Stories of people & places, festivities & traditions from my travels around the world

Gorgeous floats & amazing children: Nagahama's Hikiyama Matsuri

by Lucy Hornberger

The music starts and an expectant hush falls on the crowd gathered in front of the ornately lacquered festival float. The float is huge - perhaps seven metres high - and incorporates a small stage surrounded by a narrow walkway with a curtained portal at each side. The curtains twitch and rise and two kabuki actors appear, elaborately costumed, bewigged and made up in full kabuki style. Because the make-up is so good, the kimonos so stunning, and the exaggerated movements so fluid and confident, it may take newcomers a moment to realise that something isn't quite right. Then it clicks - the actors are all children!
This is kodomo kabuki (traditional and highly stylised theatricals performed by children), the highlight of Nagahama's great spring festival, the Hikiyama Matsuri. Every year in mid-April, this quiet lakeside town's 13 elaborate festival floats are polished and buffed ready to be shown off to the crowds, and 4 are selected by rota to be paraded through the streets of the old town, and to stage kodomo kabuki.
As is the case with many historic festivals, the origins of the Hikiyama Matsuri, its gorgeous floats and virtuoso child actors, are somewhat obscure. It is said to have begun in the 16th century when an up and coming warlord, the famous Toyotomi Hideyoshi, was lord of the town's castle. As part of the celebrations to mark the birth of his much desired son, Hideoyoshi donated a quantity of gold (or gold dust, depending on accounts) to the townspeople, who used it to build festival floats and inaugurated the tradition of kodomo kabuki in the young lord's honour. The two traditions - float parades and theatricals - became entwined, and the floats developed into elaborate wheeled stages for the kabuki performances.
The children who perform the kabuki are marvels. They may be young and somewhat short of stature, but they more than make up for that in technique, timing and dramatic control. Voices are strong and exaggerated in typical kabuki fashion, and many of the expressions and poses are stunningly good. These are no school assembly performances - this is the real thing! So, these are child kabuki actors, reaching an almost professional standard. But surprises don't end there. The next think to note is that these are not keen teenagers bitten by the drama bug. In fact the youngest children are just 5 years old, and the oldest are 11 and 12 (and occasionally 13). Many are encouraged to take part to continue family tradition - their fathers and grandfathers performed kodomo kabuki before them.
Then there is the startling fact that, just as with professional adult kabuki, the kodomo kabuki actors are all male - not just the stern lord and the swashbuckling samurai hero, but also the dutiful daughter and the simpering courtesan are all played by boys. Of course at this young age boys' faces are still malleable, and the makeup is thick and masterfully applied. Nevertheless it is incredibly impressive that in many cases these boys-playing-girls manage to achieve a complete suspension of disbelief in the audience. You really do believe that the despairing wife, the haughty shrine maiden and the obedient maid servant are female.
Perhaps most remarkable of all, however, is that these children learn the play that they are to perform in just three weeks - from late March to the beginning of festivities at the end of the first week of April. This period partly coincides with spring break in Japanese schools, nevertheless the fact that such high standards can be achieved in such a terrifyingly short period is extraordinary. It's a testament not only to the children's intelligence and stamina, but also to the organisers, teachers, parents and all the behind the scenes workers that this can be done at all.
Once the lines are learned, the costumes are perfected and the staging is just right, there are still more challenges to come in the form of a gruelling performance schedule. The main day of the festival requires each of the children to perform the forty minute plays four times over an 8 hour period. In between the performances they are often 'on display' sitting formally on the stage, being photographed and gawked at. Every child appears in every performance, and there don't appear to be understudies, so goodness knows what happens in the case of illness. Altogether the pressure and schedule surely surpasses even Broadway or London's West End.
Even if you don't understand Japanese, this is a festival worth seeing. Despite the highly formalised style, Kabuki was always entertainment for the common people and is very watchable. Storylines are always emotional, with much weeping, angst and jealousy, but tragedy, cruelty and despair are counterbalanced by liberal amounts of drama, flirtation and humour. And of course the youngest children are especially cute to watch.
Join the enthusiastic crowds and witness something that is so much more than just historical pageantry and spectacle. Although firmly rooted in the past, Nagahama's Hikiyama Matsuri is a first class example of a living tradition - a Japanese community working together, year after year, to create something amazing.
Nagahama, Shiga Prefecture, is on the JR Biwako Line. Trains from Maibara Station take about 10 minutes.

The Nagahama Hikiyama Matsuri takes place over a week or so in mid April, however the two main performance days are 14th and in particular 15th April.

Article & photos posted April 16th, 2016

Text and photos copyright © 2016 Lucy Hornberger. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use prohibited.


Stefanie on May 16, 2016:
Thoroughly enjoyed this post. The pictures are wonderful, thanks for sharing!

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