Each year in May, the Hakata Dontaku Port Festival fills Fukuoka with excitement and attracts more than two million people, making it the highest attended festival in Japan during Golden Week. What? You’ve never been? Surely you must be curious as to what draws such huge crowds to the streets. Here’s Fukuoka Now’s extensive guide to set you on your way!
Many locals and foreigners are surprised to find out that the Dontaku Festival has a history that reaches back more than 830 years. It dates all the way back to 1179, when the merchants of Hakata organized a New Year’s parade, Matsubayashi, in honor of their feudal lord. These traditional origins can still be seen every May 3 in the Dontaku Matsubayashi Parade, a colorful procession led by three gods of fortune riding on horseback: Fukurokuju (god of long life), Ebisu (god of business) and Daikoku (god of wealth). They’re accompanied by a group of dancing children, who, in case the gods get above themselves, sing the special festival chant ‘iitate.’ In their wake follow 120 groups of about 12,000 local people in traditional dress, all performing the matsubayashi custom of greeting each other through song and dance. This procession has remained unchanged since the Middle Ages and has been designated an Intangible Cultural Property by Fukuoka Prefecture.
In the Edo Period (1603-1868), decorative floats and platforms showcasing dolls were added to the Matsubayashi parade. The festival was first referred to as ‘Dontaku’ in the Meiji period (1868-1912) – it is believed to stem from the Dutch word zondag (Sunday), which was taken to mean “holiday”. The Meiji Government banned the parade for several years because of its extravagance, but the citizens preserved their traditions until it was restarted in 1880.
The Dontaku Festival was also suspended during World War II, but was revived soon after the war ended to help rejuvenate Fukuoka. In 1949 the date was changed from January to May to commemorate the new post-war constitution. Today it’s officially known as the Hakata Dontaku Port Festival, with a number of events held around Hakata Port.
A True Citizen’s Festival
On May 3 and 4 this area buzzes with activity when about 210 groups, totaling more than 28,000 people, participate in the two Dontaku parades. Groups and individuals from all over Kyushu descend on Fukuoka to join these parades: local citizens’ associations, schools, private companies, small businesses, marching bands and drum majorettes – all dancing freely in the street while showcasing their unique costumes and talents. The participation of two sister cities, Auckland (New Zealand) and Busan (Republic of Korea), and the International Dontaku Troupe (see p. 5) add an international flavor to the festivities. This inclusion of overseas visitors fits very well with Dontaku’s current theme – celebrating Japan’s diversity – and is an occasion for people from all walks of life to meet and wish each other well.
While the highlight of the festival may be the two parades, Dontaku includes a variety of other entertainment, including floats, nighttime illuminations, food stalls and stage shows. More than 30 stages are erected throughout the city, an opportunity for thousands of people to take turns performing traditional dances, folk songs and contemporary music. Closing the two-day festival are rousing renditions of the Dontaku dance that spectators are invited to participate in. The intriguing mix of ancient traditions and modern exuberance make Dontaku a festival unlike any other in Kyushu – a unique blend of past and present, much like Japan itself!
Dontaku 2012 Schedule – Day 1
※Departure times may vary.
※Dontaku Square includes Meiji Dori from Gofukumachi Intersection to Fukuoka City Hall.
※Parade passage from start point, Gofukumachi Intersection, to end point, Fukuoka City Hall, is 30 mins.
The Dontaku Festival might not conjure up images as iconic as July’s Yamakasa Festival (no loin cloths here!), yet some images are closely associated with it. The following three items in particular can be found on many Dontaku tourist brochures, magazine covers and souvenirs, making them unofficial Dontaku symbols.
- Shamoji: All throughout the parade participants can be seen clapping these spoons to the beat of traditional music. But how exactly did an ordinary Japanese kitchen utensil, used to stir and serve rice, end up in this festival? The explanation goes that the shamoji evokes the image of a housewife busy preparing a meal, rushing out to join the passing parade!
- Niwaka Mask: This mask is used in Hakata Niwaka, a style of traditional improvisational comedy performed at festivals. The term niwaka itself is said to stem from a local rice cracker brand called niwaka senbei, which contained a half mask in its box to be put on during niwaka performances. This way the comedian, who poked fun at established social conventions in witty Hakata dialect, could cleverly hide his identity from those he satirized!
- Flower Hat: While the festival sports a huge variety of groups, each with their favorite costumes, one outfit choice that recurs often is the hanakasa, or flower hat. The origin of the flower hat is unknown – but what fashionable girl wouldn’t want to crown her cap with a bed of roses?
As part of the pre-Dontaku festivities, the 2012 Miss Fukuoka final selection will be held on May 2 at the Fukuoka Kokusai Center. Three Miss Fukuoka will be selected from ten finalists, with the chosen ones representing and promoting Fukuoka City during their yearlong reign.
The Dontaku theme song “Bonchikawaiya” has seven verses but we’ve limited ourselves to including just the first one. Sing along as the parade passes and stun the locals with your knowledge of all things Dontaku!
“Bonchi Kawaiya Nenneshiya
Shinagawajoroshu wa Jumonme
Jumonme no Teppodama
Tamaya ga kawa e Supponpon”
If you’re interested, read about the history of the Dontaku song here!
The parades of gorgeously decorated flower cars, hana jidosha, form an integral part of the Dontaku festivities. Two teams of three cars, all decorated with 10,000 artificial flowers and original designs that change every year, animate the festival atmosphere. Originally tramways were used, but they were replaced by automobiles when tram service was suspended in 1977. At night the cars, illuminated by 3,000 electric light bulbs, are a splendid sight.
Flower Car Team A:
-Softbank Hawks car
-Environmental message car
Flower Car Team B:
- Kyushu Characters car
- Pokemon car
- Momotarou car
Check the full schedule for 2012 Flower Car Routes.
Official Dontaku Goods
The Fukuoka Convention Bureau produces several Dontaku goods such as paperhappi coats, Dontaku fans and decorated shamojis but only the wooden Hakata Kifuda are for sale to the public. Marked with the Dontaku logo, these typical Japanese charms can be used as ornaments or cellphone straps and cost ¥500. Two different designs are on offer, but pieces are limited to 250 of each version. If you want an original Dontaku memento, head straight to the information desks in Hakata Station, ACROS or near the reserved seating area!
Seasoned foreigners who’ve visited many matsuri have undoubtedly acquainted themselves with Japanese festival fare. For those less familiar with these culinary delights, here are three local favorites
- Ringo-ame: Visitors with a sweet tooth won’t be able to resist the promised sugar high of these candied apples on a stick, coated with a hot red syrup that dries hard. The result is a translucent, bright red glaze, a feast to the eyes as well as the tastebuds! Other versions such as ichigo-ame (glazed strawberries) are on offer in season. Don’t break your teeth!
- Ikayaki: This grilled squid snack, marinated in a sugary soy sauce, is great for munching on as you walk through the streets. Dont take too much time chewing though – its texture becomes rubbery as it cools, making it hard work for your jaw!
- Hashimaki: A type of okonomiyaki (savory pancake) popular at festivals is hashimaki – literally translated as “chopstick roll”. The okonomiyaki is served rolled (maki) around a pair of chopsticks (hashi) and topped with mayonnaise, seaweed flakes (nori) and fish flakes (katsuo). It’s eaten much like a corndog and is easy to enjoy on the go.
DONTAKU 2012 SPECIALS
In addition to the annual festivities, we’ve selected three Dontaku specials for 2012 for readers to enjoy…
The Dontaku Cruise on the Water Bus
To celebrate the first anniversary of the Naka River water bus, there will be a 20-minute sightseeing cruise on the Naka River. It will be a lot of fun to see the Dontaku excitement on the streets of Fukuoka from the water bus.
• May 3 and 4 (Hol.), at about 30-minute intervals from 12:45
• Next to Deai- bashi at Tenjin Chuo Park
• Adults ¥500, children ¥250, children younger than three free
Open Top Dontaku Cruise
This year, Fukuoka’s new Open Top Bus will join the Hakata Dontaku Festival. The parade proceeds down Meiji Dori, between Gofukumachi and Fukuoka City Hall. The Open Top Bus will run FREE 20 minute tours during the festival. Spaces are limited to 90 child/parent pairs, comprised of one child, 4 years old~ elementary school age, and one parent. The service will run from 13:00~ on May 3, and from 15:00~ and 18:00~ on May 4. To secure your spot, apply by postcard by April 20. Postcard entries should include the participating child’s name and age, parent’s name, address, contact number and desired route. Winners will be contacted by telephone. For more information: http://www.nishitetsu.co.jp/bus/topics/fukuoka_open_top_bus/dontaku.htm
Dontaku Hotel Nikko Package
Every year, hundreds of thousands of visitors come to Fukuoka during Golden Week to participate in Dontaku Festival. In the lead up to this year’s event, Hotel Nikko Fukuoka announced a special “Dontaku Festival” accommodation package for guests hoping to stay in town during the festival period. For two days only from May 3~4, Hotel Nikko will offer Twin Rooms for just ¥18,000 per night, per person (includes tax and service fees). For reservations and information call 092-482-1117 or visit the website.
Dontaku Reserved Seating
If you’d rather avoid watching the parade in the crowd and prefer a more comfortable viewing spot, then consider buying kanko sajiki tickets for special seats on a stand near Mizukami Park on Meji-dori. Buy tickets here.
How to Join In!
The climax of two days of revelry features energetic performances of the Dontaku dance, which spectators are wholeheartedly invited to join. Head to Dontaku Street on May 4 from 18:40 to 19:20 and bond with other visitors in this communal dancing event!
160,000 copies of the official Dontaku Festival brochure, printed by Fukuoka City, will be available at all Dontaku information counters on May 3 and 4 (in Japanese only).
For more information, visit the official Dontaku website here: http://www.fukunet.or.jp/dontaku/index.html
Go forth and enjoy Dontaku 2012!