Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (22): This Japanese festival is literally a bash!

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, May 10, 2007

EUROPEAN AUTHORTIES worry about soccer hooligans getting drunk and starting a fight. The Japanese authorities in Itoigawa, Niigata Prefecture, however, aren’t so concerned about brawls started by people who’ve been drinking. In fact, the religious authorities actually encourage it once a year in Itoigawa’s Fighting Festival that is a local harbinger of spring!

The point of a festival is to have a good time, which means having a bash, and that’s just what these folks have been doing in mid-April every year for about 1,800 years now, according to local records. Two groups of young men representing different neighborhoods gather in the hours before sunrise and remove two mikoshi—portable Shinto shrines carrying the spirit of the divinity–from their storage areas. Then they perform different purification rites, which in Shinto almost inevitably involves sake at some point.

At about nine in the morning each group takes a mikoshi and carries it through the streets in a procession. They start off slowly, following different courses, but after a while they begin running. Music from taiko drums and flutes contributes to the atmosphere. Their paths finally merge. The idea is for the second group to catch up to the first group as it tries to enter the goal area. If the second group catches up and spots the other in the act, they win; if not, they lose. At stake is the divinity’s guarantee of an abundant harvest in the winning district.

Then the men jam one end of the poles used to carry the mikoshi into the ground, and the two groups slam them into each other, breaking off chunks of the sacred relics in the process.

You’ve heard of church wrecking in gospel music? Well, in a manner of speaking, that’s exactly what happens here, with the young men doing the wrecking purified by liquor and spurred on by the crowd.

One woman interviewed after the festival this year said that she gets excited every time she sees it. (I’ll bet!)

The bashing is later followed by a performance of the more elegant kagura, or Shinto dance, until sundown.

An even more fascinating aspect is that this is an ecumenical event, as the festival is jointly conducted by a Shinto shrine and a Buddhist temple. (No, the Shintoists and the Buddhists aren’t squaring off against one another.) Most Japanese festivals are held by Shinto shrines. While there are a few Buddhist ceremonies, they are seldom conducted jointly.

For an idea of what it all looks like, you can try this RealPlayer file for video. (I highly recommend this. The link will work, but you may have to click the section to the right of where it says RealPlayer on the page that comes up.) There are also websites here and here for excellent photos.

2 Responses to “Matsuri da! (22): This Japanese festival is literally a bash!”

  1. Jon said

    I like the fact that it makes that women excited.

  2. David said

    Jon stole my comment. 😉


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