A couple of weeks ago I visited the fantastic Ogano Harumatsuri, the Spring Festival of the little mountain town Ogano in deepest Saitama Prefecture north of Tokyo. The town celebrates the spring festival by launching four dashi, well technically there are two dashi and two kasaboko (傘鉾), where the dashi represents the female and the kasaboko represents the male. I took these photos of the Shinhara (新原) kasaboko as it made its way from the main shrine of Ogano town to the place of the old original shrine on the opposite end of town. The weather was a little bit to grey to really bring out the color and the splendor of these kasaboko wagons, but the townspeople did their best and it was wonderful multigenerational affair, the little girls in front and the young boys on flutes in the back, the men in front of the wagon and the older men directing it from the sides. I will post more photos of the festival at night later on in the week so stay tuned!
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.
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!