There are a lot of festivals going on in Tokyo this weekend, the biggest probably being the one in Shibuya that I posted yesterday, but not far behind is the Hikawa Shrine Matsuri in Tokyo’s central Akasaka (not to be confused with the very similar sounding place name Asakusa). This festival kicked off on Friday evening but I didn’t have time to visit so here are a few photos from my visit to this festival back in 2012, a couple of years ago. I have been to this festival many times and it is always fun, especially to see the large dashi, the mobile shrine platforms as they are pulled and pushed and dragged all around the narrow streets and hills of Akasaka (赤坂, even the name means Red Hill). There are two different dashi and they are used on different days, so depending on when you see them you are bound to see a different one. Dashi connoisseurs (yes there are such people!) can easily tell the difference, but less learned people like me have a bit of a hard time.
A good friend that I met by chance at a festival last weekend let me in on how omikoshi (the mobile shrines carried by parishioners around the neighborhood) are judged in action! I can’t believe I hadn’t gotten this earlier, but apparently people in the know look at the four tassels hanging around the edges of most omikoshi (the ones in this festival are blueish purple): if the tassels swing wildly in rhythm, it means that the omikoshi is moving with cheer and purpose, if they hang straight or just sort of rattle around it means the carriers are running low on energy and the proper spirit. The best way to get the tassels swinging is to cheer the carriers on which usually spurs everyone into action!
If you have time and the opportunity, don’t miss this or any of the many other big festivals this weekend!
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!