Nada no Kenka Matsuri
(Nada Fighting Festival)
Photography by Thaddeus Pope
For two days in October, the unassuming seaside town of Shirahama, on the outskirts of Himeji City, plays host to one of the liveliest and most dangerous festivals of its kind in Japan. During this time, the Nada no Kenka Matsuri (Nada Fighting Festival) welcomes over 100,000 spectators to watch seven beautifully crafted, two-tonne wooden palanquins, known as yatai, crash ferociously against one another in an impressive display of teamwork, courage and bravado.
Held in a massive natural amphitheater close to Matsubara Hachiman Shrine, the Nada no Kenka Matsuri is an especially high-spirited Shinto festival, bringing the local community together in an annual celebration of great cultural and spiritual significance. The event is a source of immense pride for its participants, binding the community to the past while reaffirming their place in the present.
The festival begins on October 14 with the initial ritual blessings. It builds momentum over two days before culminating in an all-out palanquin battle on October 15. Each yatai represents a local village; the seven villages are Higashiyama, Kiba, Matsubara, Yaka, Mega, Usazaki and Nakamura. Since the ensuing battles earn the victors bragging rights for the year ahead, competition among the teams is fierce. Although alcohol is consumed throughout the day, the palanquin bearers, whose job it is to carry the yatai and keep them from toppling over, take their role very seriously.
Day One: The Yoimiya
The day before the main event, called the yoimiya (eve of a festival), starts with a set of purification rituals and a public presentation of the shrine called neri-dashi. The yatai representing each of the seven villages parade in town prior to entering the Matsubara Hachiman Shrine, where a shinto priest blesses each palanquin and its members with purifying salt in a ritual known as miyairi. The yatai enter the shrine in a specified order to be blessed while chanting “Yoyasa, Yoyasa” as they do so – a rallying cry that can be heard many times throughout the two-day event. Upon entering the gate of the shrine, the top of each yatai is removed as a sign of respect for the sacred place, a gesture not dissimilar to taking off one’s hat.
The yatai are luxurious, ornate structures adorned with elaborate decorations; silk curtains depicting folkloric scenes; silver and gold sculptures; and wood carvings of traditional Japanese symbols of protection such as phoenixes, dragons and tigers. Greatly esteemed and clad in gold and silver, the yatai are both costly to build and to maintain. During the initial parade, when the pace is slow, observers are given a chance to admire the details of the structures. Before they are deemed ready to parade in public, the yatai must receive blessings for 1-2 years. Known as shiraki yatai, unadorned wood palanquins undergoing this preparation process also receive blessings in the shrine during the event.
In addition to the yatai, three mikoshi palanquins also take part in the ritual. Mikoshi palanquins are portable, lighter-weight shrines. The mikoshi, unlike the yatai, bear the distinction of carrying the gods (kami). It is believed that the gods are pleased with righteous, raucous fighting and expect their palanquin hosts to be smashed during the festival. In fact, the more crashing the better!
While much of the attention goes to the yatai and mikoshi palanquins, the men carrying them on their shoulders bear the great honour of conducting the yatai and mikoshi battles. Since this is a Shinto ritual, and therefore subject to strict Shinto beliefs and processes, only men may participate. Furthermore, due to the danger of injury or even death, only healthy men between the ages of 16 and 45 may carry the mikoshi or yatai – although younger boys are allowed to hold lanterns during the festival.
The male participants wear four distinctive items of clothing: a headband (hashimaki) of a particular signifying colour; a loincloth (fundoshi); split toe boots (jika-tabi); and an armband (udemamori). The colours correspond with each village’s designated festival colour, and each has a certain meaning: Pink is associated with peaches and is believed to ward off evil (Higashiyama village); green represents powerful young bamboo (Kiba village); red stands for metal-melting fire (Matsubara village); red and yellow is the combination of passion and sweat (Yaka village); vermillion is for power (Mega village); yellow is for nobility (Usazaki village); and blue symbolises the ocean (Nakamura village).
Inside each of the seven yatai rides four taiko drummers who are expected to keep the beat at all times, regardless of the level of turbulence they will surely encounter. The drummers are an essential part of the spectacle. Wadaiko (taiko for short) are ancient Japanese percussion instruments that resemble the sound of thunder, giving a dramatic effect to performances and rousing the audience.
After the initial blessings by the Shinto priest, two or more palanquins engage in a mock fight in preparation for the big fight the next day – a warm-up of sorts. Afterward, a lion dance known as shishi-mai takes place and a small parade is held.
Day Two: The Main Event
Starting in the early morning, the mikoshi and their bearers bathe in the Harima-nada sea in preparation for their role in carrying the gods for a day. This ritual is carried out by the village that has neri-ban that year, literally translated to “off-year” in which the village’s role is to tend to the mikoshi. The Shinto practice for washing away impurities with cold water is known as misogi.
Once the mikoshi have been purified, all the palanquins enter Matsubara Hachiman Shrine for ritual blessings before proceeding to Hirohata, a large designated space in the square whose grounds the Shinto priests and shrine maiden have also blessed. The seating arrangement around the amphitheater is packed. Reserved for the locals and the participating members’ relatives, one has to be invited by a local to join them in the seated area. It is not uncommon, though, for tourists to be invited to sit among the locals.
The first allowed to enter the square are the three mikoshi. The mikoshi are supported by bamboo poles in an attempt to balance them. Men carrying the mikoshi are chosen based on their age; the heaviest mikoshi is carried by those 36 and older, the middle mikoshi is carried by men aged 26 to 35, and the lightest mikoshi carried by 16 to 25 year olds. The mikoshi then begin fighting each other in earnest in an event called mikoshi-awase – a sort of undercard to the main event. After the fighting of mikoshi ends, it is time to take them to Mt. Otabiyama in an arduous balancing act and trek to the summit. In poor weather conditions, the ordeal becomes all the more treacherous and difficult.
Next comes the highlight of the festival. It is what distinguishes the Nada no Kenka Matsuri from other similar festivals, the yatai-awase. That’s when the yatai enter the square in the order they are to be presented and once there, crash against each other in earnest. At this point, pairs of yatai battle each other until all have fought. The yatai-awase may last several hours of spirited excitement.
Some of those involved believe that the yatai battle evokes the drama of naval warfare and the perilous nature of ancient sea voyages. While the origin of the event is disputed, many speculate the battle simulates the crashing of ships in a sea battle during Empress Jingu’s naval expedition to Korea. Considering the unsteadiness of the carried yatai and their lurching movement as they attempt to brace themselves, it is not hard to visualise a ship in the throes of a violent sea storm that pits one structure against another.
Comparisons might also be drawn between the natural amphitheater in which the Nada no Kenka Matsuri is held, and the ancient open-air fighting stadia of the Roman empire. The tiered seating surrounding the yatai fighting arena both conforms to, and is carved from, the contours of the steep surrounding hillside of Mt. Otabiyama. This is the same approach to amphitheatre construction that many of the earlier amphitheaters in the Roman empire used – digging into hillsides to provide adequate support and elevated seating. Though the “fighting” that takes place in Shirahama is far tamer than that which took place in ancient Rome, both venues are remnants of the ancient past of their respective cities and civilisations.
Once the fierce yatai-awase battle has played out, the yatai carriers make their way to the hilltop, which is no easy feat considering the yatai’s weight and the exhausted state of their bearers. By now, many of the yatai carriers have sustained injuries and heavy bruising on their shoulders from the sheer weight and rubbing friction of the yatai. Lined up on the hill, the yatai and mikoshi receive new prayers – a respite of sorts. Afterward, they will slowly make the trek down the mountain in the same order in which they came up. By then, they are illuminated with lanterns. Once back in the arena, all seven yatai engage in one final yatai-awase before declaring an overall winner.
Regardless of which village officially wins the battle, they have all fulfilled their role, honouring their community and asserting a place in it. In time, bruises and losers’ pride will heal, the yatai will be repaired, and the people of Shirahama will patiently await the next Nada no Kenka Matsuri.
To view other photo-essays from the “Matsuri” photography project, click here.
All images copyright © Thaddeus Pope. All rights reserved.
Based in Japan, Thaddeus Pope is a photographer, videographer and web/print designer with a passion for human-centred visual storytelling. He is available for assignments in Japan and around the world.
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