Watch outdoor Kabuki at this UNESCO World Heritage festival!
(Nasu-karasuyama City / 那須烏山市）
The ‘Yamaage Festival (山あげ祭り)‘ is an extravagant outdoor Kabuki festival in Nasu-Karasuyama city that started more than 450 years ago. And is currently registered as an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO. Every year at the end of July, the streets in the city center are blocked off and a stage 100 meters deep is set up. The backdrop of the stage is made of Karasuyama washi paper, and mountains made of the paper is raised to a height of about 10 meters, hence the name “Yamaage” which means raising mountains in Japanese.
📽 A virtual Tour of Yamaage Festival 👇
The easiest way to get there is by train or by car. If you are taking the train, you will need to take the JR Karasuyama line from JR Utsunomiya station or from JR Houshakuji station and get off a JR Karasuyama station.
If you are coming from Tokyo, you should take the Tohoku Shinkansen (or Yamagata Shinkansen) to JR Utsunomiya station (50 min) and change to the JR Karasuyama line (50min). The trip should take between 110-150min in total, but check times in advance as there are fewer options for the Karasuyama Line.
You also need to be aware that the JR Karasuyama line does not accept Suica cards so you will need to buy a 590 yen ticket at the station or from the conductor in the train. However, the line accepts JR Passes, so if you have a JR pass you don’t need to worry about buying a separate ticket.
As noted below, there are also special direct trains from Shinjuku (Tokyo) and back on the Saturday and Sunday two days during the festival.
(Time table checked last on April 2023)
JR Karasuyama Line
*There is also a shinkansen train that leaves Tokyo at 9:40 which arrives at Utsunomiya station at 10:28. If you know your way around it is possible to catch the JR Karasuyama link in 5 min (considering there is no delay to the Shinkansen). However, I find this too short to recommend.
Take special express
from Shinjyuku sta.
Karasuyama Yamaage Go
JR Karasuyama Line
*This is a special express train that runs only on the Saturday and Sunday two days during the festival. You will need to change at JR Utsunomiya station for the JR Karasuyama Line. Seats need to be reserved in advance at JR stations.
(Time table checked last on April 2023)
Arrive 5:42PM (change for 5:55PM train towards Utsunomiya Sta.
Nasuno 280 (Shinkansen to Tokyo)
*If you don’t want to change trains at JR Hoshakuji station, you can take the 7:20PM train from JR Karasuyama Sta. to JR Utsunomiya Sta. and change for the 8:23 PM Shinkansen to Tokyo which will arrive at JR Tokyo station at 9:12PM.
Take special express from
Arrive Shinjuku Sta.
Karasuyama Yamaage Go
*This is a special express train that runs only on the Saturday and Sunday two days during the festival. You will need to change at JR Utsunomiya station for ‘Karasuyama Yamaage Go’ a special express to JR Shinjuku station in Tokyo. Seats need to be reserved in advance at JR stations.
JR Karasuyama Line departing from JR Utsunomiya station.
Board the Karasuyama line from the back of the train and get off from the front of the train. If you do NOT have a ticket when boarding, make sure to take a ‘Boarding ticket’ from the grey and yellow machine.
The train rides through beautiful Japanese countryside so make sure to enjoy the scenery.
Half of the fun of Yamaage festival is watching the towns people set up the stages before each show. I recommend arriving at the next location about an 45-60 min prior to the show and walk around to see how the townspeople set up the stage by hand.
To know where to find the next performance, pick up a festival program at JR Karasuyama station.
Preparing the stage. Every turn you take, there is something new to discover.
Children join in with the festibal music.
There are a few shows during the day, including an evening show after dark. As I mentioned in the previous section, watching the townspeople put together the stage is quite fascinating. So, I recommend going to a show you can visit 45min before it starts.
12 o’clock performance
3 o’clock performance with children (2022).
5 o’clock performance
7 o’clock performance
Below are summaries of the main Kabuki performances played during the Yamaage festival.
Every year, a different team (from a different part of the town) is on duty, and different teams have different specialty, so not all of these pieces are performed every year.
After the fall of Taira no Masakado, Ooyano Taro Mitsukuni was sent to investigate the haunted old palace in Soma by Minamoto no Yorinobu. There, he encountered a beautiful woman who he suspected was Princess Takiyasha. After sharing details of the rebellion, Mitsukuni recognizes her true identity and a confrontation ensues.
Tsuna Watanabe encounters a woman named Sayuri while crossing Ichijo Koronbashi Bridge in Kyoto at night. While suspicious of her presence, he offers her a ride home. During their crossing, Tsuna sees the reflection of an ogre woman in the water and becomes more suspicious. Sayuri reveals her knowledge of Tsuna’s name, leading to a confrontation between the two that ends with Sayuri revealing her true form as a demoness and Tsuna escaping after losing his arm.
The story revolves around a child prodigy with 12 children who enjoys playing with the four seasons. This story is known as “Shugi Shoho Sanbaso,” a highly artistic piece that incorporates various classical techniques. It is often performed during opening ceremonies of theaters and the Yamage Festival’s Yoimatsuri kasaze.
Princess Alokuhime writes a secret letter about her treacherous retainers and entrusts it to her servant, Kaede, before committing suicide. Kaede faces persecution, but a white snake spirit saves her before she delivers the letter to Edo. The story is set in Karasuyama and includes beautifully performed dances of boatmen, village girls, and butterflies.
In the midst of political turmoil, Yoshitsune escapes to Mt. Yoshino, and his lover, Shizuka Gozen, follows him. However, Shizuka loses her companion and begins to feel lonely. To comfort herself, she plays the “hatsune no tsuzumi,” a drum given to her by Yoshitsune. Suddenly, a young fox appears. The fox cub disguises itself as Tadanobu, Yoshitsune’s vassal, to protect Shizuka.
Chubei, the adopted son of an Osaka courier, commits the cardinal sin of breaking the seal of a money order he has been entrusted with in order to marry Umekawa, a prostitute whom he knows well.
A female figure appears in front of Sekibei, who raises an axe to cut down a cherry tree. She tells him that she is Sumizome, a tamashii tayu from Fushimi-Tsukimachi, Kyoto, and that she is here for you, her beloved. However, in fact, she is the spirit of an old cherry tree that has received the seven passions of joy, anger, sorrow, love, evil, and desire and has materialized into a human being. They learn each other’s true nature and go on a grand standoff.
The words are taken from “Laomatsu,” a song of the old pine tree, and the “Records of the First Emperor,” found in the the ancient book of Shiki.
Kabuki shows are free to watch, but I recommend buying a ticket (500 yen) before each show which will give you an allocated seat.
It can get quite hot in the summer months so it is definitely worth 500 yen to sit down and relax with a good view of the stage.
To buy a ticket, visit the tent infront the Yamaage Kaikan or where the next stage is being set up. It is advised to buy a ticket as soon as they go on sale (around an hour or so before the show) to avoid disappointment.
It is worth to have a seat for 500 yen.
Walk behind the stage and see the Washi paper ‘Yama’ (10 meters tall paper mountains) standing!
The backdrop of the stage are these massive paper mountians.
Make enjoy the festival make sure to have these things handy.
Make sure to stay hydrated at all times as it can sometimes get quite hot in July! There are vending machines and convenient stores in Nasu-Karasuyama, but maybe not near the stage, so make sure to carry some around.
The performances are going to be in different places around central Nasu-Karasuyama. You will be walking around the town a lot, so make sure to ware something comfortable.
Check the weather forecast and bring a small folded up umbrella if there is a chance of rain as it can rain heavily in July. (You can also buy an umbrella at a convenient store in Nasu-Karasuyama if needed but there may not be one near the stage).
Festival stalls and small shops do not take credit cards, so make sure to bring cash.
Pick up a leaflet with the program (stage times), a list of nearby restaurants, and other tourist information. This leaflet can be found at JR Karasuyama station or at Yamaage Kaikan.
I hope you enjoyed reading about this hidden gem just north of Tokyo, if you would like to know more about fun things to do and travel ideas, please continue to have a look at our must-see / must do things nearby Tokyo page.
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Contributor: Angus Miyaji
Founder of Nearby Tokyo and Japan World Link, Angus helps visitors discover off the beaten track destinations in the North Kanto regions (Tochigi, Gunma, Ibaraki & Saitama north of Tokyo). He regularly travels between Japan and the UK promoting tourism and Japanese sake.