Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (74): Shinto snowball fights

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, March 16, 2008

THE JAPANESE EXPRESSION “Hyotan kara koma ga deru” (Ponies come out of gourds) is used to express the idea that unexpected things often happen. That phrase perfectly explains the one constant among the many different ceremonies the Japanese perform in Shinto festivals.

While the formal services conducted by the priests during the festivals sometimes resemble the rites performed in churches, temples, and mosques around the globe, the sheer variety of the activities in which the parishioners participate staggers the imagination. There is just as likely to be a sake-drinking contest or a struggle between nearly naked men in frigid weather as there is to be a performance of an elegant kagura dance. And sometimes these events seem to resemble the playful hijinks of children looking for a good time.

An example of the latter type of festival is the Otaue Matsuri that was held on the 9th this month by the Kariyasawa Shinmei-gu (Shinto shrine) in Sakakita, Chikuhoku-mura, Nagano. The name of the event translates to the Rice Planting Festival. With its roughly 400-year history, it has become an intangible folk and cultural treasure of the prefecture. The object is to pray for an abundant harvest and the prosperity of one’s descendents.

While it begins as an agriculturally inspired event, it certainly doesn’t end that way. First, the villagers form a circle outdoors in front of the main hall of the shrine. Then, some parishioners dressed in white robes march three times around the circle. The ones at the head of the line carry papier-mâché cows and imitate bovine sounds. That’s not “moo” in Japanese—it more closely resembles the “mo” sound in the word “motor”. They are followed by other parishioners carrying a local agricultural tool called a manga, which is yoked to the cows and tills the soil, while others carry plows.

While it’s unusual for people in religious ceremonies to walk around with models of cows while making animal sounds, it still is clearly in the category of festivals that mime the agricultural process, which are often held throughout Japan. Often, this type of festival involves some sort of humorous interaction between those playing the role of farmer (or farm animal) and the local residents watching the ceremony. This one is no exception.

The exceptional part comes next. The villagers in the circle outside the shrine don’t just stand around and watch—they pelt those walking in the procession with snow. By the time three circuits are completed, the scene resembles the aftermath of a village-wide snowball fight.

The reports or the publicity for the festival available on the Web don’t explain the reason for the snow throwing, but here’s one possibility. As we’ve seen before, the parishioners of one shrine down in Fukuoka every year dress one young man in white, get him drunk as a lord, and then throw mud at him. The more mud that sticks, the story goes, the better that year’s crop will be.

Perhaps the same idea is being applied here, with snow instead of mud. Then again, who could pass up the chance to take a free shot at someone with a snowball?

Would you rather wind up smeared with mud, or covered with snow? I choose the mud, if only because it would be warmer!

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