Sometimes the titles of my posts just makes no sense to non-Japanese speakers. Let me explain this one: Ogano (小鹿野町) is the name of a little town in Saitama prefecture just north of Tokyo, Harumatsuri means Spring Festival (春祭り), and Kamicho Dashi means a Dashi (山車, a portable festival wagon) belonging to the neigborhood of Kamicho (上町) inside Ogano town. There!
I took these photos at the springfestival of Ogano Town. The little town is rightfully very proud of its festival and it was great to see how almost everyone took part. The town being exceedingly remote (by Japanese standards almost isolated) made for very few tourists like myself but I saw a handful of foreigners. It is in towns like this you get as genuine and experience of the country and its people that is possible, very seldom have I been so warmly welcomed even though I was hiding behind my camera as usual.
The town has four districts, Kasuga, Kamicho, Koshinone and Shinhara and each one manages one of the giant Dashi. Two of them are normal dashi representing the female, while in this town they also have two other dashi representing the male! I learn something new everytime I visit a festival. These dashi with the long stage part is very typical of the Chichibu region of which Ogano town is a part. I have read that the design is from the early 18th century (about 300 years old) and has since spread to other parts of the country. According to local tradition the Dashi represents the female, and in this region they are always paired up in even numbers with a “male” hanagasa type of dashi that are much rarer. Although you can’t see it in these photos, the rear of the Dashi is very richly decorated and is said to imitate the obi (the sash or belt) of a rich woman’s kimono. I will post photos of the rears, and the hanagasa dashi later. Another interesting details is that the stage area is set to be the same size as three tatami (Japanese floor mats), not much smaller than my first room in Tokyo where I lived for four years! These richly decorated Dashi are fiercly protected by the people of the Chicibu regions and have been registered as especially protected cultural assets of the region. Still, they are paid for and maintained by the townspeople themselves, typically costing about 300 000 USD, I think that these Dashi are much more expensive due to the unusually rich decoration. Some Dashi last hundreds of years so you are lucky if you ever see a new one!
Operating the Dashi is the job of all generations. The kids of the neighborhood take up the front and the rear: the girls are up front in colorful dresses pulling metal staffs, they are called Kanabouhiki. At the rear (no photos in this blog post) are the (mostly) young boys playing flutes. The young men of the town pull the wagon and steer it, which is no laughing matter with these wagons! It takes all their strength to steer it even an inch to the left or to the right, leaning, pushing and shoving the wagon in the direction they want it to go. They are directed by Yakubito which are the experienced or the older men, who ride on top of the wagon, guard the wheels (accidents do happen, almost in every festival) or direct the whole procession from the front. Inside the wagon there is usually a musical troupe of performers called Hayashi. To pull the Dashi from one part of town to the other is a massive effort that requires skill, planning, cooperation, food and water, countless artisans, musicians and dress makers. The purpose of course is to build a community, a functioning unit of people who learn to work and act as one, together for the good of the people. Friendships are made, skills are developed and quite a few children are made during these festivals. I envy these communities for their cooperation!
Of course, this intense community building pays of in times of real need: fires, earthquakes, tsunami, and even the day to day hardships of life.
More photos from the Yabusame performance and ceremony in little Ogano Town deep in the mountains of Saitama prefecture. After riding past once, at full speed the horses were wonderfully restless. Looking at the relatively tiny horses I thought that they would slow but I was completely mistaken! These horses were obviously bred for war! The archers use blunted wooden arrows with just enough strenght to shatter the wooden targets rather spectacularly. The three judges at each of the three targets would raise a special pole to signal a hit and each time the crowd would cheer. It happens sometimes that an arrow strays and hits a judge, that is why no metal arrowheads are used in this ritual. There are very few sports or rituals in Japan that are as physically exciting as Yabusame!
I spent weekend in the tiny town of Ogano in deepest Saitama prefecture north of Tokyo, to visit their annual Harumatsuri, one of the two major events taking place in this isolated mountain town. One of the main events of the festival was the Yabusame, ritual horse archery peformed by some of the most famous archers in Japan. Before the archery itself could start there was the ceremony of the omikoshi, a mobile shrine and sort of arc where the kami or god of the shrine is housed. During festivals it is taken out and paraded around the town and it needed to be on place before the Yabusame could start.
The festival is conducted by the Oshika Shrine, on the north of the town but the Yabusame takes place at the much older and original shrine of the town, the Motomiya Shrine whose remains are housed in a protective steel cage. Usually when an actual kami is moved to an alternative shrine the procession is preceded by a man dressed as a guardian tengu, this time he was a big hit with both local photographers and local kids.
I have seen many Yabusame opening ceremonies during my years in Japan but this one was by far the most serious and the most elaborate, involving everything from the firing of special whistling messenger arrows to full on charges with spears and the naginata (a kind of polearm). I will post photos of the actual archery tomorrow, until then, enjoy!
If you are in the market to visit minor shrines and temple while visiting Tokyo I can recommend trying to find the Ichigayakameokahachimangu (市谷亀岡八幡宮) near Ichigaya Station in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward. This shrine was established as one of the guardian shrines of the Tokyo castle in 1479 and move to its present location outside the moat in 1636 after the moat had been completed. Like most buildings in Tokyo the shrine itself was destroyed in the air raids of May 25th, 1945, but it was rebuilt in 1962. On the shrine grounds you will also find the smaller but more popular Chanokiinarijinja (茶ノ木稲荷神社), that is renowned for being the place to go if you are suffering from eye diseases. It also seems to be a very popular shrine with pet owners who often come here to pray for the health or souls of their pets. There are monthly rituals where you can bring you pet to have it blessed by one of the priests. You would not know from the location but all the building behind and to the left belongs to the Japanese ministry of defense, making it one of the best protected shrines in the country. The shrine’s official festival seems to be in September every year but I have never seen it myself!
The last image is not one of mine, but a print from the hands of the famous Utagawa Hiroshige, showing what the shrine looked like in 1858.