Last week Jeremy and I went to a festival with our new friends Stephanie and Anthony. They were moving into our tower and were just as excited to explore Japan as we were. We didn’t know much about this festival as we headed out to it. All we knew was that the highlight of the festival was a decorate cow being paraded down the street. We were up for an adventure.
The Ikachi Tenjin Festival was in Yanai City, about 45 minutes from base. It was an interesting drive down there because we had to use two map apps to navigate down there. Google maps, our go to app for directions because we can choose to avoid toll roads, got us to Yanai City but once there it sent us down dirt roads barely wide enough to be a foot path. Then it tried to tell us Himuro Kameyama Shrine was in the middle of a field. We then switched over to Apple maps. Thankfully we were only 10 minutes away. Or so we thought. There was no signs saying where the festival was so we kept driving in circles before we realized that we had to park by a school and walk through an alley way that opened into a dirt road that went through a field and led to the shrine. There were quite a few people there but not nearly as crowded as most festivals we go to. We also quickly noticed by the stares that we were the only white people there. We knew we would stick out but wasn’t really worried about it.
In front of the shrine they had two cows hooked to a pen. One was elaborately decorated and the other was just angry. The decorated one was quiet as two people put his decorations on him.
The weather was threatening to rain so we decided to walk around some the outdoor things before venturing into the shrine. We found a few interesting statues.
We headed back down to the shrine right before the parade was suppose to start. They had started with people carrying banners and long poles gathering a bit down the road. Then they led the bull out to the road as a large wooden cart was brought down from the shrine. The bull was tied to the cart with white fabric. The wooden cart was followed by the city council for Yanai City and then by two groups of children. The children were carrying small elaborate shrines. There was also a young boy dressed as a samurai.
The parade went half way down the road to a small cement area in a field. There the bull was untied from the cart and priests set up an alter with the cart. The city council and musicians gather behind the priests. We were watching from the side a little bit up the street from the area. The view was decent but we couldn’t see everything. We noticed some of the Nationals waving to us to come over. They had us set up behind the area where everyone had gathered. We were very grateful. They also showed us where I could stand in the field beside another photographer to get even better pictures. I bounced between the two locations. I didn’t understand the ceremony. From what I gathered the priest prayed at the alter. Then they blessed each other, the city council, the musicians, and then the crowd. Then the city council would come up one by one to make an offering to the alter.
During the ceremony, a National and his wife tried talking to us. Unfortunately he only spoke Japanese and we only spoke English. We did understand some of what they were saying. She was surprised that Anthony ate a package of sushi all by himself. Her husband explained that the tree we were standing in front of was the tree whose branches were used to make the blessing bundle used in the ceremony. His wife didn’t want her picture taken but he was happy I took his picture.
Once the ceremony was over everyone followed the bull back to the shrine. As we walked back one of the city council members walked with us. He asked us how we found out about the festival. We told him we found out about it on Google. He asked where we came from and told him we came from Iwakuni. He was quite surprised that we would come all the way out to their festival. We were the first Americans to witness the festival. He expressed his gratitude that we were there. He explained that the festival was started hundreds of years ago when the Japanese used cows to help with farming. The cows represent their God of agriculture so they honor that god and to ask for a good growing season/ harvest they created the festival. Japan has been pressuring Yanai City to stop having the festival since cows are now longer used for farming. He said that the government sees the festival as archaic and that no one cares much for festivals like these anymore. We expressed how honored we felt to experience the festival and that we hoped to visit it again next year. He seemed pleased with our response. He begged us to stay until the very end where they passed out blessed rice cakes to everyone that attended. We assured him that we would. He had to leave us at that point to help others with getting the rice cakes ready.
As we waited for the rice cakes to be passed around we watched the kids play in the rain. Some of the Nationals began taking pictures of us. A few asked us to pose for photos with them. It was awesome that they wanted to keep us so included. Many Nationals asked us where we were from and seemed happy with that response.
By the time they started to hand out the rice cakes it was starting to rain really hard. We didn’t stay too long after we received our rice cakes. The rice cakes were shaped like thick, smooth cookies and tasted like unflavored rice despite being dyed pink.
This was definitely one of my favorite festivals so far. I feel so privileged to have been apart of something so rooted in history and tradition. The Nationals were incredibly welcoming and very friendly. I sincerely hope that they are able to continue to the festival for many more years. I will make a point of trying to bring more Americans next year so that the Japanese know that we are interested in their culture and want to help to continue their traditions.