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!
This year’s Kawagoe Spring Festival (川越春祭り) saw much better weather than usual so the all of the usual performances seemed to take place with double or triple the manpower (or kidpower, or old ladypower) than usual. One of these was the Minyounagashi (民踊流し) and taiko drumming along the main streets. Several dozens if not over a hundred women in matching outfits performed a traditional long folk dance set while three young drummers did their best to keep them on a steady rhythm. The kids were certainly at the center of attention! I think it is wonderful that there are opportunities and chances like this for all members of a community to take part in activities together, regardless of age of physical fitness. Festivals like these could serves as models for all communities in Japan, and perhaps even abroad.
More photos from the Kawagoe Harumatsuri (Kawagoe City Spring Festival) in Saitama prefecture. Kawagoe is a great tourist destination if you want to get a short break from Tokyo. It is only 32km (about 20 miles) from central Tokyo and there’s just about enough attractions to make any day trip worthwhile. I prefer to visit during festivals, as my favorite streets are usually blocked out for traffic and you are free to wander around the beautiful main street and take in the atmosphere of little Edo. Plenty of local bars and cafes serve the best local brewery in Japan, the Coedo Beer and you could have a complete dinner by just moving from store to store having a little something at each one. Recently Kawagoe has ramped up the Showa nostalgia scenery and shops and the many old stores along the main street are happily showing of even their most antiquated merchandise (how about the vending machine selling realistic smoking cigarettes for children?).
Kawagoe being north of Tokyo also means that the Sakura season is slower by a week or so which gave me the chance to do some early sakura blossom viewing that I missed totally in Tokyo. The second wave of sakura blossoms should be peaking in Kawagoe now so if you just arrived to Tokyo as a tourist, head north! You might catch it yet.