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Published: April 3rd 2016
Despite my ferocious planning of our trip, I know there are times when serendipity delivers the best experiences. Today was one such occasion and what a fabulous experience it was.
We only heard about the Inuyama Castle Festival when chatting to another tourist in a queue at the airport. When we checked our itinerary we discovered we would be only an hour away the weekend it is held so this morning we took the train from Kyoto to Nagoya and on to Inuyama castle. We had a small mishap en route: we were briefly separated when train doors closed on us and I had to get off at the next station and backtrack to retrieve Danny!
The festival was a something we will remember all our lives, with the colour and vitality that seems to be right out of the pages of National Geographic. It's a small town and the festival attendees are 90% locals so we really felt embedded in the culture. Celebrating spring and perfectly timed for the full flowering of magnificent avenues of cherry blossoms, the festival dates from the 1600s and the castle around which it is set is the oldest extant castle in Japan. Its signature
is 13 impressive floats, each 3 stories high and topped with mechanical puppets, sometimes described as 'Edo-era robots. The puppets perform at the shrine and then the floats are paraded down the streets of the old town. They are extremely heavy with rigid axels and the technology reminded me of pictures of the Trojan horse. It takes at least a dozen young men to pull them and about 40 when they need to turn a corner. As well as the puppets, there are musicians on board and lots of gorgeously-dressed children in traditional costumes drumming and shouting chants which reminded us of Netzer ruach. Each float represents a different area of the town and there's a good-natured competition as to whose float has the finest decorations and whose puppets perform the best show. Another element was a parade from the shrine which featured young men in white carrying a gilt portable shrine and older men wearing grey costumes and funny flat bamboo hats. A friendly local told us the men in the parade are aged 25, 42 and 61, ages regarded as risky in Shinto. They receive a special blessing at the shrine and we watched them being photographed as
a group before settling out on their parade. The castle itself is both attractive and impressive, all the more so because we had learned our Japanese history. It was built in 1537 by an uncle of Odo Nobunaga - the first great unifier of Japan and subsequently occupied by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the second great unifier. It's now state-owned and a national treasure. We went up the keep - the stairs are incredibly steep, almost like climbing a ladder but the view from the top over the courtyard of cherry blossoms is magnificent.
In the evenings the floats are usually adorned with 365 lanterns apiece which we were looking forward to seeing but unfortunately the lantern parade was cancelled due to forecast rain (which didn't eventuate).
The whole atmosphere of the day was delightful - traditional but relaxed, family-oriented and celebratory: a bit like Simchat Torah crossed with the Santa Parade and topped with cherry blossom. .
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