It’s the morning of September 14th, 2014.
Spectators who want to see the festival with their own eyes surround men clad in white happi coats and loincloths in front of the shrine.
In the midst of the anticipatory air, suddenly, it happened.
The portable mikosh shrine was vigorously struck to the ground.
It’s a startling sight that for a moment makes you seriously think that a rebellion has risen against the festival! Further on, 3 men jump up on the shrine that has been flipped over to its side and start shouting. This is the start of the Niwaka festival, west Japan’s strangest!
While standing in awe after receiving this strange festival’s baptism, the men began parading the shrine around the town. You never know what’s going to happen during this festival. As I hurry to catch up, the weird scene I witnessed a moment ago is repeated – at the corners of houses, in front of Jizo statues, and various other places, the shrine is struck to the ground.
Just as I’m thinking in admiration, “It’s a wonder the shrine doesn’t break,” there’s a sharp crushing sound and a crack appears on one of its thick round support logs!
It’s an hour since the festival started, but there’s no sign of anyone being disconcerted. Within moments a light truck loaded with logs rushes over and the damaged log is replaced. The workmanship is, simply put, “Marvellous!” Here, I discovered that most of the festival participants are fishermen and they all use rope skilfully. The log exchange finishes before my eyes and the portable shrine continues on towards the town.
The festival comes to a climax in the evening.
After the shrine has been paraded around town, it appears at the beach and is taken into the sea! This is where the most surprising part starts.
Moving left and right in the water, here too, the shrine is struck violently into the sea. Water splashes when the shrine is toppled, and just like on land, a number of men climb on top of it and let out a roar.
West Japan’s strangest festival!
The object of the festival is to appease the heart of the dragon god that is said to inhabit this area of the sea (Obatake no Seto). And it’s a rather strange reason, but for the local people of Obatake it’s a natural, one could even say acute problem.
Obatake no Seto used to be the roughest of the rough spots for those sailing in the Seto Inland Sea. Its violent tidal currents and whirling waters, that behave almost like a living being, swallowed numerous lives. Before long, locals began to fear that the dragon god lived there and unless it was appeased they would not be able to fish safely. The fact that this strange festival has continued for 500 years is because the fishermen have carefully passed it on to each subsequent generation.
This seemingly “strange”, wild performance apparently acts out the story of the unrivaled beauty, Hannya Hime who sacrificed herself to the ocean in order to appease the dragon god (Further information in English on Hannya Hime [https://setouchifinder.com/en/detail/332]).
What meaning lies behind such “strange” actions?
Trying to work out the mystery while watching is the best way to enjoy this strange festival!
How about taking up the challenge to solve the foremost mystery of West Japan??
Oidemase! Come to Yamaguchi
Held: Mid-September 10.00-17.00
Location: Obatake, Yanai city, Yamaguchi prefecture
TEL Inquiries: 0820-45-2414 (Obatake Tourism Association)
Setouchi Finder Photo-writer: Masashi Fujimoto
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Masafumi Fujimoto Hi there! My name is Masafumi Fujimoto. Until the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, I was engaged in editing production at an advertising company in Tokyo. However, the earthquake was a turning point in my life and I headed home to Yamaguchi. When I arrived, I was extremely energized and motivated to help revitalize the region, but I had a hard time adjusting to the motivation level of the local people. Around that time I met an elderly lady who said: "It doesn't matter if all the people move away from the island; that's just the nature of things. Someday people will come back again." Lessening the tension I’d been feeling, those few words relieved me hugely, and I was able to finally adjust. Since then, I've been involved in writing and editing magazines, and working in advertisement production, as well as doing a little bit of farming. I also spend time walking around Setouchi searching for the many, many voices out there.
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