Note: this post was re-posted from my old website, originally published in February 2017.
This time let me take you to a cool festival in Fukushima prefecture that has been preserved for around 900 years since its first beginning and categorized as a state-designated significant intangible culture asset due to its singularity.
In early December a few years back, my buddies and I departed from Sendai to Nihonmatsu in Fukushima to see the festival. Upon arriving at the station, according to the guidance we received in the station’s information center we still needed to take another bus to a small town called Touwa and from there switch to local taxi to the festival location, an even smaller village called Kohata.
Since it was still quite some time to go before the bus departed to Touwa we decided to get early breakfast and explored Nihonmatsu a bit. There is supposedly a castle in Nihonmatsu, but due to time constraints, we could only visit the shrine at the entrance of the station. Since I am a castle lover, perhaps I will pay a visit some other time if I can.
When the bus stopped by, it took us through a quite mountainous region around Nihonmatsu. The sun was shining and it was indeed a perfect day for outdoor activity. We fell asleep on the bus and soon missed our supposed bus stop and ended up at the last destination, an elementary school in the top of a hill. The driver took pity on us, and despite his stern face he urged us to get on the bus again and dropped us in front of a taxi company. We thanked him and then left Touwa for Kohata by taxi, which is actually only a few minutes away drives but separated by huge hills.
Arriving in Kohata, the festival held in the village square was already packed with people, both participants, and onlookers. There was a small stage where the opening ceremony seemed to have taken place. The participants wore white garbs with a belt and pointy black cap almost priest-like and were said to have come from various neighboring regions. When we came we seemed to have missed the hata kyousou (旗競争), a running competition while holding the flag, which was quite a shame because it was one of the highlights that often appeared in photography exhibitions about Japan.
The festival got its name from the fact that the participants would be bearing THE flag– a gigantic flag made from bamboo pole up to seven meters long and decorated by a long piece of colorful cloth sewn together. It dates back to the Heian Period during the war between the Minamoto clan and the local warlord. It is said that the local warlord’s forces chased Minamoto clan’s army to the mountain but later withdrew because they were mistaken the snow in the mountain as Minamoto’s surrendering white flags. Regardless this legend is true or not, the people of Kohata kept the story for hundreds of years and started the festival as a remembrance.
Before noon, under the blue winter sky, more than 200 participants started to walk from the square where the opening ceremony was held, along the mountain pathway around 8 kilometers to Mt. Kohata, the final destination of the parade. They would walk for 5 hours with small breaks in between carrying the heavy flag to pray for a good harvest and successful business in Hayama Shrine via Okitsushima Shrine high in the mountain.
The journey was arduous simply due to the sheer weight of the flag and the uphill slope. We saw the flag -bearers often ran out of breath and sighing heavily, but the people around would always cheer ‘ganbare! ganbare!‘‘ (‘you can do it!’) to lift their spirits up. I could imagine it was really a taxing physical effort. The same goes for us because to get decent pictures we needed to move ahead from the parade to get a strategically good position.
At around 2 past high noon, the parade has arrived in a resting area in the mountain. From now on only the vanguard party comprised of the village elders and two young male villagers carrying intricate sculptures would proceed upfront to Hayama Shrine while the rest of the flag-bearers would stay behind and rest for a while.
They went ahead to celebrate the coming of age for the 2 young males from the village. The ritual was carried off in the vicinity of Hayama Shrine when the young men did a ritual called ‘tainai kuguri’ (passing through the womb), in which they slipped through the crevice of big rocks and another ritual step called ‘kuizome‘ in which they ate porridge cooked with azuki beans. They also left the ‘sculptures’ they have been carrying at the mouth of the crevice to signal the completion of the coming of age ritual.
Although the festival will carry on through the mountain a little bit more then go back because we had to catch the last bus back to Nihonmatsu we had to leave the festival earlier. As we headed back we saw the entire parade resting at the top of the open peak of Mt. Hayama, admiring the view while drinking sake having fun. This is essentially the core of all Japanese festivals upon my observation – having fun while performing their duties.
We called the taxi company again and waited in the village square. The sun has begun to shift towards sunset and the sky has turned a bit cloudy. Upon the now empty square, we could still vividly remember the roar of the bearers chanting ‘let’s go!’ in unison before making their way uphill a few hours before. Time has flown fast we already spent a whole day in Kohata. It had been a long one-day trip from Sendai, but as usual, it was worth the while.
When to go: around early December each year
How to go: From Tokyo take shinkansen and get off in Shiroishizao station (approx 2 hours). Or from Sendai, take JR Tohoku Line and get off in Shiroishi station (50 minutes).
Useful sites: Japan Travel and Tourism Association (English)