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 to Japan's surreal, culturally rich Edo period. That's when the nation was closed to the outside world. In isolation, Japanese artists flexed their creativity. And they invented a few high-tech surprises, too.
 
Woodworkers, silk merchants, and other skilled artisans populated 17th-century Takayama. Since Samurai rulers forbade the business class from flaunting its wealth, affluent merchants poured their resources into elaborate religious ceremonies instead. The mountain town's twice-annual harvest festivals offered an outlet for creative competition. This was between various districts. Merchants hired skilled craftsmen to build and decorate yatai more magnificent than those of their neighbors.
 
The result? Opulent carriages embellished with gilded animals, silk brocade and shiny red and black lacquer. 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 and pull the yatai through the town's narrow streets at harvest time. Hypnotic flute and drum music transports 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 with 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 operate each doll. The puppeteers gently tug on invisible strings.
 
"Karakuri" refers to a mechanical device. It is designed to trick, tease or 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 maneuvered by 36 baleen strings. They are hidden in a wooden arm. Hidden springs and gears give the mechanical dolls surprising, lifelike gestures. The puppets' faces are carved and painted. Subtle head movements, along with the play of light and shadow convey various emotions. 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, as if by magic, on Hotei's shoulders. 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 absorbed 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. And Kirsty Boyle, an authority on ancient Japanese puppets, 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. Scattered throughout Takayama, these narrow, thick-walled storehouses 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 a few blocks north of Miyagawa River to recapture that festival feeling all year long.

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
What makes nighttime processions seem more magical?
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COMMENTS (41)
  • mterrell-dav
    9/22/2016 - 08:14 p.m.

    In response to In Japan, autumn means a parade of robot puppets, I agree that country should have a fun time with Halloween. One reason I agree is because because festivals are fun for lots of people and can make countries wealthy. Another reason I agree is because festivals can bring cultures from other places. It says in the article but missing the festival is not missing out so that means there is multiple festivals in the year. A third reason I disagree is because festivals can take a lot of money out of your countries profit. But I think that it will help countries bring Cultures.

  • tliam-dav
    9/23/2016 - 08:42 a.m.

    In response to "In Japan, autumn means a parade of robot puppets" by Shannon Wianecki. I agree that it is ok for Japan to celebrate autumn as a reminder of their ancient history because, in the short story it states " The prototype-robots typically bring myths or legends to life" This shows that there is an importance to the celebration of autumn using active role play. Another peice of evidence found in the short story is "Some residents of Takayama still dress in costume and pull tatami through the town's narrow streets at harvest time" This again shows that the Japanese culture loves to show their heritage by using acting. In conclusion I agree that the Japanese community has a right to celebrate their history using roleplay.

  • jasono-dal
    9/23/2016 - 11:23 a.m.

    I think this article was cool because it might have took them a long time to create them and how they just work and move just by circuts.

    • alext-dal
      9/23/2016 - 11:30 a.m.

      I wonder that to?

  • alext-dal
    9/23/2016 - 11:25 a.m.

    I think this article is very disturbing.There disturbing because who in the world makes robot puppets in japan .Is also weird because there are in japan parades.In the article its said it takes 20 men to carry 1 robot.

    • jasono-dal
      9/23/2016 - 11:32 a.m.

      i agree because how heavy is the robot because it says it takes 20 men to carry 1 robot.

    • brooklynb-stu
      9/27/2016 - 02:56 p.m.

      I am so with you here. I feel like it would take so long to carry all the robots just so they can be at the parade.

      • isabelp-kor
        10/11/2016 - 10:09 a.m.

        I never thought of that thank for bringing that up.

      • isabelp-kor
        10/11/2016 - 10:11 a.m.

        I think its nice that its nice that they take time to make them.I wish we had these in the U.S

  • irisp-ste
    9/26/2016 - 11:00 a.m.

    There is something about the night that makes the atmosphere grow even more enchanting. The paper lanterns lighting up the sky as the processions parade throughout the streets would only add to the celebratory and spiritual experience. The dark lighting would make the colors stand out more, increasing its meaning for the Japanese citizens.

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