The Karatsu Kunchi is the Karatsu Shinto shrine’s fall festival in the city of the same name in northwestern Saga Prefecture facing the Tsushima Strait. The three-day event kicks off on November 2, and the highlight is the parade featuring 14 huge wheeled floats whose models of a carp, dragon, lion, and the shachi killer whale are auspicious symbols. These floats are wheeled through the city streets accompanied by the sound of taiko drums, clappers, and the vigorous shouts of the handlers as they perform their back-breaking work. And there’s no question that it takes a lot of work―the floats are seven meters high and weigh from two to five tons. It’s impressive to watch these handlers deftly maneuver objects as big as a three-story building. The older floats date from 180 years ago, and include a crimson carp and a bust of a fierce-looking, helmeted Uesugi Kenshin, while the newer ones are a mere 120 years old. They all have in common original color schemes, decorations, and unique shapes. These floats were costly to build. Each took two or three years to complete, using what is called the ikkanbari method, in which hundreds of sheets of Japanese paper are layered over a wooden frame, coated with lacquer, and applied with gold and silver finishing work. In today’s currency, it would cost an astonishing 150 million yen to produce just one.
Three Days of Frenzy and Excitement
The three days of events start with the Yoi Yama held the night before the festival’s main event. Lanterns are hung from the floats, which are pulled through the city to announce the beginning of the festival. Bright and early next morning is the O-Tabisho Shinko, a procession from the Karatsu shrine to the site in Nishinohama where the mikoshi, or portable shrine, is kept. The mikoshi, an integral part of all Japanese festivals, is then carried through the old castle district to Nishinohama, preceded and followed by the 14 floats. The floats themselves are parked on a sandy lot, making the handlers’ work that much harder because the wheels sink in. The more difficult it becomes to move the floats, the more effort the handlers exert, pushing and pulling to the rhythm of the taiko and clappers. This is the most stunning sight of the festival. Sand flies as the handlers struggle with heavy loads that are also priceless cultural treasures, shouting “Enya, enya!”. You also should make it a point to see the floats paraded throughout Karatsu the following day. Instead of the previous day’s spectacle, the floats proceed in a more stately manner through older parts of town on narrower residential streets. Another unique custom during the three days is the serving of a special Kunchi cuisine called Mitsukidaore. People bring the food from their homes when the parade of floats stops for a break and offer it to the handlers. In Karatsu, they say the float handlers can enter certain homes and eat and drink as much as they want, showing the natural warmth of the natives. You may not be able to walk into any home in the city and eat or drink your fill, but you will surely get a sense of the town’s character during the festival. Please do not try to participate in one of these gatherings as they are for local participants only.
Float Exhibition Hall
You can visit Karatsu to get a close-up look at the floats throughout the year, even when the festival is not being held. All 14 of the floats are stored and kept on display at the Float Exhibition Hall. Go for a taste of the Karatsu Kunchi, even if it’s not the first week of November.
Hikiyama Exhibition Hall
Open: 09:00 ～ 17:00 every day except New Years
6-33 Nishijonai, Karatsu
A Coal Baron’s Mansion
This is the former residence of Koreyoshi Takatori, who struck it rich in the coal business in Karatsu from the latter part of 19th century through the first decades of the 20th century. Takatori’s home has been repaired and restored, and it is open for public viewing. Many are astonished to hear about coal in connection with Karatsu, but the area was well known in the past as being an important production center. Just one look at Takatori’s imposing residence is enough to get an idea how much money he made out of the business. Located to the southwest of Karatsu Castle on the seacoast, the mansion is on 7,500 square meters of land with a superb view of the islands in the Bay of Karatsu. Its unique architectural design blends both Japanese and Western elements, with four large wings surrounding a central garden. It also has a tea room, a Noh stage, a Western-style living room, tatami mats, and a fireplace. The carefully-restored home was designated an important cultural treasure in 1998. It is scheduled to be fully available for viewing next April, but will be open free of charge to the public on Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays starting October 8 (see exact dates below). It’s worth a trip to get a glimpse of the high life during the Meiji period and the construction techniques and artistic design that went into building the structure.
The Former Takatori Residence
5-40 Kitajonai, Karatsu
Open: Oct. 8, 9, 14, 15, 21, 22, 25 ～ 31, Nov. 5, 11, 12, 18, 19, 23, 25, 26, Dec. undecided
Hours: 09:00 ～ 17:00, last entry 16:00
Karatsu Kunchi Float Bubble Gum
Yes indeed, this is bubble gum made in the shapes of the 14 Kunchi floats. Each piece of gum stands four centimeters high and reproduces the expressions of all the characters on each float. When you get tired of admiring the models, you can pop them in your mouth, chew, and blow bubbles. The perfect souvenir of your trip to Karatsu.
10:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.
Open year round
Access: 5 min. on foot from Karatsu Stn., inside the Naka-machi shopping street.
Amazake Ice Cream
If you have a craving for sweet sake, but don’t feel like dealing with the effects of alcohol, try this sweet sake ice cream instead. It’s made for adults, offering the distinctive sweetness and aroma of sake but without the flavor overdose of a children’s confection. Since it contains no alcohol, you can eat your fill and still pass any breathalyzer test!
Matsukin Jozo K.K.
10:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Open year round
Also sold at Kiosks at the JR Karatsu Station, Karatsu Furusato Kaikan Arupino, and other locations.
Access from Fukuoka City
Expressway / 50 minutes, 1,310 yen
Fukuoka City Expressway (600 yen) － Fukuoka Maebaru Toll Rd.(350 yen) － Nijohamatama Toll Rd. (360 yen)
Regular Road / 80 minutes
Fukuoka City － National Route 202 － Karatsu
Train / 80 minutes, 1,110 yen
Fukuoka Municipal Subway (Tenjin Station) － JR Chikuhi Line
Some subways go directly to Karatsu, others require changing at Chikuzen-Maebaru Stn.
Bus / 60 minutes, 1,000 yen
Showa Bus / Leave from Hakata Station and get off at Arupino-mae
November 2 ～ 4 (Culture Day long weekend)
500,000 visitors converge on a town of 80,000 for three delirious days!