In Japan, autumn means a parade of robot puppets Karakuri perform at the Hachiman matsuri festival in Takayama. (Vintage Lulu/Francesco G/Flickr/Creative Commons)
In Japan, autumn means a parade of robot puppets
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Twice a year, the village of Takayama in the Japanese Alps parades its treasures through town. Twenty-three carved wooden floats are covered in gold and lacquer. These ornate yatai date back more than 350 years. This goes back to Japan's surreal, culturally rich Edo period. That is when the nation was closed to the outside world. In isolation, Japanese artists flexed their creativity. And they made a few high-tech surprises.
 
Woodworkers, silk merchants, and other skilled artisans populated 17th-century Takayama. Samurai rulers forbade the business class from showing off its wealth. So wealthy merchants poured their resources into elaborate religious ceremonies instead. The mountain town held harvest festivals twice a year. These offered an outlet for creative competition. This was between various districts. Merchants hired skilled craftsmen to build and decorate yatai. They wanted theirs to be more magnificent than those of their neighbors.
 
The result? There were opulent carriages. These were embellished with gilded animals. They also had silk brocade and shiny red and black lacquer. They were several stories tall. The dazzling wheeled floats were heavy. Heaving one through town required 20 men.
 
Some 350 years later, Takayama residents still dress in costume. They pull the yatai through the town's narrow streets at harvest time. Flute and drum music takes participants back in time. As the procession travels across Takayama's glossy red bridges, the carriages' vibrant colors reflect in the streams below. Nighttime processions are even more magical. At twilight, hundreds of glowing paper lanterns add shine to the carved floats' lacquer and gold accents.
 
Each yatai has a unique name and history. Golden phoenixes symbolizing eternal life rise from the top of one float. Delicate, carved peonies and chrysanthemums decorate the wheels of another. Kame Yatai sports a giant turtle. It has a weird, human-like head. The father and son who carved it in the early 1800s had never seen a real turtle.
 
And there's something else on board some of the floats. These are Japan's prototype robots. They are called karakuri ningyo. The mechanical dolls spring to life on the float's raised stage. Hiding below is a team of nine puppeteers. They move each doll. The puppeteers gently tug on invisible strings.
 
"Karakuri" refers to a mechanical device. It is designed to trick or tease. Or it could simply inspire wonder. It relies on the element of mystery and surprise. "Ningyo" loosely translates as puppet, doll or effigy. 

While other marionettes are controlled by visible strings or wires, these are moved by 36 baleen strings. They are hidden in a wooden arm. Hidden springs and gears fill the mechanical dolls with surprising, lifelike gestures. The puppets' faces are carved and painted. There are subtle head movements. Together with the play of light and shadow, various emotions are conveyed. The emotions are joy, fear, anger, sadness and surprise.
 
The proto-robots typically bring myths or legends to life. They often reenact a scene from a larger play. One of Takayama's oldest floats is Hoteitai. It features three beloved characters. They are Hotei, the pot-bellied god of good luck, and two impish children. 

During festival performances, the little boy and girl puppets swing like acrobats on trapeze bars to land on Hotei's shoulders. It is as if it is magic. For the finale, Hotei's fan shoots up to become a flagpole. A banner unfurls. It bears a message about the virtues of modesty.
 
As the first automata in Japan, karakuri played an important role in the rise of technology. During the Edo period's enforced seclusion, Japanese scientists took in whatever western technology they could find. They adapted it to their purposes. Their first experiments involved clocks and mechanized dolls. Japan's early engineers employed the puppets to explore physics and automation.
 
A revered karakuri maker was Tanaka Hisashige. He founded the precursor to Toshiba. Toyoda Sakichi fine-tuned the Toyota assembly line after working with mechanized dolls. Kirsty Boyle is an authority on ancient Japanese puppets. She says that walking karakuri inspired the invention of humanoid or biped robots.
 
Today's puppeteers pass their knowledge on to younger family members. Tomiko Segi is curator of the Takayama Festival Floats Exhibition Hall. It is on the grounds of the Sakurayama Hachiman shrine. He tells Smithsonian.com that it can take decades to perfect the art of making these proto-robots move.
 
"One of the performers started learning how to move the karakuri when he was nine years old," she says. "Now he is 30."
 
But missing the festival itself doesn't mean missing out. Wander around Takayama long enough and you're bound to find its yatai gura. Storehouses are scattered throughout Takayama. They are narrow and thick-walled and were built especially for the festival floats. Their 20-foot-tall doors give them away.
 
For a glimpse of the floats themselves, check out the Takayama Festival Floats Exhibition Hall. It displays a rotating selection of four yatai year-round. Or catch a puppet performance at Shishi Kaikan. It is a few blocks north of Miyagawa River. You can recapture that festival feeling all year long.

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