Photos by David Krigbaum
Photos by David Krigbaum

Unzen Kanoukaen: Samurai and Sakura Blossoms by Torchlight

by David Krigbaum

Hundred of burning torches moved as a river of flames advancing through the black near-moonless night. Under glowing torchlight a hundred samurai in full armor, sword at the hip, their faces and armor illuminated by only their burning fires proceeded slowly through a narrow town street in modern-day Nagasaki Prefecture, their lord’s flowered banner still raised high. Lord Arima was victorious and tonight the samurai are coming home.

This procession is the centerpiece of Unzen City Chijiwa Town’s Kanoukaen, or spring fire festival, which combines blossoming spring beauty and local history-evoking imagery for an inimitable night. The festival’s procession was inspired by a scroll depicting the nighttime procession of samurai under Shimazu Iehisa, ally of Unzen’s daimyo Arima Harunobu, after the Battle of Okitanawate 400 years ago. The festival also honors the first Japanese embassy to Rome, which Arima sponsored. 

Building around these concepts samurai performers from around Japan and locals came together to create Nagasaki’s biggest fire festival and one worth the trip to this little coastal town in Unzen City.

The victorious homecoming must first have to have a victory to celebrate, so the festival begins with a fierce battle. In 1584 the victory was Arima and Shimazu over Hizen, today it’s score of tiny children in identical samurai outfits beating down adult samurai with tiny foam swords in a battle that doesn’t end until the last adult has been hammily and melodramatically vanquished. From there four teenage samurai announce themselves as the four ambassadors to Rome and tell their tale. Theirs is a sad one that sees these first ambassadors in Europe see things no Japanese had seen before, becoming Jesuit priests and ends with their nation turning on them forcing them to revert to their native faith or die. Two chose death and the third lived a lie, as he was found with rosary beads in his grave.

Girls from the local high school brass band club dressed in red and white miko (shrine maiden) outfits followed with a kagura performance. Kagura is one of the oldest styles of Shinto ritual dances. Following a lively, booming drum beat they flitted fans with butterfly-like grace in one hand and accompanying tinkling bells in the other as their billowing red hakama pants emphasized each movement.

After the kagura a choreographed sword fight team performed a spirited dance disguised as a melee, first with clashing swords and then with burning torches being carefully whipped about. It was fun and a little cheesy, the festival was in a constant tug of war between serious and silly. This mix of solemn, comical and purely entertaining elements is what makes the Unzen kanoukaen festival more memorable than your average excuse for public drunkenness under pink trees. I mean, hanami.

The last display was a matchlock firing demonstration. Though samurai are pictured fighting with sword in hand, the guns they used played a pivotal role in ending the Sengoku Jidai as Oda Nobunaga’s army brought the nation together at gunpoint and locally they played a vital role in Arima’s victory over Hizen. Clutching teppo harquebus, a quartet of armored teppo ashigaru (gun foot soldiers) with a pistol-waving commander barking orders made ready and fired volleys of blanks that shook anyone not familiar with how loud real firearms are. I braced for audible impact but my wife had never heard a gun before and was in for a rude, loud surprise.

Then the process was prepared as the hundred samurai and almost as many more Japanese and American visitors lit a torch and began the slow two kilometer walk through the modern streets to Tachibana Shrine. When it began a torchbearer shouted “IYASAKA” (“more prosperity”) and the rest roared a positive response, then another calls it out and the rest response with just a few moments between each energetic call. It starts strong but the energy drains audibly as they hoarsely struggle to keep shouting 45 minutes later.

The matchlocks roared again at the shrine’s bridge heralding processions arrival and it ended at the Tachibana shrine hall where the young shrine maidens again performed their kagura, now surrounded by samurai behind a torii gate and under blooming cherry trees for a scene that could only be more Japanese if Godzilla attacked at that very moment.

Though the festival begins as night fall I recommend arriving much earlier to enjoy sakura viewing and matsuri food set up at Tachibana Shrine. The shrine park is a perfect place for hanami and there are few better places for pictures than the arched bridges surrounded by cherry trees and lanterns and curving over a rushing river and more pink trees.

The event is well-attended but never over-crowded unless you count the locust swarm of photographers capable of blotting out all but the over-head torches as they proceed before the samurai procession taking pictures. Though it offers traditional-style Japanese cultural entertainment like you’d find in city festivals, the Chijiwa festival is still a small town presentation and I find that to be part of the appeal over dealing with the near-fist fight level packed-crowd frustration attending any event in Nagasaki City.

The festival is located at Tachibana Park at Tachibana Shrine but the events are held at the waterside Fukuishi Park, this is also where the procession starts. The event is held annually on the last Saturday of month, which coincides with the cherry blossom blooming. Attending the event is free, but there’s a charge if you want to borrow armor and play samurai.

Fukuishi Park
Fukuishi Park Chijiwachootsu, Unzen, Nagasaki 854-0402

Tachibana Shrine
529 Chijiwacho, Unzen, Nagasaki 854-0405

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