Have You Ever Seen a Shrine Battle?

Last week was Golden Week, an annual string of consecutive National Holidays which makes for about a week off of work. One of those days is Children’s Day, and the locals in Echizen have an interesting way of celebrating: they fight each other while carrying a golden shrine on their shoulders. It’s one of my favorite festival events of the year, so I wanted to show some of the activities to you.

Let me start with the story behind the battle. Echizen is home to the shrine dedicated Kawakamigozen, the goddess of papermaking. (Echizen has been a major papermaking center for centuries). Like most shrines, once a year, the gods and goddesses are taken out of their main shrines to visit the smaller local shrines around them, and then to spend a good portion of the year up in a mountaintop shrine, deep within their natural surroundings. The Otaki shrine, the head shrine for Kawakamigozen, does this on Children’s Day every year.

The festival starts early in the day, and looks like most festivals; a horde of local men gather and the priests perform a ceremony to remove the goddess from her shrine and put her into a golden mikoshi — a sort of portable shrine/palanquin. You can see how big it is, and it probably weighs somewhere close to a ton. The men carry the shrine on their shoulders throughout the town, visiting them one-by-one, taking a short break at each shrine (usually accompanied by a throng of followers who supply everyone with ample alcohol!) and then continuing on to the next. This process takes all day, and around 5 pm or so they reach the next-to-last shrine on their stop: the Iwamoto shrine.

Approach to Iwamoto Shrine

Approach to Iwamoto Shrine

Iwamoto Shrine entrance

Iwamoto Shrine entrance

Inside the Shrine

Inside the Shrine

Carrying the Mikoshi

Carrying the Mikoshi (if you look closely you can see two tengu leading the procession)

Iwamoto is a very large shrine, and its locals are very passionate. They want to keep the goddess at their shrine instead of letting her return to Otaki and to her mountaintop. So when the Otaki boys try to take the mikoshi out of the Iwamoto shrine, the Iwamoto men gather to block their exit at the torii (shrine gate). This turns into a very interesting unchoreographed battle, which each year has me gritting my teeth with anxiety as I am sure someone will get trampled and die. (In fact this year was particularly aggressive, as their were a lot of younger, passionate men who did not want to play nicely. Some punches and kicks were thrown and a few people did get trampled, but there were no serious injuries.)

The heavy shrine is carried on their shoulders while the men engage in a wild and dangerous push-of-war. They are drunk, and their shoulders are purple and swollen with welts from the weight of the mikoshi. This year the battle lasted about 13 minutes. You can see a video of the majority of the battle here:

And just to give you an idea of what is beyond the torii, take a look at this steep stone staircase which they have to fight to carry that mikoshi down!

The staircase down (or the deathtrap!)

Be careful!

So finally the Otaki boys were able to take the shrine back home! The festival doesn’t end yet, though. They take the mikoshi back to the Otaki shrine for a while to let the goddess (and the men!) rest, and then during the night, at a paper-lantern-lit ceremony, Shinto music is played and a silent and very theatrical show is put on as the priests removes Kawakamigozen and her companions from their wooden shrine house into the mikoshi, to be carried up the mountain. By this time everyone is drunk and exhausted, and the mountain is unpaved and pitch black, so this is at least as dangerous as the shrine battle, if not moreso. But the climb is sacred and otherwordly, and even 90-year old grandmothers and grandfathers dutifully hike up the mountain in pitch-black, guided only by the dim candlelight of their paper lanterns.

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