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Niihama Taiko Festival

The Niihama Taiko Festival in early autumn is one of Shikoku’s biggest festivals.

Niihama Taiko Festival

Name in Japanese: 新居浜太鼓祭り

Pronunciation: niihama taiko matsuri

Date: 16 – 18 October

Address: Niihama, Ehime Prefecture

The Niihama Taiko Festival is held over six areas in Niihama city. Niihama takes pride in a festival which is counted as one of the biggest in Shikoku, along with the Awa Odori in Tokushima and the Yosakoi Festival in Kochi.

It’s also called Otoko Matsuri or Men’s Festival, because it’s a very masculine affair, with taikodai drum wagons that are hauled around by local men who go by the name of kakifu for the duration of the festival. These massive taikodai consist of an internal wooden frame inside which a drum is installed, with a drummer. The frames are decorated lavishly with relief embroidery of silver and gold thread depicting dragons, traditional buildings, and legends. Around the top are colourful braided quilts, and the whole is finished off with huge tassels that bob and sway with every movement, which are said to represent the clouds and rain that contribute to a good harvest. The taikodai has a wheeled cradle for ease of trundling around town, but the wheels can be removed when it’s time to heave the whole shebang into the air by main force.

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The taikodai is handled using four huge poles, each the trunk of a cedar tree. A taikodai weighs about three tonnes, and it takes around 150 brawny kakifu to move them. Their efforts are coordinated by four men with whistles and flags who stand precariously on the poles, and another four men perched amid the finery aloft. Everything is accompanied by shouts of “Sorya! Sorya!”.

During the festival, masses of spectators from all over Japan gather in Niihama, along with freelance kakifu. They’re said to be the type of men who don’t return to their family homes even on New Year’s Day – that’s to say, men of the wildest sort. They like to drink sake and show off their strength, for better or for worse.

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According to the traditions of this area, the event originated as obeisance to the gods for an abundant autumn harvest in the Heian or Kamakura period some 800 years ago. In the early Meiji period, the taikodai were only about three meters high, which is the same size as the ones that children carry now. But things escalated, and the cost of building the taikodai has been increasing year by year in step with the development of local industry. This has resulted in today’s gorgeous flamboyance and size.

The taikodai are blessed in shrines and then paraded around the city. Where several of them gather, there are displays of trundling back and forth, and lifting the taikodai into the air. This is called kakikurabe. Sometimes the teams of taikodai bearers start fights where they smash their juggernauts together until they’re just a mess of shards and ripped brocade. This is called hachiawase, a costly and sometimes bloody affair that can involve the Ehime police.

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Every other year, the festival takes to the water, with a parade of taikodai on barges in the sea. This is called funamiyuki, and it represents a prayer for a good haul of fish.

The Niihama Taiko Festival overlaps with the equally spectacular Saijo Festival which takes place from Oct 14 to 16 in neighbouring Saijo. Participants and spectators alike often take part in both festivals.

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