Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (86): Here’s fish in your quiver!

Posted by ampontan on Friday, May 23, 2008

WHAT BETTER WAY to guarantee a big haul of fish than to have an archery contest?

That’s how the folks in the Minoshima district of Yukuhashi, Fukuoka, have looked at it for several centuries now, and every year they put their arrows where their mouths are at the Minoshima Momote Festival. This year’s event was held on Thursday the 21st.

Here’s the idea: amateur archers shoot arrows into a target set up on the grounds of the Minoshima Shinto shrine. The more arrows they can pump into the bulls-eye, the bigger the catch will be for local fishermen that year.

The event features another combination in addition to the mixture of archery and fish. Most traditional Japanese festivals are Shinto affairs, but for this one, the Shinto priest at the Minoshima shrine is joined by priests from Hosen-ji, Saiho-ji, and Jonen-ji, local Buddhist temples of the Jodo sect.

It all started in the 16th century during the latter part of the Muromachi period, when the pirates who infested the waters of the Seto Inland Sea to the east would periodically stop by to attack and plunder the coastal village. If they were anything like pirates in the rest of the world, they probably took the opportunity to ravage a few women while they were at it.

The pirates made Minoshima a frequent port of call because for centuries it was an important transit point for maritime traffic—it’s located an arrow’s flight away from the northeast corner of Kyushu and the big city of Kitakyushu. Lying just across the strait from Kitakyushu is Shimonoseki with its still-bustling Port of Moji.

The villagers resolved to defend themselves by taking up the manly art of archery, and a tradition was born. It must have worked—there are no more pirates on the Inland Sea, and the locals still have the archery festival every May.

The event begins with a joint Shinto-Buddhist service at the shrine. When the priests are finished, it’s time for the archers to enter. Since their success, or lack of it, will foretell the success of the fishermen, it would be cheating to use a few semi-pros to shoot the arrows every year. They solve that problem by selecting two teenagers by lot to play the role of the bowmen.

But choosing two young guys who didn’t know which end of the bow was which could create the opposite problem by jinxing the fishermen, so they’re allowed to practice a little before taking their official shots. The recent switch from bamboo to metal arrows has also reportedly improved their aim. Some might think the use of modern technology gives them an unfair advantage, but then again, the fishermen are unlikely to be plying their trade with 16th century techniques and equipment. Let’s just say it’s another example of how traditions can be updated to reflect changing times while maintaining the original spirit of the festival!

The newly deputized archers assume their positions at the southwest part of the shrine grounds, where two targets are set up in front of a smaller shrine, called a shoshi. Both of the targets are about two meters in diameter, and both have black circles, representing pirates eyes, painted on instead of bulls-eyes. The archers fire two arrows each at both of the targets.

This year, four of their eight arrows hit the mark. One of the boys accounted for three of the hits, but the other archer’s only success stuck smack dab in the middle of the pirate’s eye. According to the shrine’s priest, that means fish galore in every Minoshima household in 2008!

Some families in the region will be blessed with more than fish. The reports say that the targets themselves will be removed from their stands and taken to local homes—they didn’t say whose—to be used as objects of veneration in supplication for health and safety in the coming year.

They might find it a bit unnerving to be stared at by a big old black pirate’s eye every time they go into the kitchen for a snack, but if it gets them through the year hale, hearty, and full of fish, then why the heck not?

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