About 23km from the city of Hiroshima lies one of the most beautiful spots in Japan, Itsukushima island, or as it is known in everday life, Miyajima (the island with the shrine). It is considered one of the three scenic views of Japan and is also on the UNESCO world heritage list of sacred places.
In the old days the island was considered to be so holy that laymen and ordinary people were not allowed to set foot on it, it was exclusively reserved for priests and nuns. To allow visitors to the local shrine to properly worship there, a torii, a shrine gate was constructed in the 12th century and placed in the middle of the bay. In those days visitors would be rowed over in long narrow boats but these days commoners are allowed on the island so almost everyone approach it on foot.
The present gate was made in the 19th century by using water resistant camphor trees and is about 16 meters tall. It is really much larger than you can tell from these photos which were taken at quite a distance. Remarkably enough no saltwater nor waves nor typhoons has managed to topple the gate which is actually not anchored to the ground, it is really just plonked on the sand and is kept in place by its own weight! The pier and ocean side walk leading up to the shrine is lined with stone lanterns and the many tourists are kept an eye on by the local population of wild deer, which are protected on this holy island.
I will blog more about the wonderful Itsukushima shrine and the island itself tomorrow and the coming week.
Last of the series of Yabusame photographs I got at the Ogano Spring festival in Saitama prefecture just about a week ago. The horses used by the archers were all traditional Japanese breeds, small and hardy requiring little fodder and fearless in battle. All of them came very close to extinction half a century ago when they were deemed to small for the war effort and the government was focusing on stronger breeds.
The speed can be seen in some of the photos: by the time the archer has released the arrow and the splintered boards of the target start flying apart the horse is already well past the target, speeding towards the next one in line. The boards were collected by the judges and marked by a local calligraphist. They were then sold to the audience to be displayed in their private home shrines as a talisman of protection for the family and home.
The photos may look a little dark. I had to dial the exposure way down to get any sort of contrast, the mountain sun and air bathed the sports field where the ceremony took place in a bright even light that seemed to cast few shadows.
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!