Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (104): Signs of spring in Toyohashi

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, March 8, 2009

PEOPLE THE WORLD OVER have rituals and customs to celebrate the arrival of spring, the season when the flowers bloom, the chicks hatch, and a young man’s fancy turns to you-know-what. Japan of course is no exception, but instead of maypole dancing or binge drinking in Ft. Lauderdale, the Japanese have traditionally heralded the annual rising of the sap with a cornucopia of Shinto festivals.


One of those is the Oni Matsuri (Ogre Festival), which was held on 10 and 11 February by the Akumi Kanbe Shinto shrine in Toyohashi, Aichi. Yes, February does seem a little early, but we’re talking the lunar calendar here.

It is one of those events the Japanese refer to as a kisai, or unusual festival, which means that they consider it a bit offbeat even by their standards. Then again, they’re used to the odd goings-on—the festival is more than 1,000 years old and has been designated an important intangible cultural treasure of the nation. It is offered in supplication for a bountiful harvest and protection from illness and disaster.

The festival itself is a reenactment of an old myth in which a divinity is fond of playing practical jokes on the people. That divinity is confronted by another in a battle, and the joker eventually repents the error of his ways. Instead of divinities, the parts in the Toyohashi festival are played by an ogre and a tengu (a goblin of sorts).

The initial events occur on the night of 10 February, when there is a performance of the iwato-no-mai, or dance of the (opening of the) rock cave. This is one of the kagura, or ceremonial dances to please the divinities, and is also based on mythology. The performers are about 50 local junior high school students dressed as blue ogres, and who dance to the accompaniment of flutes and drums. When the performance is finished, they and some shrine parishioners toss out tankiri ame, a type of boiled confection, to the crowd while emitting loud growls. They also sprinkle white powder over the crowd, which is supposed to protect them from bad fortune.

The main event with the red demon and the tengu follows the next day, and their confrontation is described as bantering. Before that, however, some Shinto events are conducted in the shrine, and then there is a performance of the dengaku, a dance in celebration of the harvest. During one of the scenes, the red demon, whose big thrill is spoiling the grain harvest, appears at the shrine and leaps about comically. He is confronted by the tengu, representing the god of military arts, and challenges him to a battle, but the tengu finally drives the demon out of the shrine grounds. Overjoyed by his victory, the tengu also performs a kagura.

The red demon sees the error of his ways and repents. To atone for his transgressions, he sweeps through the town handing out more tankiri ame. Meanwhile, back the shrine, a group of young people shout “a-ka-i” (red) and dump so much white powder on the onlookers that it hangs in the air like smoke from a fire.

The whole scene doesn’t sound like much more than a 1,000-year-old comic sketch, but 60,000 people show up every year to see the performance and get covered by the powder. The more powder that clings to you, the better the protection will be.

Maybe in Toyohashi, powder in the air is a sign that spring is in the air!

One Response to “Matsuri da! (104): Signs of spring in Toyohashi”

  1. ponta said

    an interesting article on Matsuri

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: