Summer in Japan is matsuri time. Although festivals take place year-round in the land of the rising sun, the majority take place during the blistering hot and humid summer. Their origins, drivers and motivations are different and whatever the reason, they are almost always colourful, boisterous affairs involving the local community and enjoyed by all.
The wonderful but often overlooked Tochigi Prefecture, just north of Tokyo, is no different, with its own set of local traditions. On Saturday, 23 July 2022, I made the trek there from Central Tokyo to experience one of the most unique matsuri in all of Japan – the Yamaage Festival also known as the Nasu-Karasuyama Festival or Street Kabuki Festival.
I arrived at JR Utsunomiya Station and seamlessly connected to the JR Karasuyama Line. This super local train line cuts through fantastic scenery of lush green rice fields and sleepy villages before arriving at its terminus, JR Karasuyama Station.
Being a matsuri day, the train was packed with revellers from all over the prefecture and, like me, further afield.
Despite being run by JR, Suica and other IC cards are not accepted on this line, so paper tickets need to be purchased. Luckily, a train conductor is on hand to facilitate that, walking up and down the carriage selling tickets. If they don’t get to you, tickets can be purchased when getting off the train too. (click here to read train times)
I’ve lived in Japan for 16 years and have been to festivals up and down the country. So why had I made the 3-and-a-half-hour journey from Shibuya to get here? Well, I was about to experience something I had never seen before. So I was extremely excited as the train pulled into Karasuyama Station! To help channel that energy productively, there was an information booth just outside the station. I picked up a helpful pamphlet with a city map telling me where all the action would be.
Taking the JR Karasuyama Line though the countryside | Photo Angus Miyaji
The Nasu-Karasuyama Festival is a unique Street Kabuki Festival first held in 1560 by the then-ruler of Karasuyama Castle, Lord Nasu Suketane, to ward off an epidemic. Kind of appropriate, given the last couple of years! Four and a half centuries on, the matsuri is still going, and it’s now registered as ‘UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage‘! Each year it is held on the Friday before the fourth Saturday in July, and the festival lasts for three days.
Street kabuki? That’s right – an actual kabuki performance that takes place on a makeshift stage. There are multiple shows each day, and the stage is paraded around the city and erected just before each performance, accompanied on its travels by revellers and musicians. The six neighbourhoods of Nasu-Karasuyama City rotate the responsibility each year of putting up the kabuki stage in the streets.
The yama or “mountain” in the festival’s name refers to the backdrops used in the performances. It’s a genuinely elaborate thing – local handmade washi paper pasted onto a bamboo frame depicts the local sacred mountain Mt. Harika, and the performance takes place in front of it. This is all dismantled after each performance and moved around the town on a roughly two-hour schedule—quite the achievement. The coordination and teamwork are a sight to behold.
Beautiful Kabuki Festival performance during the day | Photo Cindy Bissig
The play I watched two acts of was called Masakado. Taira Masakado was assassinated in an attempted coup, and the palace he lived in is in ruins. The rebel princess Takiyasha employs her seductive powers to try and win over Mitsukuni, a warrior she wants as her ally.
This was no half-baked performance – the mysterious dancing was breathtaking, and the Tokiwazu accompanying band was in full force, two people playing the shamisen and three people singing.
Kabuki plays last hours, and each performance delivers a one-act selection from the whole epic. This is often the case even in Tokyo’s major kabuki theatre, Kabukiza in Ginza.
As well as this unique aspect of the festival, there is also the ‘usual’ mikoshi (portable) shrine carrying, a common feature of many matsuri across Japan. This is carried by locals around the city, taking the local deities on a journey to bring luck and prosperity to the town’s homes and businesses.
The festival runs into the evening, creating moody scenes like this the one I shared on Instagram:
Being a festival, many yatai street food stalls line the streets, serving all sorts of delicious fare, with several more unique food options located in the plaza opposite the Yamaaage Kaikan, including some upmarket treats such as handmade gelato and local craft beer.
There are lots of things to do in Nasu-Karasuyama, and given the way the festival takes place throughout the day, you have time to do them. You can visit the Shimazaki Sake Brewery in the town centre. Established in 1849, they know what they are doing. Trust me – these guys make some devastatingly good Nihonshu. They are most famous for aging their sake in a local cave dug during World War II a few kilometres away, a project they began in 1970. You can even sign up for a ‘My Bottle’ and choose the length of time you want to age it!
If you are impressed by the washi paper used in the stages, you can also visit the Washi Kaikan. The workshop is housed in a European-style building and features exhibits on the history and production of Karasuyama washi which dates back to the Nara period and is now a designated National Intangible Cultural Property. I would recommend getting to Nasu-Karasuyama early or staying longer, renting a cycle and visiting the beautiful Ryumon Falls, which are close to the sake-ageing cave I mentioned earlier.
I am lucky enough to have visited Nasu-Karasuyama before, so I can personally recommend all these great activities. That night, I headed back to Utsunomiya. This was partly driven by the fact that I was craving the gyoza that the city is famous for and because I was heading to explore Tochigi’s famous pottery town, Mashiko, the next day.
There is so much to explore in Tochigi Prefecture, even for long-term residents of Japan like me. I hope visitors take the time to get off the beaten track and visit the areas north of Tokyo – there is so much to see there!
All-in-all, I cannot recommend the Nasu-Karasuyama’s Yamaage Festival enough!
Magical Kabuki festival performance in the evening | Photo Cindy Bissig
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: Mac Salman
A Tokyo resident for over 16 years, Mac is the founder and lead guide of Maction Planet, which specializes in bespoke Japan travel. He has travelled to over 100 countries and all 7 continents. He is also the creator of Kanpai Planet, a YouTube channel helping people discover the world of Japanese drinks. He is active on social media ( @mactionplanet and @kanpaiplanet) on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn.