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!
It is February and that means the glorious Warabi Hadaka Matsuri, or the Doronko Matsuri, or the Yotsukaido Mud Festival is drawing closer. On the 25th of this month the toughest men of the city of Yotsukaido in Chiba prefecture to the east of Tokyo will dress up in nothing but loincloth and wade into the freezing waters of a muddy rice field to enact a ritual that is to guarantee them good luck for the year and good coming harvest. There are several parts to the festival, chanting in the water, a game of “kibasen” (one man on the shoulder of three others who battle other similar teams) and of course the blessing of the infants! In this ceremony infants not yet one year old are carried into the water and given a symbolic drop of mud on the forehead, applied with a rice stalk from last year’s harvest. I took these photos at last year’s festival that was so cold they had to break the thick ice of the pond before the ritual could start.
The festival involves a lot of mud, so spectators in the first rows will probably get a bit of splatter so if you intend to see it in person I’d recommend leaving your nicest clothes home for the day! You can see my earlier post, with more information, here. The festival takes place in and around the tiny hill top shrine of Warabi Mimusubijinja (和良比皇産霊神社) which is said to date back to 811 A.D. The pond is naturally fertilized which makes it an even more interesting experience if you get too close to the mud!
The Yotsukaido city council festival information page is here.
When I started this blog it was always my ambition to tell a story with the photos. I soon realized that photos alone was not enough and that I needed a story to go with them, but I can’t write and I wanted only the simplest stories. Some stories are almost impossible complicated though. This blog post has been sitting on my to do list since May this year. I just couldn’t figure out how to tell it. Here goes. I’ll give it a try. It is extremely simplified.
In the very long ago mythical past of Japan, the people thought that there were many Gods in the lands. The ice-age myths were alive and well. They told stories of animals, springs, rocks, mountains, clouds and skies being inhabited by a kami, a God. Humans were Gods in the making as well and these Gods could never be killed, they stayed around at family altars and watched over their descendants gathered around the hearths and homes. There was no need to build temples since everywhere was already inhabited by a kami. In the 7th century the cool new thing, buddhism came over from China and they started building nice temples that filled up with rich offerings and gathered monks and nuns around them. The priests who communicated with the kami were miffed, and so to stay competitive they started building shrines of their own, honoring the most important or strongest of the kami. Japan would be very lucky to have two peaceful non-competitive religions coexisting in quite a bit of harmony. The kami enshrined in these buildings sometimes grew bored and needed to be taken out for a bit, and so the festivals you still see today, with the portable shrines, the omikoshi, were born. To spread the benign influence of the kami around, the shrines started erecting Otabisho, which are in essence mini-shrine motels, places where the kami in the omikoshi can rest for a little while or even spend the night as they travel around the parish. These Otabisho were built in specially significant locations, sometimes within the shrine precincts, sometimes just outside, sometimes even an hours walk away. Since the kami now inhabited these otabisho they were considered extraordinarily holy and lay people were forbidden to enter while the kami was there. Armed guards with sharpened swords would be placed outside to protect the kami while they rested. Today, many hundreds of years later, a few very old shrines still preserve this tradition, one of them being the Okunitama Shrine (大國魂神社) in Tokyo’s western Fuchu City. The first photo shows one of these modern day warriors in front of the Otabisho, holding up his sword, luckily it was not necessary to unsheathe it that night. He is accompanied by city elders, friends, Boy Scouts and curious locals of all ages. Inside the kami of the Okunitama shrine rests safely. Traditionally you are not supposed to see the inside of the Otabisho but I think the residents of the apartment building right next to it can get a pretty good view of the Otabisho enclosure just by opening their front doors!
There is one more complicated and interesting ritual taking place at this spot on the same night, the Lucky Arrow. In a procession from the main shrine to the Otabisho the head priest rides a black horse and shoots an arrow at a target presented by a lower ranking priest or assistant. Hitting the target means that the kami are in favor of the city and will protect them during the coming year. To be on the safe side the mounted priest is very close to the target and shoots as many little arrows as necessary, although the first one rarely misses. Now, the really interesting and absolutely terrifying aspect of this ritual is that the people of Fuchu, which happens to be the home of a horse race track a few kilometers away, believe that possessing the arrow shot by the head priest in front of the kami while mounted on a live horse, is going to bring them extremely good luck in betting on the horses. For horse racing fans there is no stronger talisman in the entire country so a few of them (only the burliest needs to bother) will show up to try and catch the arrow as it bounces of the target, usually in mid-air, usually within the kicking distance of a very proud horse! I consider myself fairly used to horses and if it is one thing I always remember it is to never walk behind a horse within kicking distance. These men however seemed absolutely fearless as their quest for the lucky arrow almost ended in a big brawl. It was actually quite scary and I had a very hard time concentrating on taking photos, hence the poor documentation of this interesting folk custom of Fuchu City!
These rituals take place during the Kurayami festival, which is a night festival that used to take place under the cover of darkness. When Japan opened up to foreigners in the late 1860’s however, they were so embarrassed about this festival that would be sure to shock the sensible western missionaries and traders to their very bones, so they quickly changed it to a daytime and early evening festival. Fuchu is still a very dark city after nightfall though, and the photos I took actually looks brighter (thank the kami for modern technology!) than it was in real life, hence the dark blurry and grainy shots. If I am lucky and get a chance to see this again I will be better prepared to take better photos!
Shi-go-san is one of my favorite Japanese rituals. It the a ritual that takes place when boys turning 3 or 5, and girls turning 3 or 7. It is traditionally celebrations to mark a childs advancement in age. Children are dressed up in special clothes and the whole family usually visits a shrine to take part in a special ceremony. Traditionally it takes place on November 15th every year and it has been going on since sometime in the Heian period (794-1185 A.D.) when it was reserved for court nobles. Later it became common even with the samurai class and in the recent period (starting in 1868 with emperor Meiji) it started being common in all classes of people. Although November 15th is the traditional date people do it more or less sometime around that time, sometimes months late or early: it is more important to be able to gather the entire family than to hit the correct date and in our modern times people really are too busy.
Back in the old days all children had shaved heads before the age of three so in the ceremony marked the day when the children could start growing their hair. At five boys would start wearing the hakama (a sort of kimono like trouser) and the girls would start wearing proper kimono with obi (the belt) at seven.
I took the first three of these photos at Tokyo’s famous Meiji Shrine in Shibuya Ward, and the last two at the Yushima Tenjin in Bunkyo Ward. The first girl with the absolutely adorable smile was very shy when she saw me with my camera.