Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (6): Strange ways to make religion fun

Posted by ampontan on Monday, January 22, 2007

The Japanese are the first to admit that some of their festivals are unusual. They even have a word for them: kisai, or strange festivals. Books in Japan about festivals always include a section on kisai, and some are devoted entirely to a nationwide sampling of these oddities.

How common are the kisai? Well, just last Sunday in northern Kyushu, three smaller ones were held within driving distance of each other. Indeed, the streak of strangeness that runs through all three is enough to make one wonder not only what sort of people conceived them, but also about the people who’ve enjoyed them so much they’ve kept them alive for centuries.

Take for example the Tatami Yaburi festival held at the Nanko Shrine in Isahaya, Nagasaki Prefecture, a bedroom community of Nagasaki City. During the event that dates back more than 250 years, 25-30 local men split into two groups to reenact an incident in which the feudal warlord Masashige Kusunoki employed guerilla tactics using dummies in his 1333 campaign in support of the Emperor Go-Daigo against the armies of the Kamakura Shogunate. Tatami Yaburi literally means to rip up tatami mats.

As part of the reenactment, one group plays the role of Kusunoki’s forces, while the other plays the role of the Shogunate soldiers. Against a backdrop of taiko drumming, the men strip to the waist and don straw hats. The men in the Shogun’s army barricade themselves in the main building of the shrine with the tatami mats, which they call “castle walls”. The men representing Kusunoki’s warriors charge up the main shrine path to attack them.

Their skirmish surges into the shrine itself. In the melee that ensues, the men from both sides tear apart the tatami mats and rub the straw vigorously on the bodies of the troops in the opposing army while exhorting each other to put up with the cold and the pain.

The story goes that this is part of a supplication for health and safety during the coming year, but I won’t blame you if one of your eyebrows rises after you read the first part of this sentence.

No one is sure how the event got started, but both Kusunoki and Hachiman, the protector of warriors and the tutelary deity of Minamoto no Yoritomo, the founder of the Kamakura Shogunate, are enshrined at Nanko. The theory is that blending both enshrined spirits in the festival will preserve peace in the region.

And I say that’s as good an explanation as any!

On the same night the Nagasaki guys are getting it on in rub-a-dub style, a group of people are wandering around in Fukuoka Prefecture’s Keisen-machi for the purpose of getting drenched with water as they stand outside in close-to-zero temperatures. The name of this event is the Tohetohe, which is written with the characters for door and blessing repeated twice. This traditional affair is held to pray for the provision of abundant water during rice planting season.

So, how do the people in the area go about making sure they get enough water? A group of 12 ranging in age from 13 to their mid-40s wear traditional conical bamboo hats (kasa) and straw raincoats (mino) to visit 110 different homes. The residents of each one welcome the group by dousing them with water. Traditional attire may be more practical for some purposes than modern clothing, but I’d be surprised if even the sturdiest mino and kasa can hold up under that sustained deluge.

Sounds like a perfectly natural way to guarantee an abundance of water later on during the summer, don’t you think? Of course, everyone likes a good water fight, but this one is held in January.


As if this were not enough frathouse shenanigans for one Kyushu winter’s night, the Muko-Oshi Festival was underway at the same time at the Kasuga shrine in Kasuga, Fukuoka Prefecture. The objective of this event is to bring the blessing of happiness to the year’s newlyweds. And how do they accomplish that? Here’s a hint: Muko-Oshi literally means bridegroom pushing.

During one of the festival events called the taruseri, men fight for shards from a barrel of sacred sake. And they aren’t just tussling for form’s sake—during the scuffle most wind up being thrown into a pond next to the torii in front of the shrine grounds.

There’s more to it than that, of course. Before the action starts, the brides, dressed in furisode, the traditional long-sleeved kimono of unmarried women, serve sake to the shrine elders, bridegrooms and the go-betweens. After this sweet little ceremony, a group of young boys dressed in loincloths barge in and try to snatch the cask of sacred sake. The cask will later be offered to the divinities.

After the cask is blessed, the shrine priest tosses it out onto the grounds, and that’s when the pushing and shoving begins in earnest. The men stomp on the cask to break it into pieces, and each one takes home a chunk to place on the kamidana, or Shinto family altar.

This is just a sampling of festivals that the Japanese consider to be strange, held on one day in one corner of the country. But the truth of the matter is that there’s nothing so unusual about any of them. In Japan, matsuri in which young men strip down to loincloths in mid-winter to grapple with each other, compete for sacred objects, or get water thrown on them aren’t strange at all.

They’re a part of everyday life.

3 Responses to “Matsuri da! (6): Strange ways to make religion fun”

  1. […] introduces the culture of strange festivals, kisai, in Japan. Oiwan […]

  2. dragonlife said

    Well done!
    Although after 31 years in Japan, I might have a pointed question to all the men who participate to various “hadaka matsuri”!

  3. ampontan said

    Thanks for the kind words.

    As for the guys who enjoy the hadaka matsuri, what can you say?

    Different strokes for different folks!

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