In the land of the amphibian, a fifty-pound salamander is king.
Many hundreds of kilometers west of Tokyo, in the mountains of Okayama prefecture, lies a tiny river valley where the Japanese giant salamander is venerated as a god. Every year for close to half a century now, the village of Yubara Onsen has held the Hanzaki Festival to honor this most local of deities.
Watching a gentle mist roll over the river that runs through the valley, it's easy to understand how villagers came to deify the reclusive amphibians that populate its waters. But the creatures known as oo-sanshouo (大山椒魚 ・オオサンショウウオ) aren't mythical beings or yokai. They're real animals that live in alpine rivers and streams in Western Japan, where under ideal conditions they can grow to five feet in length and live for well over a hundred years. These are seriously large salamanders. In the regional dialect of Okayama, they are called "hanzaki" (半裂・はんざき), the relic of an old (and obviously mistaken) belief that the creatures could survive, planarian-like, after being sliced into two halves. Given the isolated setting and the strange appearance of these reclusive creatures, it's easy to understand their becoming entwined with local mythology.
The procession begins at three P.M. every August 8th, when a pair of parade floats festooned with enormous representations of the giant salamanders are hauled through the streets of the village, followed by singers and dancers. There are two salamander floats: the "male," dark in color, above; and a reddish-hued "female."
Over the course of an hour or so, the floats wend their way from the local Hanzaki Center down the town's lone main street, where the tekiya peddlers have set up stalls selling kakigori shave-ice, yakisoba, "marine soda," and games of chance for the kiddies.
Finally, later that evening, after the sun goes down, comes the grand finale: the Hanzaki Song! Time to crack a Sapporo tall-boy with the locals and soak up the enka-inflected refrain echoing through the valley. Shiawase wa, hanzaki matsuri dakara... ("Happiness is the giant salamander festival!")