Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (82): Marching to a different drummer

Posted by ampontan on Friday, May 2, 2008

THERE MUST BE SOMETHING ABOUT THE WATER in Shiga that gets the folks there excited about taiko drums. Two weeks ago, immense taiko were the centerpiece of two festivals in the prefecture.

The first was the Hachiman Festival, held at the Himure Hachiman-gu (a Shinto shrine) in Omihachiman, Shiga, on the 15th last month. The main event of this nationally selected intangible cultural property is the Taiko Festival, in which the parishioners pound on a large taiko drum as they carry it to the shrine. That’s no easy task, as the drum, which has been decorated on the exterior with rope, is nearly two meters in diameter. The participants gather near the shrine before passing through the torii in a predetermined order.

Once inside, they have a grand old time parading around the shrine grounds, pounding the drum, chanting “Dokkoi sah no se” at the top of their lungs, and hoisting the taiko in the air over and over again in front of the main hall.

People who’ve witnessed the event say their body vibrates every time the drum is struck, and the spectators give a rousing cheer every time the drum is raised in the air.

Hey, there’s nothing like throbbing drumbeats to get the blood racing and rouse the primal impulses!

Incidentally, the site on which that shrine is located has been used for Shinto worship since at least 131. Yes, there’s only three digits in that year!

On the same day, the Taiko Tozan, or Taiko Mountain Ascent, is held at the Inamura Shinto shrine in Hikone in the same prefecture. In this festival the participants charge up the side of a steep mountain carrying a large taiko drum.

This traditional event is held to ask the divinities for a good harvest, and has been conducted continuously since the latter part of the Edo period (which ended in 1868). Parishioners from nine districts surrounding the shrine start by coming to the facility to dedicate the drum.

The drum itself weighs 1.5 tons. What do they do with it? This is a Japanese festival, so of course they do something breathtakingly difficult. The people from each of the districts take turns hauling it from the torii at the base of the slope up to the shrine itself about 430 meters away. It is no easy task to navigate the outcroppings of rock, the steep mountain path, and the 60-meter differential between dips and rises on the plane of the path. Those who take on the task of carrying that motherbruiser up the side of a mountain reportedly approach it with the typical Japanese masculine élan. They don happi coats, put their shoulders into it, and chant “Oisa oisa!” all the way up the mountain.

Of course it helps that more than a few of them are university students who, like all their brethren around the world, are up for any physical challenge as long as it involves free grog at the end!

To give you an idea of the sheer variety of festival events that occur every day throughout the country, by the way, take a look at the two photos on this Japanese-language page. That’s what they do in Omihachiman on April 14th, the day before the first taiko festival described here!

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