On the last Saturday of April, the area around Mizusawa Station in Oshu becomes alive with floats, the traditional music of shamisen and taiko drums flows through the air, and crowds of people line the streets in anticipation. This is Hitaka-Hibuse Festival, one of Oshu’s most iconic events. For spectators, it’s a feast for the eyes and ears, and is a well-deserved Iwate Intangible Folk Cultural Property. As the 2024 edition just concluded, and since I was lucky enough to participate by pushing a float, I’d like to talk about the origins of this festival, what it’s like today, and how it felt to take part.

The Backstory
Hitaka-Hibuse Festival has a 300 year history – dating from a time when fires plagued Mizusawa (now a part of Oshu.) Mizusawa was a castle town, and when a lord of Mizusawa Castle witnessed the Great Fire of Meireki in Edo (present-day Tokyo) at a young age, it gave him a visceral understanding of how horrific fire disasters were. When he returned from Edo, fire brigades formed and firefighting strategies developed from this catalyst. Prayers to the gods for their help in preventing fires were made as well; thus, Hitaka-Hibuse Festival began.

Present Day
Nowadays of course, with the progress of modern technology, the threat of major fires isn’t as it was hundreds of years ago. Still, Hitaka-Hibuse Festival remains as a way to hope for protection against them. And by continuing to hold this traditional festival, the region is able to preserve it and pass it down to the next generation. The main attraction is the gorgeous parade of floats, of which there are three types.

                             All three kinds of floats, moving down the street.
Chojirushi, seen on the rightmost side of the image above, are symbols of each of the former Mizusawa Castle town neighborhoods. Historically, each neighborhood had an associated kanji character, which is written on the chojirushi today; together, they spell out a message to the effect of “take care to prevent fires.” Their red spheres that symbolize fire, and paper streamers that symbolize water, are their defining characteristics.

Uchibayashi are simple floats that are close to the ground, and they also represent the six former castle town neighborhoods. These can carry a handful of young children playing taiko drums, plus two flautists.
Uchibayashi in action during the festival.

But the next type – hayashi-yatai – are definitely the showstoppers.

                 Hayashi-yatai, gathered in preparation for the festival.

Hayashi-yatai bear several older children playing kodaiko drums, six people strumming the shamisen, and two flautists. Shiplike and graceful, they move through the streets with grandeur; when dusk falls and lanterns illuminate them, the scene appears almost unreal, like a scene out of classical Japanese artwork.

                                    A hayashi-yatai float in the evening.

And the floats aren’t the only draw of the festival. Myriad local cultural performances, such as the dances of the 42 and 25 year-old yaku-doshi (unlucky year) groups, adorn the streets and add to the joy of the day.

                                One of the yaku-doshi groups mid-dance.

What’s It Like to Push a Float?
Thanks to a lucky chance, I was able to participate in this festival. As someone who loves Oshu and wants to see its festivals flourish, I was thrilled to be able to contribute. Children on uchibayashi floats can be as young as 2, so all of us who were pushing these floats gave them lots of praise for drumming, and the cool older kids on the hayashi-yatai encouraged them with words and smiles too.

The beauty of festival participants’ hard work and cooperation, regardless of nationality, really impressed me. The floats may be majestic, but it’s the people that bring them to life. Also, I felt very welcomed and included by the local people, my own birthplace notwithstanding. If you come to Oshu or this region from elsewhere, and want to participate, I’m sure you would be welcome to do so. In the future, as more international residents of Oshu take part, I hope that a festival as beautiful as Hitaka-Hibuse will be able to persist for many years to come.
                                       The four of us foreigners, with our chojirushi



日高火防祭 豪華絢爛な一大絵巻のように