The Sawara Taisai 「佐原の大祭」 or Sawara Big Float Festival is deemed as one of the Kanto three major float festivals and is a traditional festival that dates back more than 300 years. The festival takes place twice a year, once in summer in the Honjuku area (on the east side of the Ono River, supported by the Yasaka Shrine), and once in autumn in Shinjuku area (on the west side of the river, supported by the Suwa Shrine). There are 10 floats paraded in summer and 14 in autumn.
As summer is the season when many diseases surface, the festival is held to ward away evil spirits and sicknesses. The festival in autumn on the other hand is held in appreciation for the good harvest and also the hope for another upcoming good harvest.
Instead of a mikoshi (portable Shinto shrine), heavy wheeled parade floats are dragged through the streets by festival-goers using huge ropes. Sawara’s floats feature huge colourful representations of gods and other Japanese mythical heroes (princesses, samurai, courtiers, etc..) riding on top of the floats. These figurines are as tall as 4 metres high and are made of wood, which is then subsequently covered with plaster. The figurines, made by well known craftsmen from the Edo and Meiji periods, are recognized for their artistic and cultural values.
I visited on the first night of the festival and arrived by boat which alighted me at this part of town.
Spotted this float and I immediately went over to have a closer look.
Wow…looks impressive! This float features a military leader 小楠公 (楠木正行).
The next float which came by showcases a Japanese legendary prince of the Yamato dynasty 日本武尊.
Entire music troupes can be found seated on the floats and they fill the streets with the sounds of “Sawara-Bayashi”, one of the most famous traditional Japanese festival music in Japan.
Many young people practice with the aim of becoming one of the musicians on the floats – they think it’s cool and a status symbol. Thus, they practice almost every day in their primary and secondary schools and join a music group, aspiring to be good enough to get selected.
The festival is also regarded for the designs of lions and dragons engraved around the base of the floats, which each tell different tales.
Typically about 100 to 120 people are required to pull the floats. You can imagine how heavy they are (especially with the music troupes on board)!
The next float features a 14th-century samurai 大楠公 (楠木正成).
This one is of a character from Japanese mythology 瓊瓊杵尊.
The acrobatic spinning of the floats called “No-no-ji-mawashi” 「のの字廻し」 is quite a dramatic spectacle. Such powerful speed can cause the float to create ruts in the road surface.
Along some of the streets, we encountered two floats going in opposite directions and there was just enough room for them to pass alongside each other. As you can see, the streets were filled with people and it was very crowded!
I had only managed to spot 5 out of the 14 floats that night as you never know where you’ll see the next one cos they are always on the move.
The next event which happened came as a surprise to me – we were ushered to a shop and passed these costumes to wear over our clothes and were told that we were going to experience pulling one of the floats! My verdict is that it is not as easy as it looks as the float is indeed extremely heavy and difficult to move!! It certainly needed a lot of coordination effort from all the participants (plus momentum too!).
Each of these floats are actually made by the people from different towns and each area has their own style. Some of the rich merchants in Sawara have the wealth to hire people to construct beautiful floats. As of today, Sawara has 2 geishas but in the olden days when more geishas existed, they were hired, together with kabuki actors to be involved as part of the float procession.
Here’s my video with snippets from the festival:
If your visit to Sawara can’t coincide with the festival dates, you can view two of the actual floats which are on display at the Float Hall of the Dashi Kaikan Festival Float Museum 「水郷佐原山車会館」 and videos of both the summer and autumn festivals are also screened there.
Like any other Japanese festival, you can usually find temporary stalls lined along the streets selling food, sweets and even traditional game stalls are available too.
You can buy grilled “Ayu” fish on a skewer.
Chocolate-coated bananas come in a variety of flavours like melon, strawberry, lemon and milk.
Typical festival food like okonomiyaki can be found.
There was also a stall selling wagyu steak!
I wasn’t quite sure if the goldfish were for sale or whether this was a game stall where you have to catch goldfish using paper nets.
Some interesting Japanese foodstuffs were being sold at this stall.
Even sweet potato ice-cream is available here!
I walked past this fresh produce stall and found their tomatoes were as big as apples.
The Big Float festival of Sawara
Summer: Fri, Sat, Sun (3 days) after 10th July
Autumn: Fri, Sat, Sun in the 2nd week of Oct
By train: Take the JR Narita line to Sawara Station and walk 15 mins
By car: Higashi Kanto Expressway, 10 mins from Sawara-Katori exit
By High-way bus: Kanto Railways Green Bus from Tokyo Station for Hokota-station, getting off at Yasaka.
Keisei bus, from Hamamatsu-cho, or Tokyo-station, bound for Choshi, via Sawara: Get off at Sawara station north exit, and walk 20 mins.
For more information on the festival…
In English: http://www.katorishi.com/en-matsuri.html
In Japanese: http://www.city.katori.lg.jp/05sightseeing/taisai/index.html
Click here for the brochure (pdf)
To read more about Sawara, click here.