I recently went to Iizaka Onsen’s Kenka Matsuri (Fighting Festival). Held on the first weekend of October every year, Iizaka Onsen’s Kenka Matsuri is one of the three biggest fighting festivals in Japan.
Kenka Matsuri Explained
The six different areas that make up Iizaka Onsen Town each come together and compete for the favour of the gods for the year to come.
Each area prepares a yatai (float) to represent their town. These yatais are paraded through the streets throughout the day until they reach their final destination: Hachiman Shrine.
After that, they compete with each other by crashing their floats together in order to block the mikoshi (a portable shrine) from approaching the shrine.
This festival has taken place for over 300 years, and has been adapted over the years, becoming increasingly more safe and regulated.
During the day, the mikoshi and yatai are moved in preparation for the evening, and certain floats are moved by local children. But due to low numbers of children in the town, the number of adults who participate in this part of the festival has increased.
Kenka Matsuri by Day
A single mikoshi leads the way at the start of the procession, followed by countless yatai stands. The mikoshi is thought to contain the spirit of the gods.
It is a beautiful object that is usually kept at shrines, made from gold and decorated decadently.
Participants that move mikoshi and yatai floats through the town wear wooden shoes (geta).
At this festival, participants held yatai on their shoulderes, shaking them firmly so that decorative bells and other items jingle as they walk. When mikoshi are held and shaken, this shaking is said to make the gods excited!
The mikoshi is stopped at various points in the town so that locals have a chance to pray and make offerings of food and drink, while a priest blesses the area.
The Main Event
As evening came, the real show began.
The fighting was scheduled to start at 19:30, so until then, I walked around the town.
Each of the six areas of town participating in the fight paraded their yatai through the town prior to the big even. The district’s representatives greeted and entertained the crowds by doing tricks like tipping their yatai so that the person on top nearly went flying, as well as throwing free gifts to the crowds and chanting really loudly.
When they approached the main shrine, each district’s yatai entered one by one, bowing and introducing themselves upon entering.
The mikoshi was escorted in by a man with a scary long nose. (This is actually someone dressed as a dengu, a shinto god).
Once each district had brought their floats into the temple grounds, they battled two at a time, to win good luck for the year.
It was really fun to watch, although it got a bit scary when it appeared that a real fight had actually broken out in the audience…
Interviewing the Locals
After the festival ended I got a chance to talk to a couple of guys who took part in the ‘fight’. One guy appeared to be high school age (the cut off point for participants).
I asked him how he found the festival, and he told me it was “Very scary” and that this was his first time!
Next I chatted to a man whose friends all laughed as I approached him, probably filling him with fear that I was going to speak English.
He told me that it was a little bit scary being at the front of the yatai, in case you accidentally got you finger chopped off or a bone broken. But other than that, it was really fun and he always looked forward to it.
Iizaka Onsen is a beautiful, old onsen town, with a history of over 1000 years. It’s simple and quick to access from Fukushima Station, and beautifully lit up at night.
Was it worth coming during festival time? Yes! But a word of advice…
Remember to go early if you want to save a good spot to see the fighting. You also need to bring a friend or family member who is willing to stay in that spot for you whilst you go and enjoy some delicious festival food!
When: The first Saturday of October, from 7pm
Where: Hachiman Shrine, Iizaka Onsen
Access: By train (Iizaka Onsen Line) Fukushima Station –> Iizaka Onsen Station (30 minutes, 370 yen) See more here