Takayama, Japan — Matsuri -- festival -- is a magical word in Japan, the symbol of a national flair for grand celebrations: dance, parades, bonfires, theater, Japanese style, like nowhere else. In Kyoto, Sendai, Matsumoto, or Kanazawa, you're a long way from Fourth of July barbecues and loud marching bands. You're deep in the midst of Japan's ancient Shinto religion and its people's passion for going on a spree.
I went to Takayama for my first taste of Matsuri,m abandoning mad Tokyo and its hubbub for a slow train into the past. Cold rain ceaseless and grim, couldn't obscure the dazzling pine-dressed peaks and lean jade rivers that paralleled the Takayama Line route. But gone was the sea of pink blossoms in Tokyo's Ueno Park, the swarming crowds of springtime revelers. Blue-tiled roofs gleamed wet against still bare branches. A small reminder of Takayama's former isolation from the rest of Japan.
Takayama is a mountain town, its winter a time of cold and deep snow, its spring late and chill when the rest of Japan has burst into bloom. Before Edo -- now Tokyo -- became more than a fisherman's village, Takayama was a castle site in the "land of the eastern mountains," its valley in view of what is now the Southern Alps National Park.
Takayama is a bundle of odd juxtapositions. A rich history of crafts that ripened during snowbound winters opposes shops of cheap curios, and plastic cherry blossoms are displayed near a river of quite primitive power. The matsurim -- an ancient ritual for the gods -- is celebrated amid "WE LOVE TAKAYAMA" signs.
Yet, a purity remains. Takayama's matsurim makes the town irresistible, the intrusions of loudspeakers, helicopters, and media crews unable to obstruct the splendor of the festival's yataim -- awkward but gorgeous portable Shinto shrines that are hauled in procession through the narrow streets. While at one time, the matsurim was a believer's exercise in thanking or supplicating the gods for an abundant harvest, today it's as much theater as religion. It was once an entirely volunteer affair, but today young men must sometimes be paid to pull the yatai.m Even so, the costumed males -- wiry youths, young boys, and the still strong old -- present a colorful spectable, as they shove and coax their gaudy treasures.
The Takayama matsurim occurs twice a year. Its only rivals for pageantry are the July Gion Matsurim in Kyoto and the December night festival in Chichibu, near Tokyo. I found Takayama a quiet town just before matsuri,m most visitors arriving at the last moment from Kanazawa, Matsumoto -- famed for its Suzuki violin school -- and, of course, Nagoya or Tokyo.
Takayama's spring matsurim is more than 300 years old, its October counterpart originating around 1718. The town is divided into "upstream" and "downstream" sections paralleling the Miya River. The "downstream" neighborhoods and their Shinto shrine, the Hachiman Shrine, sponsor the October festival and fund the city's Yatai Museum, while the "upstream" townspeople and the Hie Shrine support the April rituals.
When the Hie Shrine matsurim began around 1652, the shrine itself was already over 500 years old. In those days, Takayama was a castle town, and in 1142 the castle commander established the shrine to honor the god Sanno, whose ancestors, Izanagi and Izanami, were thought to have created the islands of Japan.
In 1585, Kanamori Nagachika, a daimyo,m or lord serving under Toyotomi Hideyoshi (who united the Japan his successor, Tokugawa Ieyasu, would rule as shogun), conquered the Hida region and made the Hie Jinja guardian of upstream Takayama.
The Hachiman Shrine -- newly rebuilt and across the road from the Yatai Museum -- has a history of fact and fancy. It was first erected for prayers for victory against a two-headed monster that was harassing a small village near Takayama. Japan's Emperor Nintoku (290-399) sent a hero to vanquish the beast -- a venture which, presumably, was a success.
Day one of "my" matsurim was clear, bright, cool -- at last, good weather to pace the streets in search of Yatai. By the town's riverside market, with its mounds of pickles and yams, I found a shop for breakfast and a family of willing interpreters. Using my bad Japanese and their cautious but comprehensible English, I managed to discover the festival's schedule. By 9 a.m., the yataim would emerge from their nearby storerooms.
My visit to the town's Yatai Museum on the afternoon before had prepared me for the sights of the matsuri.m The lone foreigner at this unique display, I independently strolled about using the museum's English-language booklet. In the central exhibit area, yataim and mikoshim -- junior-size yataim that can be carried on poles -- keep company with troops of costumed mannequins in a tidy and miniature version of a parade. In April, the museum provides a bonus glimpse of the festivities. Each season's matsurim features only 11 or 12 of the town's 23 yatai, and those in the museum belong to the October team.
On the morning of the spectacle, I stood by the tall doors of a yataim storeroom. When the doors swung open, the crowd sighed with pleasure at the yatai'sm fresh -- and familiar -- beauty. We were suddenly in the midst of a village fair, for each Takayama neighborhood keeps its yataim as its personal jewel.
No festoons of paper or carnations for these antique palanquins; the ornaments on yataim are a feast of extravagance -- brocade, tapestries, gold fittings, and intricate carvings.
The dazzling carvings are old hat in Takayama, for the region's wood craftsmen have been famous for centuries. Thought to be the best in all of Japan, local woodworkers were once the emperor's own. It wasn't a bad arrangement: If they worked at the palace, they paid no taxes.
Eighteenth- and 19-century artisans embellished Takayama's yataim with sinuous dragons and brightly painted flowers next to black lacquer, silk tassels, and cloth banners. Each yataim is a combination of artistic fancy and ornate symbolism, difficult for the foreigner to interpret but so appealing that the eye is immediately entranced.
On matsurim morning: no rain, no mud, no soggy shoes. A good start for a grand celebration. Takayama's older streets were crowded with clusters of tourists, flag-marked groups darting from one storehouse to another as the wondrous carts were pulled into the sunlight. The yataim crews, dodging TV cameras and families posing for home movies and snapshots, uncoiled massive ropes and packed snacks and adjusted their straw sandals and conical hats. Small boys climbed to the top of yataim after donning cloth headbands and happim -- cotton jackets stamped with a crest or Chinese character.
One by one the yataim converge upon Naka Bridge, an unmistakable landmark with its brilliant orange paint. One by one, the yataim continue toward the Hie Shrine, bobbing, swinging, and creaking a solemn obligato to the strident sounds of wooden flutes and drums. In Takayama's historic lanes, lined with dark wood houses shut against strangers and bad weather, the yataim and their breeches-clad crews look miraculously removed from our times.
At the head of the procession is the Kagura tai (yatai),m topped by a huge drum above a lacquer-and-brass platform. Two drummers -- formal and stylized in brown cloth and peaked eboshim (rimless black-lacquered hats first worn in 8 th-century Japan) -- simultaneously fling their bodies back and then forward to strike the great drum, the deep resonance of the instrument then thudding with mysterious power. In combination with the relentless chant of singer and flute, the sounds are hauntingly effective.
As the yataim finally lumbers to a stop, the Dance of the Lions signals that the parade is over. Beneath red and green flame-patterned cloth, a corps of boys or young men sweeps fierce red and black lacquered masks close to the crowd , the Kagura drums pounding a wild accompaniment. At night, in the glow of candlelit lanterns, the lions startle the tightly pressed crowds as the grotesque beasts seem to threaten attack.
Marionettes are the climax of the daytime festivities. Takayama is famous for its puppets, which are called karakuri ningyom and were found in China as early as the 10th century BC. During the Muromachi era (1334-1573), when the Ashikaga shoguns ruled Japan, these puppets were brought from China to Japan for the aristocrats to enjoy.
The karakuri ningyom perform on a narrow platform extending from the yatai'sm upper end which is hollow inside, like an elegant wooden box. The walkway hides the ropes which manipulate head, arms, or heads or turn the rokorem -- a flat wooden wheel that swings one puppet in a wild dragon dance.
When I was finally tired of yataim and puppets, I investigated Takayama's modern accompaniment to matsuri:m a shopping street transformed into the atmosphere of a midway, with candied cotton, balloons, and hot dogs for sale. Beneath rows of cotton tenting, I could see apples and candied strawberries, roasted corn, and hard candies from Tokyo. There were grilled dumplings, skewered chicken, and thick spicy pancakes.
Takayama is a mixture of tradition and change, and yet it remains an intimate town -- a civilized, walkable, personal place. For me, it was a respite between sprawling Tokyo and huge Osaka, a slower, kinder territory to practice my new Japanese and the small details of Japanese life.
Takayama's balancing act between past and present means choice for the traveler. With the options of budget (minshukum ) or luxury (ryokanm ) Japanese-style lodgings, a youth hostel or Western-style hotels, I devised my own combination of the familiar and strange.
For 4,000 yen per day for room and two meals (less than $20), I bargained for a shuttle service from the train and Japanese-style food, bath, and bed. I stayed in the Iwata-kan, a minshukum in "downstream" Takayama -- the quiet part of town during the April matsuri.m At lunchtime, I armed myself with the paperback "Eating Cheap in Japan" and searched for sushi and soba (noodles served hot or cold), vegetarian or Chinese.
Isolation. Convenience. The opposing realities of modern Takayama. Its charming flavor of history will linger yet awhile, and with the recent introduction of the Japan Rail Pass -- an advance-purchase bargain like the famed Eurailpass -- foreigners will find it easier to venture beyond Tokyo and Kyoto and into the mountains of central Japan. With this simplication of travel on Japan's wondrous train system, the quaintness of out-of-the-way towns will no doubt slowly vanish.
In Takayama, you will still experience the pleasure of the past, however. At night, when darkness settles into the town's narrow streets, you may hear the melancholy sounds of a more ancient Japan. Wooden mallets struck in a plaintive rhythm, the faint dissonance of Buddhist chant, the lonely chatter of rain against wood or tile. Poignant contrasts to the raucous melodies of our time.