Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (87): The umbrellas of Onan-cho

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, June 8, 2008

AN ESTIMATED 300,000 FESTIVALS are held in Japan every year, ranging from extravaganzas that last for several days to simple affairs that are over and done with just a couple of hours after they start.

In most cases, there’s a clear connection between the festival’s primary activity and its objectives—usually to ask the divinities for a good harvest, good health, or protection from disasters. For some events, local records stretch back for a millennium or more. And festivals attract tourists, so the local shrine or municipality is happy to tell people all about it.

This connection is not so clear for other festivals, however, and it’s not always easy to find the pertinent information. One of those was the Ji-no-Hi Festival held about two weeks ago by the local Kamo Shinto shrine in Onan-cho, Shimane. It dates from the Muromachi period (1333-1467), and is held in supplication for a bountiful harvest. After that, however, the details begin to get vague.

Here’s what happens: a few male parishioners parade through Onan-cho carrying what are called kasaboko. That’s a word created by combining two other words–kasa, or umbrella, and hoko, a halberd. In medieval times, a halberd was a weapon consisting of a long shaft with a blade on the end, though of course no blade has been attached here. (Or at least none that you can see.) Colorful strips of paper are hung from what would correspond to the umbrella ribs of the kasaboko.

The kasaboko itself is five meters long, 3.5 meters in diameter at the top, and weighs about 40 to 50 kilograms, so the trick for the halberdiers is to carry it at an angle as they move forward without losing their balance. This year, about 300 spectators encouraged them with cheers as they slowly wended their way through town, and applauded each incremental advance.

But for some reason, there are gaps in the information about this event. For example, how did the festival start? (The story of a festival’s origin is usually worth hearing.) How did they come up with the idea of the decorated kasaboko? Is it just an interesting accessory, or is there some other meaning? Did they do something else with the kasaboko in the old days? And why are they moving them around like this to begin with?

Considering all the things that actually happen at Japanese festivals, the possibilities are nearly endless.

The Japanese-language website for the Onan-cho municipal offices has a brief description of the festival, but provides none of this information. Neither does another website that offers local tourism information. And the folks at Onan-cho have been lugging those kasaboko down the street every year for more than 500 years, at a minimum.

Now that’s inscrutable!

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