Breathtakingly Dangerous: Nada Kenka Matsuri in Himeji
Himeji is mostly famous for its great castle. Himeji Castle is without a doubt one of the most impressive and beautiful castles in Japan.
But Himeji has a lot more to offer than you would think! It was not only shooting location for “The Last Samurai“, but also has some rather famous festivals such as the “Himeji Yukata Matsuri” or the “Nada Kenka Matsuri”. The latter I want to introduce today.
What is the “Nada Kenka Matsuri”?
The Nada Fighting Festival also known as Nada no Kenka Matsuri (灘のけんか祭り) is held every year on October 14th and 15th. I visited on both days in 2012.
It takes place in Shirahama Town which is located in Himeji City, Hyogo Prefecture (map), the westernmost part of Kansai.
There are several similar fighting festivals in Japan, especially in autumn, but the Nada Kenka Matsuri is the biggest of its kind nationwide! So, it’s no wonder that it’s attracting over 100.000 visitors every year.
“Kenka” means Fight
As the name suggests it’s a fighting festival.
The main event features portable shrines banging against each other. It is said that the harder the sacred palanquins crash, the more the kami (gods) are pleased. There are seven villages taking part in the festival and it is believed that the gods will bless the winner with a good harvest.
It’s a traditional Shinto Festival and thus only men are allowed to participate. Considering how brutal it can become, I think that’s a good thing.
Traditional Nada Kenka Matsuri Clothes
The men who participate as carriers of the floats all put on headbands (hachimaki、鉢巻). The color of the headband depends on either their age or the village they belong to. I’ll explain that later.
The contestants wear Jika-tabi (地下足袋), a type of traditional Japanese boots.
Last but not least, they have a udemamori (腕守り), an arm protector, on their upper left arm.
The Seven Villages
The Nada Kenka Matsuri is a very colorful festival. That’s because there are seven villages of Himeji fighting each other. Each of them has their own yatai (float) and is associated with a color:
(the color of peach that gets rid of evil spirits)
(the color of the young bamboo that is full of power)
(the color of the fire that melts metal)
|Yaka (八家)||yellow and red / orange
(the color of sweat and passion)
(the color of passion)
(the color of noblemen)
(the color of the ocean)
In the main event, the crashing of the portable shrines, only high school boys up to men of 45 years can take part. Junior high school kids can not.
Only the village of Kiba allows junior high boys to participate as holders of lanterns (see photo on the right).
October 14th: Yoi-Miya – Getting Fired Up!
The main festival takes place on October 15th. The day before is basically the preparation for the next day and is called “Yoi-Miya” (宵宮).
The festival is dedicated to the Matsubara Hachiman Shrine (松原八幡神社) where the portable shrines will receive their divine blessings on October 14th.
You can see the schedule for the 14th and 15th here.
The festival starts around 11 a.m. on October 14th with “Neri-Dashi” (練りだし) when the yatai (屋台, portable shrines) of each village are lined up and carried around to present them to the public.
Then, the main event of the day will start, the “Miya-Iri” (宮入). Each portable shrine will enter through the shrine gate to receive the blessings of the gods. A Shinto priest tosses purifying salt over each team and float during the ceremony.
As you can see in the photo above the top of the yatai had to be removed so that it would fit through the entrance gate. I heard it was built like that on purpose. Having to remove the top is similar to taking off your hat when entering a church, to pay respect to the god(s).
The float above is from the Yaka Village as you can see they have red and yellow colors on their shide (bamboo poles decorated with colorful paper) and the kanji in gold says “Ya (八)”.
There’s a given order in which the seven floats of each village have to enter: (1) Higashiyama, (2) Kiba, (3) Matsubara, (4) Yaka, (5) Mega, (6) Usazaki, (7) Nakamura.
As you can see it takes a lot of manpower to lift up the float as it weights up to 2 tons! Teamwork and a great synchronization are necessary.
Inside the palanquin sit 4 men who play the Japanese drum (taiko) at all times. Even when the portable shrine is falling over, they keep drumming.
They have a lot of responsibility and it might be the toughest job throughout the whole festival.
Apparently about 16 years ago, a yatai fell onto a nest of suzumebachi (killer hornets) and all of the carriers and drummers were stung. Most of them fainted and had to be carried to the hospital, but the drummers kept playing as long as they could. (Source: dydomatsuri.com)
Once the portable shrines have received their blessings, there’s a “carrying competition” on the huge public space in front of the shrine. Two or more palanquins are banged against each other. That’s called “Neri-Awase” (練り合わせ). However, this is nothing compared to the “real fights” on the following day.
Sometimes the carriers obviously have to take a break. A lot of alcohol is consumed during the festival and the wives who would usually get very angry allow their husbands only around this time of the year to drink to their hearts’ content.
When you find a resting float, you can get closer and admire all the great details:
Each yatai is decorated with beautiful wooden carvings and other valuable items.
After all portable shrines have received their blessings and the “Neri-Awase” has started, there’s “Shishimai“. It’s a dragon dance held in front of Shirahama Elementary School every year.
You can see a video I took of the dragon dance here.
There’s also a little parade with the floats accompanied by traditional music and the screams of the participants.
Yatai vs. Mikoshi
You have probably noticed that I sometimes used the word “yatai” and sometimes “mikoshi” to describe the portable shrines. Now, just like me at first, you might wonder if there’s any difference.
Mikoshi (神輿) are meant to be broken during the festival, so their decoration is fake and not very expensive. They are also much lighter than the yatai (屋台).
The yatai have gold and silver decorations and one costs around 1 million USD! They have to build a new yatai every 15-20 years. Often you see newly built yatai (wooden without a lot of decoration) getting blessings from the shrine during the festival as well. In 1-2 years they can be used for real. They’re called Shiraki Yatai (白木屋台, untreated wood yatai). (Source: sisimai-nadamatsuri )
The locals say “yassa” (ヤッサ) instead of yatai.
Just by looking at it you won’t know wich one is heavier, but you can easily tell which is pompously decorated. The one that looks more expensive and exquisite is the yatai.
October 15th – Hon-Miya (Main Event): The Float Fights
As you can see it wasn’t crowded at all when I first arrived at the square where the fights would take place later that day. There are seats on the opposite side as well. It’s said that about 150.000 people can fit in there!
However, it’s impossible to get a seat as they’re all reserved by the locals and families of the participants. You cannot reserve in advance as a normal tourist, you need to be invited by one of the locals. That seems to be your only choice.
If you stay at the square, it can get quite dangerous! I’ll explain why later.
A small advice: I ended up sitting on the path between all the seats, but I was always in the way. Finally some nice people invited me to sit with them. Later I saw other foreign tourists who were also sitting with locals. Maybe if you’re lucky, you’ll be invited during the festival.
The festival starts in the early morning (about 5 a.m.) , so I didn’t attend that part.
At first the lion of the Matsubara Village (松原の獅子) will worship the gods by celebrating a Dragon Dance on the shrine grounds.
Later there’s a morning ceremony (潮かきの儀) in the ocean, held by the village that has “Neri-Ban” (練り番) this year.
The villagers will enter the ocean and pour seawater over each other. It’s a Shinto purifying ritual called “Osogi” (禊). The men wash away their “impurity” with the cold water.
After that the three mikoshi, that don’t belong to any village, will be put into the water as well.
Once again the floats enter through the shrine gate at Matsubara Hachiman Shrine to receive their blessings from the gods.
The parade will be led by the Lion of Matsubara Yatai (松原の獅子屋台) from Matsubara Hachiman Shrine to a huge space called “Hirohata” (広畠), followed by Shinto priests and the floats. And in that very order they’ll enter the square gradually.
The Shinto priests and miko (shrine maiden) will purify the square before the fights begin.
The purification is necessary so that the festival will go smoothly without any accidents.
It is a very dangerous festival. It’s extremely crowded and when the portable shrines crash together or fall over people can get hurt. Some contestants even died in the past.
For example, a 57-year-old man died in 2001 when a portable shrine fell on him. In 2009 a participant was squeezed in between two yatai, hurt his head and died. (Source: Wikipedia Japan)
In order to keep at least the spectators away from those dangers, there was police everywhere!
After the Shinto purification ritual, the three mikoshi enter the square. The first one (一の丸) is the heaviest and is carried by men over 36. The second one (二の丸) is lighter and held up by men aged 26-35. The third float (三の丸) is the lightest (with about 300kg) and young men up to 25 years are in charge of it.
At first the three floats will fight against each other (神輿合わせ, mikoshi-awase). Those crashings are rather brutal as the mikoshi are light and cheap (compared to the yatai) and it doesn’t matter if they break.
The carriers of the portable shrine are supported by men who carry long bamboo poles, trying to keep the balance – as you can see in the photo above.
The men participating in “Mikoshi-Awase” wear headbands of different colors connected to their age:
|White||36 and older|
|Red||25 and younger|
Once the mikoshi fights are over, they will be carried up to a nearby hilltop (御旅山), something that can also be challenging as they need to keep the float balanced. It can take a long time until they finally reach the summit.
Finally the yatai of the seven villages will arrive and start banging against each other (neri-awase, 練り合わせ). Again there’s a set order as for who arrives first at the square: Kiba (木場), Matsubara (松原), Nakamura (中村), Mega (妻鹿), Usazaki (宇佐崎), Higashiyama (東山), Yaka (八家). However, the village that has “Neri-Ban” that year, doesn’t have to obey the set order. Each year another village has “Neri-Ban”.
In the photo above you see a fight between the villages of Matsubara (red) and Kiba (green).
There are no special rules. Anyone can fight anyone. Whoever arrives at the square can fight. Very common are 2 yatai banging against each other. Sometimes you’ll see even three. If you get extremely lucky (unlike me) you can observe four at a time!
Here’s a video of three yatai crashing against each other. Notice how difficult it must be to keep balance. Don’t forget how heavy these things are! They might weigh several tons.
Here’s a close-up of two yatai fighting. It’s very exciting, but you can easily see that it can become dangerous.
The Kiba Villagers arrive on top of Mt. O-Tabi-Yama (御旅山, 140m).
One after another the villagers, heaving up their heavy yatai, climb up the hill.
The men have safely carried their yatai up to the hilltop. They must be tired!
The ones who managed to arrive at the summit can finally take a break and relax.
Here you can admire the mikoshi that were used in the “mikoshi-awase” earlier that day.
That’s the view from the hilltop. Thousands of people!
And the fights were still going on.
Descending the Mountain – End of the Festival
Once the fights are over and all the mikoshi and yatai are lined up on the mountain top, prayers will be spoken. Then they’ll descend in the order they climbed up. Often it’s already pitch-dark around that time.
I didn’t stay for that part. The yatai are illuminated which looks quite nice, I heard.
What a long, strenuous festival! The villagers, especially the participants, must be so tired! And although it’s dangerous, it’s something all of them are looking forward to every year. Young boys can’t wait until they’re old enough to take part in it. Crazy! This festival surely doesn’t have to hide behind other questionable events such as the running of the bulls in Pamplona.
Origins of the Festival
There are different theories about the origin of the festival and I couldn’t find a lot of information about it – even in Japanese.
It is said that the tradition of banging mikoshi against each other goes back to a naval expedition to Ancient Korea (三韓) sent out by Empress Jingu (神功皇后). There was a lot of fog and the ships landed in nearby Mega (one of the villages of Himeji). Stranded and waiting, the ships crashed together due to the high waves, making a lot of noise.
The smashing of the floats in the matsuri mimics exactly that.
Another theory says that there were a lot of oysters outside of the ships and by banging the ships against each other, the oysters fell down.
The custom of carrying the portable shrines to the hilltop goes back the gratitude of the villagers:
During the Onin War (1467-1477, 応仁の乱) the Matsubara Hachiman Shrine was set on fire by the Yamana Clan (山名氏). Their opponent was the Akamatsu Clan (赤松氏). After the war, during the Sengoku Era (戦国時代), a descendant of Akamatsu, helped rebuilt the shrine. The locals were so thankful that they brought rice bags on their shoulders up to the mountain and had a festival up there. (Source: sisimai-nadamatsuri )
|T O U R I S T I N F O R M A T I O N|
||October 14th – 15th (yearly, postponed in case of rain)|
|Time required:||at least one whole day (I recommend October 15th)|
|Contact:||email@example.com (Japanese only)|
|Access:||10 mins by train from Himeji Station. Then, 3 mins walk from Shirahamanomiya Station.|
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Events in July:
- July 1: Mt. Fuji Climbing season starts
- July 1-15: Hakata Gion Matsuri
- July 1-31: Gion Matsuri (Kyoto)
- July 12-13: Danjiri Festival (Osaka)
- July 12-26: Sumo Tournament (Nagoya)
- July 14: Nachi-no-Hi Matsuri (Wakayama)
- July 20-27: Yamaguchi Gion Matsuri
- July 22-24: Warei Taisai + Uwajima Ushi-Oni (Ehime)
- July 24-25: Tenjin Matsuri (Osaka)
- July 25: Sumida River Fireworks (Tokyo)