wholesome block party we’ve ever been to, even while being one of the Tohuku area’s biggest public events.

Though it’s imitated across the region’s smaller cities and towns, Yamagata’s Hanagasa Festival remains a singular experience in energy and sheer scope – and it remains off the tourist trail, too, with the influx of guests largely coming from across Japan. Here’s how to make the most of it, including getting involved without making a fool of yourself.

Sweaty Season

The Hanagasa Festival arrives in the middle of Japan’s summer. As in Australia, the nights are humid with energy, and relatively smaller cities like Yamagata (a mere quarter of a million) invite visitors in to celebrate the late sunsets.

The parade begins on Tokamachi’s main street, marching up to Yamagata’s old prefecture governing building (now housing a history museum well worth your time, too). It’s a 10-minute walk from the main train station. Even if it wasn’t ludicrously central, it’d be impossible to miss by sight, sound or slew of people making their way in.

Looking around, you’ll notice almost all seasoned spectators use hand fans to bat off the sticky summer air. You’d do well to follow suit, but for those who don’t come prepared, don’t worry: there are businesses handing out branded versions on the street. The air is pushed back-and-forth endlessly; we all alternate between fanning ourselves, our friends and the performers who parade by, completely unbothered by the humidity.

 

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Plus, you’re watching 80-year-old women in silk garb dance with more energy than you’ve ever mustered in your life. If they can do it, you have nothing to complain about. As the parade runs into the night, you’ll likely be met with a welcome breeze.

Cold drinks, frozen bananas coated in chocolate with googly eyes and all manner of treats on sale from street vendors will keep you cold, with yakitori and burgers readily available for a more substantial meal. Lanes to the side offer a little reprieve if you need a break from the action during dinner – our recommendation is a cluster of open-air bar restaurants on 2-chōme-1, where, in the corner, you’ll find the most intense and delicious okonomiyaki  of your life. Don’t shy away from the pickles on a stick, either. They’re more refreshing than the frostiest beer.

Get Festive

But wait, we need some context. Pay attention, too, as this will not be clear when you’re at the Hanagasa Festival, given there’s little English signage nor context given during the festivities.

Beginning in 1963, the festival pays tribute to the region’s three-century history as a producer of safflower, which creates a dye used in textiles across Japan. The festival’s bright colours, music and festive air echo the richness of the dye’s golden-pink hues, even if the flower’s largely used for oil now.

You’ll notice women and men have separate dances. The former keep to hat-twirling in front of their ever-marching feet, while men largely stick to routines with ornate lantern poles. In mixed groups, such as businesses, organisations or schools, it’s freer, so long as they’re all in sync.

 

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Which they more or less always are, though towards the night’s end we saw some school kids – surely as young as five or six – get a little tired with their movements, trotting along and ready for a nap. It’s the cutest thing we’ve ever seen.

You’re allowed to join in too, provided you play by the rules. You’re allowed to run in at the end of the parade and at the circle dance (you’ll know if when you see it). But you have to dance, and you have to have a hanagasa hat – luckily, you can buy them for Y3000 (about $35) or so from every other shop. Trust us: after hearing that song all night long, you’ll want to give it a twirl.

Jared Richards travelled as a guest of the Japan National Tourism Organization. 

This article originally appeared on Junkee.

(Lead image: Yamagata Prefecture via JNTO)