Both the Kanuma Imamiya Shrine’s float carrying event, the Kanuma Autumn Festival and Karasuyama “outdoor kabuki” event, Yama-age Festival have a history dating back for more than 400 years. The Kanuma Autumn Festival is held each year in October, and this year it will take place on the 8th and 9th. Twenty-four dazzling and sumptuous carved wooden floats are paraded around the town in a breathtaking spectacle. Several floats gather at the street junction and compete against each other in an orchestral contest that is not to be missed.
The Yama-age Festival, the highlight of which is its outdoor kabuki dancing, takes place each year on the fourth Saturday of July and the Friday before and Sunday after. Famous highlights of the festival are the “yama” (mountain), which is a decorative stage backdrop made from locally handcrafted Japanese Karasuyama paper, and the procession around the six old neighborhoods of Karasuyama that are now the center of present-day Nasukarasuyama City. On November 30, 2016, UNESCO has selected 33 Japanese festivals for its list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity at an intergovernmental committee meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Included in this list, are the KARASUYAMA YAMAAGE, and The KANUMA IMAMIYA SHRINE festivals.
There are currently 27 floats inherited from generation to generation for the Kanuma Autumn Festival, and it is thought that they probably developed from the floats upon which people danced in the Edo Era. Their structure is that of a single-tier cabin topped with a curved gable (karahafu). Originally floats were used as mobile stages during the presentation of plays or dancing dedicated to Shinto deities, but now the musicians ride inside the float and perform.
The single most remarkable features of the Kanuma Autumn Festival is the stunning carving work that decorates the floats, which may have been influenced by the equally sumptuous woodworking one can observe at the shrines and temples at Nikko. Fourteen floats are designated as by the City as tangible cultural assets, thirteen of the floats built during the Edo Era and one carved with ornamentation from the Edo Era The carved floats can be largely divided into several categories, depending on whether or not they have been lacquered and colored.
Launched in the year 1560 as a sideshow at a festival to pray for the prevention of pestilence, bumper harvests and peace through the land, this festival is unique throughout Japan for its spectacular and sumptuous outdoor kabuki dance format.
The six old neighborhoods of Karasuyama take turns to stage the Karasuyama Yama-age, meaning of “outdoor kabuki”, from the way that the participants lift up the mountain painted on to a background made of wicker-worked bamboo. It has been repeatedly pasted over with the locally handcrafted Karasuyama paper.
The mountain is lifted up as the background to the dancing stage, and a crowd of youngsters lined up along the road as far back as 100 meters from the stage before the spectators slickly pull it into position in the twinkling of an eye. Then the shamisen (three-stringed lutes) players, singers and local dancers start their sophisticated and beautiful dance, in the best mobile outdoor stage anywhere in Japan.
Floats called bunnuki, representing each neighborhood, draw close to each other and compete in a spectacle not be missed, in which they try to see who has the best rhythm, is the loudest and has the most stamina.
The bunnnuki starts when the leader of the neighborhood in charge that year gives the sign, and in an instant the air is filled with the thunderous sounds of flutes, drums and gongs. The musicians never stop to take turns, and the young people try to cool them down by waving huge fans while yelling out words of encouragement. Whenever two of these floats pass each other on the streets they will without fail grind to a halt and start another deafening round of bunnuki.
The festival takes place annually on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday of the fourth Saturday in July.