(This article was originally published at Voyapon, an English website for off-the-beaten-path experiences in Japan).
As the huge float swung our way with a dozen men carried in its momentum, my guide, Mr. Takahashi, tugged on my sleeve and pulled me to safety. This was the Iizaka Kenka Matsuri, one of the three main fighting festivals in Japan where teams wielding large yatai(wooden floats) compete in a sort of demolition derby for the favor of the Shinto gods in the coming year. And here I was, a few meters from the action, experiencing this rare event from the perspective of a participant.
But let’s start with how I got here.
A few hours earlier, I had arrived from Tokyo at Nakamuraya, a historic ryokan (Japanese-style inn) in Iizaka, Fukushima. Waiting for me in my room was a happi coat, the kind of clothing typically seen worn at festivals. My host, Mr. Abe, explained that this was the uniform of Uemachi, one of the six teams that participate in the Kenka Matsuri and if I wore it, I would be recognized as part of their team and able to move freely around the Uemachi yatai during the festival.
I would be picked up from the ryokan by Mr. Takahashi after dinner. Mr. Takahashi was also a member of the Uemachi team and would explain the event to me as well as help ensure my safety during the fighting portion of the event. During my dinner, a parade of participants made its way through the streets outside the ryokan, and the Uemachi team, sponsored by the businesses in the area, stopped to greet Mr. Abe and receive a gift from him.
The parade, from what I could tell, was a sort of public relations campaign to drum up support (literally, as a team of taiko drum players ride inside the yatai for the entire event) from the general public as well as the team sponsors in the neighborhood. Children and women carrying team inscribed lanterns preceded the yatai, which was carried by a large group of strong men, with a few young…