Kenka Matsuri – Japan’s fighting festivals

I recently went to see 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.

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Kenka Matsuri is a shinto festival, which takes place once a year. 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 within the town prepares a yatai (float) which will represent their town. These yatais are paraded through the streets throughout the day, from early morning, until they reach their final destination: Hachiman Shrine.

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After that, they compete with each other, each district crashing their respective floats into each other in order to come out victorious, and to block the mikoshi (portable shrine) from approaching the shrine.

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This festival has taken place for over 300 years, and the tradition doesn’t show any sign of losing popularity! It has been adapted over the years, becoming increasingly more safe and regulated thanks to the increased presence of policemen and ambulances!

One other change that has become increasingly evident during recent years, relates to the children’s part of the festival. During the day, the mikoshi and yatai are moved in preparation for the evening, with some floats specifically reserved for children. But due to the aging population of the town, gradually the number of adults who participate alongside their children has increased.

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Many of the locals who led the floats through the town wore wooden shoes (geta) that have two blocks of wood under the base of the foot (See above photo).

Yatai are not the only objects which are paraded through Iizaka Onsen Town. A mikoshi leads the way at the start of the procession. It is this mikoshi which is thought to contain the spirit of the god. It is a beautiful object that is usually kept by the shrine, made from gold and decorated decadently.

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If a mikoshi is carried around the town (as opposed to being pushed, as shown in the photo above), those carrying it chant loudly and shake the mikoshi firmly up and down so that the decorative bells and other items jingle as they walk. This shaking is apparently done so that the god gets excited!

Those moving the mikoshi also stop at various points so that the locals from that area have a chance to pray to the god, and to make an offering of food and drink (See below). While they make offerings, a priest blesses the area.

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International students, Assistant Language Teachers and Coordinators for International Relations all got a chance to hold a mikoshi too! Although ours was apparently a children’s size one… Despite this, it was incredibly heavy! We were happy when we got some break times where we were taught traditional local dances and provided with locally produced peach juice and rice balls!


The Main Event

The evening was when the real show began. The actual fighting was scheduled to start at 19:30, so until then, I walked around the towns with my guides for the evening (vice presidents of the Iizaka Rotary Club that organised the event for the foreign residents of Fukushima).

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The six areas of the towns each had their own yatai that would be fighting off their opponent’s. This time, the yatais were being lifted and held, instead of being dragged along. 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, throwing out free gifts to the crowds and chanting really loudly.

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When they approached the main shrine, each district’s yatai entered one by one, bowing and introducing themselves upon entering.

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The mikoshi was also escorted in by a man with a scary long nose. (This is actually someone dressed as a dengu, a shinto god).

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Once each district had brought their floats into the temple grounds, they battled two at a time, in order to stop the festival from ending, and to win good luck for the year.

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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…

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I was told at the time that the fight was partly ‘fake’ but it looked pretty real to me!

After the festival ended I got a chance to talk to a couple of guys who took part in the ‘fight’. One guy looked like very young, but promised 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 mountain of a man whose laddy friends all laughed and spurred him on as I approached him, probably filling him with fear that I was going to speak English to him. He told me that although it was a little bit scary being at the front of a the yatai, in case you accidentally got you finger chopped off or a bone broken, but that it was really fun and he always looked forward to it.

Iizaka Onsen is a beautiful old onsen town, with a history that stretches back over 1000 years, and is very easy and quick to access from Fukushima Station. Even if you don’t come at festival time, I would recommend a trip here, especially if you are able to stay until dark, as it truly is beautiful lit up at night.

So….

…was it worth seeing? I would say yes, although you have 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!

The Basics

When: The first Saturday of October, from 7pm

Where: Hachiman Shrine, Iizaka Onsen

Cost: Free!

Access: By train (Iizaka Onsen Line) Fukushima Station –> Iizaka Onsen Station (30 minutes, 370 yen) See more here

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