AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (47): Fighting over flowers

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, August 26, 2007

FLOWER POWER was one of the slogans the hippies used a few centuries ago now, and some of them were serious about it. There was a song about wearing flowers in the hair when visiting San Francisco, and during one anti-war demonstration at the Pentagon, the protestors actually walked up to the security personnel and stuck flowers into their rifle barrels.

It’s nice symbolism, but few were aware in those days that the symbolism had already been turned on its head years before in Japan at an annual festival in which people whack each other with bamboo sticks to grab artificial flowers that are said to bring the bearer good luck and drive away evil. Put that in your pipe and smoke it!

But that’s what happens at the Gion festival of the Otori Shinto Shrine in Koka, Shiga Prefecture. Known in Japan as a fighting festival, it’s a popular event locally, and the participants once again enjoyed smacking each other in a Japanese version of the War of the Roses when it was held on the 23rd and 24th last month.

The festival consists of two separate events. The first is a lantern festival held on the 23rd (first photo), in which the participants wear lanterns decorated with pictures of paper flowers on their heads. They enter the shrine grounds chanting, “Inyo Isora”, and then collide roughly with each other until they smash their floral headgear.

Of course it attracts a lot of spectators. That’s even better than professional wrestling!

That was followed the next day with the flower-snatching event (second photo). (Flower snatching is not a phrase I made up–that’s what it’s actually called.) The people in each local district collect staffs (called umbrellas) decorated with flowers. These are about 2.5 meters high, and the people participating carry them into the shrine dancing and singing the same “Inyo Isora” chant. It almost sounds like something the hippies would have done.

The similarity ends there, however. Some of the other people attending try to knock over the staffs with bamboo sticks. (Remember, this is occurring on the grounds of a religious institution with the blessing of the Shinto priests.) At least some of these people are wearing bamboo hats festooned with flowers. Once the decorated staffs are brought down to earth, they scramble to snatch those flowers as a charm to ward off bad luck.

I’ve mentioned before that in events such as these in Japan, it is best not to get involved in a scrum unless you’ve got the mindset of a linebacker. Old ladies will think nothing of giving you an elbow in the ribs. That goes double at this floral show, because one might get whacked with one of those bamboos sticks I mentioned earlier while reaching for an artificial flower.

The folks in Koka train the kids early. When the main events are finished, there is a traditional dance performance by girls of primary school age. Somehow they have collisions with the taiko drums during the performance—the reports are not more specific on this point—and a few of them wind up on the ground.

There isn’t a lot of information on this particular festival available in Japanese. I couldn’t discover when it started or the reasons people fight over flowers. But I did find out that the festival is held in supplication of a bountiful harvest and has been designated an intangible cultural asset of the prefecture.

If I were one of those coming home with a few bruises after getting clobbered with a bamboo stick while trying to pick up a flower off the ground, I don’t think I’d use the word intangible to describe the experience!

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