The Handa Dashi Matsuri float festival (半田山車まつり) is held only once every 5 years in the city of Handa in Aichi Prefecture. The festival has a whopping 31 ornate wooden floats paraded on the streets near JR Handa Station. Handa is not far from Nagoya and Toyota. The headquarters of Mizkan vinegar is in Handa.

The unique thing about the Handa Dashi Matsuri is that although all the floats are religious, it’s not a religious festival. It’s just a tourist event started in 1979. The local Junior Chamber of Commerce started the festival to mark its 15th anniversary. From 1987, they decided to hold it every 5 years. So it is held on years ending with a “2” or “7.”

The 31 floats are religious because they come from 10 neighborhoods in Handa and each belong to a Shinto shrine in their respective neighborhoods. They hold their own religious festival every spring. And every 5 years, they all line up in a large parking lot for this Handa Dashi Matsuri.

They had to overcome many problems (mostly egotistical, financial, and logistical) before they could get all 31 floats to agree to gather together every five years. It’s a grand festival held only eight times so far. The one in 2012 attracted over 500,000 spectators. I believe it, there was a lot of people in this otherwise sleepy city.

In the morning, they pull and park the floats along the streets near JR Handa Station. 
Intricate woodcarvings on a float. They all tell a story, but I haven’t had time to learn about it.
This group of float pullers sat and sang in a circle. They were half-drunk.
Some float pullers had distinctive hairstyles.

From 12:30 pm, the floats started to gather at this large parking lot with bleachers (¥4,000 paid seating). Too bad the bleachers were all sold out for this day. Otherwise, it would’ve provided a great vantage point to photograph all the floats lined up.

For about 90 min., the 31 floats arrived at the parking lot one after another like clockwork in the specified order. Each float was introduced over the PA system as they arrived. Except for the bleachers, spectators were not allowed to enter the parking lot while the floats were arriving.

The parking lot gradually filled up with the 31 floats. Seeing as many as 31 floats gathered in one place was a spectacle I couldn’t miss. Especially when it happens only once every 5 years. The vast majority of traditional float festivals in Japan have no more than 10 floats or so.

The 31 floats would be gathered here for only 2 hours until 4 pm. I rushed to photograph each float.

After the last float was parked here, there were brief fireworks and much applause. Spectators were then allowed onto the parking lot to see the floats up close.

Karakuri mechanical puppets.

One highlight of this great gathering was the performance of karakuri mechanical puppets on several of the floats.

There was a great variety of karakuri mechanical puppets including swinging monkeys. Very entertaining with amusing theatrics. I didn’t have time to learn about the story behind each puppet performance, but it’s usually based on Chinese or local legends.

In the evening, paper lanterns were lit up to decorate the floats.
No cigarette lighters, just a bunsen burner to quickly light the candles in the lanterns.
Float with lanterns in the evening.

It was an all-day festival lasting until around 9 pm. It’s held on Sat. and Sun. and the same thing is basically repeated on both days.

Riverside fireworks.

There were riverside fireworks at 8 pm. These men are holding fireworks cannons (tezutsu hanabi) made of bamboo and filled with gunpowder. They last only several seconds. Fireworks cannons are famous in the nearby city of Toyohashi. The festival was well worth seeing.

More Handa Dashi float festival photos: