The Clash Of The Gods
Japanese men battle for dominance, blessings and the approval of the Gods at Himeji City’s Fighting Festival.
“Yoiyasa, Yoiyasa, Yoiyasa! (look to God and prosperity)” the crowd of almost naked Japanese men shouted energetically. They are carrying a two-tonne yatai, a portable Shinto shrine where the spirit of the local God resides. Despite their scantily clad dress and the cool breeze of the Autumn night, their faces glimmer with sweat and their brows are deep in fury as adrenaline pumps through their bodies. They are getting ready for a battle and from the looks of sheer determination on their faces, it is clear that no one was going down without a fight.
I'm about to witness the grand show at Himeji City's Nada no Kenka Matsuri (Fighting Festival), a unique Japanese festival centred around brawling and wrestling. Yep, you read that right. A festival in Japan all about violence. When my Japanese friend invited me to her hometown to witness an epic battle, I was confused and very intrigued. The Japanese are known to be polite, reserved and respectful. Definitely not the type of people to let their emotions run high and battle it out with violence. Right?
Wrong. During Autumn, the country hosts a range of Shinto fighting festivals. This one in Hyogo Prefecture is the largest and most famous of them all, drawing in crowds of approximately 100,000 people annually pre COVID. Contrary to the traditional Autumn festivals, where local Shinto Gods are taken from their shrines for a stroll around the neighbourhood for good luck and prayers, this one is a bit different. The Gods, as well as the men of Himeji City, are preparing for the monumental combat of the year tonight.
Every year on October 14th and 15th, the seven districts of Himeji City come together to participate in some good ole friendly neighbourhood competition. Each part of town transports their local God to battle on a yatai which is dressed up in a colour that represents their district. The shrines are slammed amongst each other unforgivingly in an extraordinary act of dominance until a winner is left standing. It is so dangerous and rowdy that people have been seriously injured - some have even died in the past.
Terasaki Yoji, who has been partaking in the festival for almost 40 years, describes the event as a great source of local pride. “Participating in the festival makes me want to pass on this special ancient tradition to the future generations and beyond. Everyone from Himeji is very excited to join the event and it is a great honour to be able to represent your community.” Young boys from the city, although too young to carry the portable shrine, cannot wait to carry on the legacy of their families and to pay homage to their roots.
I stand there watching as another group of men with another yatai and different colour headbands, representing another part of town, pass by me. I am half in shock and half in awe. In a country where people dress modestly and conservatively, it felt strange to see Japanese men wear barely anything except for a fundoshi. This piece of loincloth, similar to what sumo wrestlers wear, left their butt cheeks hanging out and baring all. There are so many butts. I am not sure where to look, or, where not to look. My eyes dart around the unusual scene unfolding before me.
Up close, the yatai’s intricate details stood out clearly and could not be missed. It is no wonder that each float takes several years to put together and requires the expertise and attention of specialised carpenters and craftsmen. Each portable shrine is decorated extensively with delicately handcrafted symbols, motifs and carvings representing the local district’s residential God and stories from ancient legends. The shrine jostling before me was carrying the God from Matsubara shrine, the symbol of the dragon crest donning the top of the structure plus the red dress of the float and the men gave it away.
Inside the yatai sit four taiko drummers, noriko, who are dressed in impressive kimonos, just as detailed as the yatai. Their arms swing in excellent synchronisation with each other, providing the non-stop soundtrack for the night. “It is said they have the hardest job of all!” my friend joked. “Noriko don’t have a break and drum on throughout the whole night, even when the shrines fall in the battle.” Yatai are truly a testimony to Japan’s emphasis on fine attention to detail and the country’s constant strive towards excellence.
As the men carry the shrine towards the battleground, they jostle it in an almost dance-like motion. They move it side to side and up and down to amuse and excite the God inside. Occasionally the shrine would drop to the ground with a loud thud, giving the men a well-deserved break. Controlling such a heavy structure is not an easy feat - it takes the strength of approximately 75 grown and able-bodied men to transport the float. Much to my surprise, Terasaki explains, “Those who transport the shrine actually don’t practise beforehand. The person at the front of the yatai has a job of calling out the direction and the nobori (men who carry the shrine) match their movements to the instruction.”
As the final shrine makes its way over to the open-air amphitheatre in the valley nearby the Matsubara Hachiman Shrine, the scene of the ultimate battle, I head back to our prime viewing spot situated high above the battleground. Reminiscent of the Coliseum in Rome, the venue is jampacked with people from all 360 degrees. People rush back to their seats as the event was about to unfold, returning from the food vendors who line the entrance to the amphitheatre. The charcoaled smell of yakitori (grilled chicken) and dried squid, along with the buzz of excitement and anticipation whiffed through the air.
On the battleground, the shrines begin bouncing up and down, up and down, similar to a boxer moving as he prepares himself before throwing the first punch at an opponent. Older men who are not physically able to carry the shrine carry pom pom sticks and surround the shrine on the battleground. They wave it up and down in fast and quick motions, getting quicker and quicker and foreshadowing the upcoming action. The shouting and chanting of the nobori grew in intensity. The sound of the taiko drums thunders louder and louder, ringing through the whole venue and my body. The battle of the year was about to begin.
As the shrines slam together (yatai-awase), my heart slams inside of my chest too. BANG. The sound of the slams vibrates throughout the amphitheatre. The men jammed the shrines towards each other. BANG. Ashes and dust kick off into the air, surrounding the clash. BANG. “The scene is said to represent the Gods fighting in heaven with the sound of the collision representing thunder. The more loud and rowdy everyone is, the more pleased the Gods will be.” my friend explains.
The drums continue with even more intensity and the chants too. Screams, shrieks and gasps fill the air as the crowd watches on the edge of their seats. I never understood the exhilaration and rush of a live battle but I did now. The energy was contagious and the air was thick in suspense and excitement. Each collision built on the growing enthusiasm felt by everyone. In the midst of all this, the noriko continue drumming in such a beautiful and almost dream-like motion, never missing a beat. The shrines continue to jam into each other and the nobori keep chanting. There were no rules. In this grand event, pairs or sometimes even three yatai battle each other until all have fought, providing hours of entertainment until one is crowned the ultimate winner.
The whole amphitheatre echos as the shrine topple to the ground and the crowd of people around it disperse quickly, careful to not get hurt by the powerful floats. I chuckle and think to myself - it turns out Japan isn’t that much of a quiet and peaceful country all the time.
All Nippon Airways flies to Kansai International Airport from most major Australian cities. From there, hop on the JR Kansai Airport line towards Osaka Station. Then transfer to the JR Tokaido-Sanyo Line for Himeji Station. The train ride should take approximately 2 and a half hours.
Himeji City and its surrounds are filled with an array of hotels and ryokans and ryokans (traditional inns) to suit a range of budgets and preferences.
Located right in the middle of the city, Himeji Castle Grandvrio Hotel offers guests convenience and usage of hot spring baths and hot tubs with prices starting at only AU$90 a night. Those after a tranquil and relaxing stay should check out the Edo period Ueyama Inn. This traditional inn is also home to a Japanese garden and a Buddist Temple, prices start from $228.
The city has been the backdrop to many Japanese and American films – like Tom Cruises’ The Last Samurai.
Fill your belly with hearty Himeji Oden – tofu, eggs, fish cakes etc accompanied by delicious soy and ginger broth.
A local manhole depicting Himeji Castle is so iconic that the Japanese travel far and wide to see it.
Himeji Castle is believed to be haunted by the ghost, Okiku, a tortured spy who was thrown down a well.
Feast on Himeji’s soul food, Ekisoba, a standing noodle bar in the middle of the station for salarymen and commuters.
Himeji is also home to the oldest and largest yukata festival, hosting over 800 + stores and fashion events.
For more information on Himeji City and other places to visit in Japan, please visit the official city and national tourism website.