In the year 1370 a fire broke out at a temple affiliated with what is now the Daiho Hachimangu Shrine (before the Meiji Restoration of 1868 there was often no distinction between Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines). Alert priests and novices, however, were able to quickly extinguish the blaze before it got out of control- by smothering it with tatami mats and the large wooden lids used for traditional rice kettles.
To this day, the quick thinking and effective action which was taken nearly 700 years ago in putting out that potentially disasterous blaze is remembered at the curious TABANKA-SAI, held twice every year ( on September 12th and 14th) at the Daiho-Hachimangu Shrine in what is now Shimotsuma ( about 30 minutes by car from Tsukuba).
At 7 pm on the evenings of the festival two signal fireworks are launched, each containing 4 blasts. About a dozen parishioners (UJIKO), all men, have at that time already enter the shrine`s worship hall (HAIDEN ,拝殿) to be blessed purified by the priests who then proceed to make offerings to the Gods (who in this case, as this is a Hachiman Shrine, are the deified spirits of Emperor Ojin and his mother Jingu Kogo). For this particular festival a special food offering is made- white rice and boiled wax gourd ( TO-GAN), which in olden days was considered a seasonal delicacy.
At the same time a few dozen visitors, mostly locals, gather outside trying to catch a glimpe of (or photograph) the proceedings, and more importantly, take up position for what will happen next- something which is truly unique among Japanese Festival and rites!
Here is what happens at around 7:30 pm.
A group of young men, dressed head to toe in white ( with their faces covered and feet in special short white socks) come to the edge of the worship hall and hurl a load of tatami mats, kettle-lids and earthen-ware jars out into the crowd! Since the locals know what is coming they make sure to stand clear. Anyone who is not prepared might very well get knocked on the head with a jar, lid, or even a tatami! At the same time a drum beat strikes up. This rhythm will be kept up for the subsequent hour.
The locals then scramble to pick up shards of the pottery which has broken after hitting the ground. These fragments are believed to be lucky talismans which can help guarantee good health ( I hope they work, because I got some!).
These same men-in-white come down out of the shrine, and two of them take up bundles of straw, which are then set on fire. Last night, these torches almost set the whole temple ablaze!
These torches are then carried down the worshippers path towards the main gate of the shrine, where there is a large open space.
Things then start to get pretty zany. Bundles of straw are set alight creating bon-fires on the path ( which is paved with large stones). The young men stand around the bon-fires and smack tatami and kettle lids WITH ALL THEIR MIGHT on the ground. This creates a blast-like sound not unlike that of gun-fire. This is done repeatedly for more than an hour, as the fires are kept going ( with plenty of straw stacked nearby), and the men taking turns using either mats or lids.
Meanwhile, other men take up straw, one burning bundle in each hand, and run around the open area, much to the delight of the local children, whose cries of glee make the already cacophonous event even noisier.
It is this noise, from which this unique festival`s unique name derives ( when I mention the TABANKA MATSURI to Japanese people they are usually taken aback and ask me to repeat myself slowly, thinking that as a foreigner, I must have gotten the name wrong)- BATTAN BATTAN BATTAN, is the Japanese equivalent of the English SMACK, BAM, POW!
With all the whacking, smacking, drumming and screaming, your nerves might start to get a little frayed. After a while, each new smack will probably have you cringeing.
The locals, however, dont seen to mind. As the excitement builds, the neighborhood kids really start to get carried away, with many lining up taking turns to leap over the bon-fires.
Unlike other fire festivals around Tsukuba, there are no firemen present, and the rules are surprisingly lax. I wouldnt be surprised if someone gets seriously injured in the future with all the young men running wildly around with burning straw in both hands! Yesterday there were MANY close calls!
As I have mentioned, all of this goes on for more than an hour. I had to get back to Tsukuba and so I left the shrine while the festival was still in progress to catch the 8:27 train. Walking to the nearby unmanned station, I could still hear the smacking, drumming and screaming off in the distance.
You can get to the shrine by car ( it is not crowded, so you dont have to worry about parking), or you can go by train. Take the TX to Moriya and change to the JOSO Line. Get off at the Daiho Station! Taking that rustic old line can be half the fun!
The Daiho Hachimangu Shrine is fascinating to visit any day. In fact, it would take a separate and very long TsukuBlog article, to do it justice. The most popular time of year to visit , however, besides New Year`s, is during the hydrangea ( ajisai) season in June, as there are thousands of these deeply beautiful plants growing in the area behind the Main Hall.
If you cant make it on the night of the 14th to the Tabanka event, the next day, the 15th, also offers the chance to observe an extremely rare ritual. Its called the HITOTSU MONO SHINJI ( 一つもの神事) and involves a one-eyed straw WARA NINGYO ( a sort of Japanese Voodoo Doll) which is carried out of the shrine in a procession and then taken around the surrounding neighborhood to cleanse it of impurities. This doll is then cast off into a river ( the Itokuri River) symbolically ridding the town of bad energies.