Matsuri da! (10): One ton of festival fun
Posted by ampontan on Sunday, March 18, 2007
Faith can move mountains, say the Christians, and the participants in the Hote Festival held every March 10 in Shiogama, Miyazaki Prefecture, understand just what they mean. The festival is associated with the city’s oldest Shinto shrine, the Shiogama-jinja, which dates back more than 1000 years. It’s located at the top of the 57 meter-high Mt. Ichimori nearly in the middle of the city. Just getting there is a sign of devotion—it requires a tiring climb of a stairway with 202 steps. Could climbing a stairway to heaven be any more difficult?
While the folks in Shiogama don’t move the mountain during the festival, they do haul one very large mikoshi, or portable shrine, down those steps to signal the start of the event. The mikoshi isn’t 16 tons, but at one ton it’s still a brute to maneuver, and it takes 16 young men (dressed in the garments of Shinto priests) to coax it down the side of the mountain step by step. But this is a Japanese festival, which means there’s always an extra wrinkle, and the Hote Festival is no exception. Lovely shrine maidens ride atop the mikoshi the whole time, surely praying to the Shinto divinities that the boys don’t let it drop on the way down.
The Christians also say that the Lord moves in mysterious ways, and the 16 hearties carrying the mikoshi might agree with that, too. Legend has it that the mikoshi moves through the will of the divinity enshrined inside. They take their time coming down the mountain. Maybe that’s to conserve their energy, because then they have to parade around the city. Legend also has it that the mikoshi frequently used to butt into homes and other buildings along the narrow roads of the parade route, but the residents likely considered that a sign of blessings in the year to come.
The festival itself began in 1682 in supplication to the divinities for protection against fire and for success in business. The characters used to write Hote are the ones for sail (as in canvas) and hand, and that’s only fitting, as Shiogama is a port city and was once a whaling center. Its main industry is still fishing, and it’s known as one of Japan’s primary ports for tuna fishermen. And it also has the most sushi restaurants per square kilometer of any city in the country
Once the mikoshi makes its rounds, the folks of the city get down to the serious business of having fun until early the next morning. What a deal! In Shinto you get to praise the Lord by drinking and carousing until all hours. By the time it’s all over, they’re probably talking in tongues too.
I’m not sure how much merrymaking is on tap for the 16 guys who carried the shrine down the side of Mt. Ichimori, however—when the parade ends more than seven hours later they have to carry it back to the shrine up those same 202 steps!