Hakuba’s Autumn Equinox Festival
Within 5 minutes of joining the festival, I was given 3 sakes, a small meal, and had 2 buckets of onsen water dumped on my head. The following details my unforgettable experience at the Hakuba Autumn Equinox Festival in Happo-One.
The annual Autumn Equinox Festival in Hakuba’s Happo-One is a Shinto religious ceremony, celebration of community, and an excuse to over-imbibe with friends. Dressed in traditional festival garb, participants carried two massive portable shrines throughout Happo Village stopping at various points for rest, prayer, revelry and sake. After nearly two hours, they reached their final destination, the nearly 1,000 year old Happo-One Shrine where they were greeted with applause and festivities.
During the Hakuba Autumn Equinox Festival, participants honor the gods of the mountain and pray for a healthy rice harvest, continued prosperity, and of course, a snowy winter. They thank the gods for all the mountain has provided to Hakuba, especially the onsen water. In order to show their appreciation, roughly 40 men carry a nearly 400 kilogram stone placed in a wooden shrine for several kilometers, while chanting and violently shaking the holy vessel’s thick wooden beams back and forth on their shoulders. The stone embodies the spirit of the gods and is believed to come from the source of the hot spring water. The women carry a smaller and more colorful shrine which also contains the sacred gods of the mountain.
I joined the festival at 10 am as the procession was passing by Hotel Weisser Hof in Happo Village. Women dressed in colorful garb and carrying the vibrant shrine (called a mikoshi) led the procession. They passionately chanted “yoisa” “yoisa” while shaking the divine vessel.
The women were followed by a flatbed truck, equipped with a large yello tank pouring onsen water into the flatbed. Five or more people trailed the truck so they could easily access the onsen water. Their job duties seemingly revolved around ensuring everyone remained as wet as possible.
Next came the men and the larger mikoshi. Then 4 drummers, 3 town elders pushing a cart of critical supplies (mainly sake), and another flatbed carrying small children playing traditional Japanese instruments rounded out the parade.
As soon as we reached the first station, I was given two cups of sake, a cup of warm rice drink (which someone promptly filled with sake), and was drenched from head to toe with onsen water.
The stations are a time for rest, replenishment, and play. The locals prepared sake, tea, beer, snacks, warm rice soup, and seemingly endless amounts of onsen water at each stop. In fact, every station had an onsen bath which naturally helped everyone ensure they stayed appropriately wet. I watched as adults gleefully threw water at friends as if they were children at a splash park.
Before leaving the stations, the participants were guided in prayer by a festival leader who chanted his appreciation for the mountain. The participants responded by raising their hands and chanting their thanks.
Then a man announced it was time to depart by belting a song on a massive conch shell and off they went to the next station.
The Road to the Final Stop
The procession paused briefly on the street before the two mikoshi were carried down the stone road toward Happo-One Shrine. The teams careful avoided the lanterns dangling from the stone tori gates, and continued along a winding dirt path through a small wooded area leading to the rear entrance of the shrine. They entered the shrine grounds, and as they lowered the mikoshi in front of the ancient tree, the people gathered broke into applause.
The procession ended with a prayer, a song, and children throwing candy from atop the mikoshi, before finally a series of rhythmic claps.
Free beer, free sake, free food. Enough said. While I ate delicious soba, kushikatsu, and yakisoba, I enjoyed a cold draft beer and the beautiful autumn weather. There were traditional Taiko drum performances, vendors selling souvenirs, and games for children. The men played their own game; namely spraying each other with onsen water and capturing unsuspecting friends for an unwanted bath.
I had an amazing time at the Hakuba Autumn Festival. I was surrounded by friendly people, great food, and the beautiful mountains in Hakuba’s Happo- One.