Last Sunday I spent in Otsu, the capital of Shiga province, which lies on the shore of Lake Biwa, maybe 30 minutes east of Kyoto. Otsu, for a short period in the 7th century the capital of Japan, is still home to the largest harbour on Lake Biwa, which itself is the largest freshwater lake in Japan. However, the city is rather stretched out along the shore, and thus has the feeling of a little town despite its 350.000 inhabitants. There are a number of famous sites there, but I did not do any sightseeing this time.
Instead I went to enjoy Otsu matsuri with some friends of mine. Otsu matsuri has its origins at the beginning of the Edo period at the turn of the 17th century; the first time it was officially recorded was 1624. It is similar to Gion matsuri in that there are large floats that are paraded through the city, but there are also differences. The hikiyama of Otsu matsuri are about two storeys high, that’s somewhere between the size of the yama and hoko floats of Gion, and they are similarly decorated with beautiful tapestries on the outside. They only have three large wheels, which makes them more easy to manoeuvre by the people who are pulling them – yes, I have seen some women doing that as well!
On the second floor of the hikiyama, which can be reached by a staircase at the inside, only men are allowed though. Traditionally, only the first sons of families that lived around the storage house of each hikiyama were allowed to take part in the matsuri, but this has changed recently, and other young men may now participate too. When the floats are moving, they play a tune with flutes and drums that is similar to the one at Gion matsuri – to my ears, at least.The most interesting part of the 13 hikiyama however, are the wooden displays on the second floor. Those are karakuri ningyō, mechanical dolls, and they depict, or rather, act out, a scene from a well-known fairytale or story, mostl of them originating in China. One of the exceptions is a float with a doll representing Murasaki Shikibu, the authoress of the famous Tale of Genji. It is said that it was in Otsu – more precisely in Ishiyama Temple – where she began writing on her novel some time in the beginning of the 11th century. We were invited to one of the houses that “own” one of the floats, and we could go to a second floor balcony and watch the parade from there, meaning that we were eye-to-eye with the dolls and the men playing the instruments. From such an elevated postion you can see that the dolls were operated manually as the men crouched down, but that did not take away the beauty of the performance. I especially liked the one depicting how to catch a Tai (a lucky fish of golden colour), and because each performance was repeated twice in front of our balcony, I could even catch the decisive moment on camera.