Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Running of Horses -or- "Yet Another Wrecked Family Outing"

Today was this year's planned outing for our local neighborhood Children's Association. The destination, which we helped plan, was Hakkeijima Sea Paradise near Yokohama. It's a really cool place that we've been to before. We wound up opting out. Instead, we hoped to make it up to my son by having a small family outing of our own.

As usual, we wound up running into snags from the start.

We'd hoped to leave in the morning, but my wife got roped into patrol duty. You see, a matsuri (festival) was due to be held at one of the shrines in town, and as usual its local elementary school was obliged to send staff to patrol the area and keep their students out of trouble. The school had assured my wife that the event was usually really short, never more than an hour, so I decided to tag along and bring the kids so we could watch the matsuri events too (and leave as soon as they were over).

I never knew that there was a "Yasaka Shrine" in town. The name connects it to a historically significant shrine in Kyoto. Today's matsuri was apparently a well-known, historically famous event that I'd never heard of. My attending it today seemed like a wonderful learning opportunity.

Yasaka Matsuri 2

The first thing we saw on arrival was a few nervous-looking horses decked out in colorful (well, one was all white) decorations bearing samurai crests. Men in traditional festival dress were getting them ready for...something.

Yasaka Matsuri 3

Not far away, they had the mikoshi (portable shrine) placed in a temporary shelter with an altar set up in front of it. A second, smaller mikoshi sat rather forlornly off to the side.

Yasaka Matsuri 5

The avenue approaching the shrine was roped off and quickly filling up with spectators. I couldn't help noticing that the side facing the lake was becoming a regular thicket of camera tripods. I overheard several people saying, "This year I'm going to get a good shot!" I guess they treat it like a competition.

Yasaka Matsuri 6

This is our local "Yasaka Shrine". It's not as big or as colorful as its namesake in Kyoto, but apparently the locals hold it in very high regard.

Yasaka Matsuri 7

A traditional taiko drum signaled the start of the events at precisely 3:00 p.m.. Things didn't get started for at least another half an hour after that. First we got to see the chigo (a boy selected as the sacred "page" of the shrine deity - although being "selected" apparently comes with a $20,000 price tag!) parade down the shrine avenue on horseback. The horse made it about halfway until it started to panic and had to be led back.

Yasaka Matsuri 9

After another wait, the high priest of the shrine performed a ceremony before the mikoshi while the black-coated shrine elders watched.

Yasaka Matsuri 11

The chigo made another brief appearance on horseback, mainly just standing near the mikoshi (apparently for a photoshoot). After he left again, men in festival clothes went around offering some of the blessed rice to the spectators to eat. (It wasn't bad at all.) Then an older man started walking along the road and up the shrine avenue sprinkling the rice in front of him as he went.

Yasaka Matsuri 13

Then a group of (rather drunk) local bruisers men (most likely the local fire brigade) gathered, waited, took hold of the yoke of the mikoshi, waited some more, got all psyched up, waited still more, and then, with an exuberant cry, hefted the mikoshi aloft and bore it around and up the avenue to the shrine.

Yasaka Matsuri 15

They were preceded by the chigo, who was on someone's shoulders rather than on horseback (and I don't know why!).

Yasaka Matsuri 16

The mikoshi team came up the avenue in the usual excited, violent fashion. As they shook the little shrine to rhythmic chants of "Washoi! Washoi!", they occasionally turned and charged aggressively into the crowd. It was fun to watch, though one attempt at a close-up shot nearly got me trampled.

Yasaka Matsuri 17

(I took this one after dusting off and recovering my wits.)

Yasaka Matsuri 18

The smaller mikoshi was brought by a team of boys who looked ages 10-13. (They offered to let my son join them. He declined.)

After a brief rest at the shrine, both mikoshi teams went out and came back again twice. Then the REAL fun began.

I wasn't able to get any good pics of what happened next, but each of the three colorfully-decorated horses was brought up the avenue toward the shrine in turn. As each came close, the mikoshi teams let out a cry which caused the horse to panic. The horse's handlers did all they could to get the horse turned around and keep it from bolting through the crowd as it left at a full gallop, one of the mikoshi teams charging hot on its tail, mikoshi in hand and chanting! (The adult team did it twice, and the boy team did it once. Unfortunately, the boy team lost control of its mikoshi halfway through the pursuit, sending half the boys tumbling and only narrowly missing having the thing land on top of them!) It was all deliciously violent!

When that was done, the horses were quickly calmed and loaded into their transport van. Then, after a brief ceremony, the mikoshi teams went out for one last circuit. (The adult team was in very high spirits. The boy team was exhausted and looked like they'd rather be at home with their PSPs.)

I quickly rounded up my group, and we ran off to my BLUE RAV4 to beat the crowds and set out on the second leg of our trip, which I'll cover in the next post.


  • Horses in Japan must be unusual. More strange is the horse's behavior. They need a horse whisperer. As you well know having been in several parades, horses are very popular in such events in the US. Don't think I have ever seen one panic.

    By Anonymous Dave, at 6:12 AM  

  • Interesting to see the pictures! Can't wait for the next post!

    By Blogger Selba, at 10:17 AM  

  • Dave
    I have seen horses panic in the US, Dave. I have even had the misfortune of being in the saddle of a horse that panicked and tried to throw me off (because I tried to get it to leave the line and go off on my own...something it wasn't accustomed to). While waiting for a parade to start, I once saw a horse (a police horse, actually) almost go ballistic in response to the crowds and noise around it. There is nothing unusual about the behavior of the horses I saw yesterday at all.

    Horses used in parades in the US tend to be used in parades on a regular basis and thus are a bit more accustomed to them. Also, horses participating in parades in the US don't usually have groups of people screaming at them in a provocative manner. You could also go on and on about the type of horse as well as how they are raised; the horses used in this festival were not your typical riding ranch mixed breeds; they were clearly racing thoroughbreds (which tend to be jittery even in the US) which had been hired at a considerable expense. Frankly, I was amazed that the horses remained under control even when they were clearly freaking out.

    Part II won't be quite so visually accommodating, but it's a story.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 10:45 AM  

  • Interesting. Luckily no one was hurt. Looking forward to part two.

    WV = banher. Ban her? hmm..

    By Blogger HappySurfer, at 1:03 PM  

  • It seems like an interesting event in any case. Looking forward to the next leg of the journey.

    By Blogger Don Snabulus, at 3:13 PM  

  • Sounds unmissable! I suspect that this would be illegal in the UK - can't go scaring horses like that!

    By Blogger Rock Chef, at 12:54 AM  

  • I believe you've created a new tradition. The Running of the Horses. Like The Running of the Bulls, but with far more subtlety.

    By Blogger San, at 7:01 AM  

  • Very interesting and colorful. However maybe as a practical consideration, perhaps the organizers could "rent" regular parade horses (or at least not racehorses, which are notorious for twitchiness). If nothing else, for the safety of the spectators & horses themselves.

    Or maybe just go whole hog and get the Lippenzanner horses!

    By Blogger ladybug, at 2:44 PM  

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