So a few weeks back, on Facebook, I was asked by someone I know what my most memorable experience in Japan has been.
Without much hesitation, I responded that it was the festival in Inuyama (a town about 40 min SE of here) in early April. There were giant 2-3 storey tall floats being paraded down the streets, with karakuri puppet shows on the top storey of the floats. Then that night, the floats were draped head-to-toe with paper lanterns and re-paraded through the streets. It was utterly magical and other-worldly. It also took place during the height of sakura season, which didn't help diminish the beauty one little bit.
However, those who know a thing or two about Japan, and who know that I also attended, the very next weekend, the giant festival in Takayama (a town about 2 hours north of Gifu City that is also widely known as "Little Kyoto"), might be surprised that Inuyama is still my first choice. The Takayama Matsuri is one of the "Big 3" festivals in Japan - right up there with the Sapporo Snow Festival (which I missed - boo) and the Gion Festival in Kyoto in July-August (which I may or may not catch). People come from far and wide to see the floats in Takayama. Accommodations are booked solid weeks, or even months, in advance. Similar to Inuyama's festival, very tall floats are paraded around the town's streets. Many of these floats have karakuri puppet shows. At night, the floats are decked out with lanterns and re-paraded. Being a bit further north, the festival occurred just before the sakura were in full bloom, but for what it lacked in white and pink blossoms, it more than made up for with the pure, crisp beauty of the surrounding hills.
Well, Takayama is one of my favourite places in all of Japan (I think Gujo-Hachiman, a small castle town about an hour north of here, comes first, for being the quaintest and most purely traditional Japanese place I've ever been in), but with all apologies, its festival is a definite second to Inuyama's. The floats were beautiful, but not as stunning as Inuyama's. They also, quite importantly, didn't hold the same sense of drama - they were big, but had a centre wheel for when they turned a corner (the Inuyama ones were turned using plain old muscle), and they didn't quite seem to tower in the same way as Inuyama's floats. Also, as my night pictures clearly show, when Inuyama says it's going to drape its floats in lanterns, it REALLY MEANS IT.
For the brave people in the crowd, feel free to peruse my pictures from Inuyama (100+ pics) and Takayama (130+ pics), and decide for yourselves.