Situated on the island of Honshu and the largest city in Shizuka, Japan, Hamamatsu is a town that goes at its own gentle pace. Like most of Japan, it is adorned with cherry blossoms and the long, seemingly never-ending shoreline of the Pacific Ocean.
With its industrial hubbub, Hamamatsu is not the dictionary defined ‘tourist spot’, but there are many interesting places to discover and festivals to attend. One of Japan’s most famous and happening festivals is the Hamamatsu Festival, held during the Golden Week that falls in early May. It is a 450-year-old tradition that began in 1558, where giant kites are flown to celebrate the birth of a baby boy to the Lord of Hamamatsu castle. In jubilance, the lord and his close advisers flew a kite with the son’s name written on it.
The thrilling three-day festival flows with the kites flown by the district teams from the city. Each district designs a sprawling kite around 3.5m x 3.5m in size, decorated with paper carrying the district’s emblem, attached to short hemp strings that help the kite fly. The teams have a ritual of wearing happi coats with their district emblazoned on them as pride.
As morning shines on 3rd of May each year, more than 100 large kites take to the horizons. The kite holders stand at the Nakataima Sand Dunes, releasing them all at the same time when the trumpet sounds. One of the three largest dune areas in Japan, the dunes overlook the Enshu-nada Sea, where strong winds blow that are necessary to fly kites. The kites are decorated with the names of baby boys as well as the marks or designs of each town (cho). According to popular belief, the higher the kites fly, the healthier the baby boys grow up.
At various points throughout the day, the group will hoist the child onto the father’s shoulders and jiggle him around the place. Weeks prior to the event, people are very sportive and start practicing chanting, blowing the trumpet, and banging drums to elicit the noise and cheer that the festival is known for.
Tourists who visit this festival have a lot of fun seeing the group launching and flying the kites. To reach this event, people usually take a bus from the bus station near JR Hamamatsu, where English-speaking volunteers guide you through the participation process.
This sport tests the teams’ skill and strength. There is no particular time for the event; there are teams who embark on the kite flying proceedings right from 4 am onwards, but 10 am is when the things start to heat up (literally too!), with the merrymaking concluding at 4 pm. It is advised that people wear light clothes to beat the summer heat waves and comfortable shoes and be ready to get it all muddy and have fun.
The flying area is lined with festival stalls selling crowd-pleasing delights such as yakisoba, okonomiyaki, and chocolate bananas. There’s even a beer tent if you wish to match the levels of intoxication of the kite fliers and go high with the kites. The air is alive with raucous cheer as the teams joust with their kites amidst the smoke and chaotic fun.
If you can attend only one day out of three, the final day is the best to witness. In celebration of Children’s Day, called Kodomo no hi on May 5th, the day opens with kite-flying by children in the morning. This is then followed by Kite-Fighting, the most anticipated part of the entire festival. The aim is to take down other kites by slashing their strings mid-air with your kite, and the kite remaining flying in the air is supposed to bless the newborn child and bring good fortune for their future. Be warned though. Sometimes things get intense during the competition, so if a scuffle breaks out between the teams, the police on location intervene so it remains safe.
Out and about
Apart from the festival, there is much you can explore in the city of Hamamatsu:
The Hamamatsu Castle played a key role in the unification of Japan. The castle served as the home of young Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of Japan’s last shogunate or hereditary military dictatorship, living there for 17 years before finally uniting Japan following the Battle of Sekigahara and relocating the capital to Edo.
Today, the concrete and steel structure is a modern revision built on the foundations of the original structure. To reach this castle takes a combination of a bullet train, regular train, bus or taxi, where you can check it out between 8:30 am and 4 pm on weekdays. During spring, the place is inundated with spring blossoms.
A small museum in the modern castle displays weapons, armor, and other artifacts related to the Tokugawa clan and castle. It sits in the heart of a large, beautiful park with a lovely garden and pond, reminiscent of Tokyo’s larger parks, making it the ideal place to relax and click some pictures.
Hamamatsu Flower Park
The garden is at the edge of Lake Hamana, surrounded by 3000 flower species during all four seasons. As soon as you enter, the first thing you will encounter is the patio area covered with large blooming flowers to welcome you.
As the seasons pass, different colors of flowers take over the garden – red, white, and pink plum blooming during the early months of the year, purple and yellow flowers in the mid months, with spring bringing Japan’s famed cherry blossoms. The “Hamamatsu Chrysanthemum Convention” is held during November, where the members of this committee compete with each other on the basis of the flowers they have grown in different colors and shapes. If you come as a family and take the ferry, there are several playgrounds set up, as well as a children’s plaza.
Hamamatsu Museum of Musical Instruments
This is the first municipal museum of musical instruments in Japan that cultivate a vast knowledge and understanding of music, musical instruments as well as culture of the city. It was established as the “Creation of a city of Music.”
Artsy people should come and admire the true art here. This museum is small enough to cover it all in an hour.
This is the only ropeway ride that crosses a lake in Japan. Visitors climb aboard the cable cars, dangling over the Hamanako lake in both a terrifying and exhilarating jaunt. Also known as a lover’s spot, you will feel the love in the air at this scenic location, with the sprawling waters beneath you and Mount Fuji standing tall in the distance. The romance is only heightened by the beautiful chimes of music emanating from the music bells, which toll during certain hours of the day. This wondrous experience costs around 420 to 840 yen, depending on the visitor’s age.
Nukumori no Mori
There is more romance and adorable settings in store for you with the Nukumori no Mori, a village-themed attraction set up in a forest, with whimsical stone cottages along with housing cottages and shops. The name literally translates to “the warm forest,” and with the cute and aesthetic ambiance it creates, it stays true to its name. This place is best visited during the daytime with your family or partner to enjoy everything in store.
Getting down to business
Despite its natural bounty, Hamamatsu is uniquely industrial and international.
The city of Hamamatsu is the hub of industry, famous for the production of musical instruments associated with big brands like Yamaha and Kawai Pianos, and factories of Honda Motor Company, Roland Corporation, Sony, Suzuki Motor Company, and Hamamatsu Photonics (which is also headquartered here), as well as a large airbase for Japan’s defense force.
It is now a leading industrial center with strong economic ties to Nagoya. Apart from the production of musical instruments, it is also known for the manufacture of motorcycles and consumer goods, as well as cotton dyeing and weaving. In addition, Hamamatsu serves as the marketing hub for western Shizuoka, including Lake Hamana and the lower Tenry River.
The local allure of this quaint city comes out in full swing during this Kite Festival. If Japan has been a part of your bucket list for long, don’t hesitate to fly to the land of the rising sun and enjoy the culture, food, and simple living that Hamamatsu promises you.