Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (119): What a cool crash!

Posted by ampontan on Friday, October 21, 2011

DESPITE the priests dressed in ancient robes who conduct ceremonies and offer prayers that are centuries old, the main activities of some Shinto festivals seem as if they were conceived by bored college frat boys with a buzz on and looking for anything else to do besides study on a midweek evening.

You won’t think I’m exaggerating after you read about the Honyama Shinji held annually in late September at the Yamasaki Hachiman-gu (shrine) in Shunan, Yamaguchi.

It started roughly 300 years ago, when this area, then part of the Tokuyama domain, suffered a particularly bad harvest. They created and conducted this festival in supplication for a bumper crop the next year.

Festival floats in Japan are often called yama, which is the word for mountain. This one has three: The honyama, or main mountain; jiiyama, or grandfather mountain, and baayama, or grandmother mountain. They’re assembled using traditional methods, which means mortised joints and no nails at all. The honyama is 2.7 meters long, 2.6 meters high, and weighs nearly a ton. They are lashed together with the kazura vine and adorned with sacred pine boughs for good luck, as well as lanterns.

The three floats are paraded through two districts near the shrine in the days leading up to the festival. Then, early in the evening on festival day, they’re taken as far as the torii in front of the shrine itself. That would be a simple matter in most instances, but in this case the Yamasaki Hachiman-gu torii is at the top of a steeply sloped hill 10 meters above the ground below.

But no logistical problem is unsolvable at a Japanese festival if there’s enough manpower and grog for the task. The solution is to pull all three floats to the top of the hill on rollers one at a time — first the jii, then the baa, and then the one-ton honyama. On board the honyama are about 10 people, including a priest and musicians.

The floats are met at the torii on the top of the hill by a group that has carried down a mikoshi — a sort of palanquin bearing the shrine’s tutelary deity — from the shrine itself. A brief Shinto ceremony is conducted with the three floats and the mikoshi facing each other.

Then they turn the floats around and push them down the hill to crash at the bottom: first the jii, then the baa, and then the honyama. When they come to a stop, the locals quickly scramble to snatch the pine boughs and the shide paper streamers that denote a sacred space. Possession of one brings good luck in the year ahead. Luck in the harvest is determined by the direction in which the honyama collapses at the bottom of the hill.

After that, the folks from Shunan disassemble the crashed floats and retrieve all the salvageable material, which is used to build next year’s floats.

Nothing’s mentioned in the newspaper reports, but it’s safe to assume that after the festival, the participants — including the priest — get just as ripped as any of those collegians in the frat house living room.

How did they come up with this idea 300 years ago? That isn’t mentioned in the newspaper reports either, and the city’s website offers no explanation.

But this is what it looks like:

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