As we entered the back entrance of the shrine, a car inched in behind us. Some ladies in kimono minced their way hurriedly past. A mother clasped the hand of a little girl in a red and pink kimono. There was an air of expectancy. We were just in time for the very colourful Hongu spring matsuri! It seemed like the whole village had turned out for the event. Children, teenagers, the elderly, proud parents – everyone had a part to play.
Held every year in mid April, the Hongu matsuri is a vividly colourful feast for the senses – from the solemn throbbing of the drum, the haunting tones of the conch, the enthusiastic cries of the participants, the rich brocade of the traditional costumes, the excitement as the mikoshi is spun in the air.
I had timed our visit deliberately to coincide with this two-day festival which had begun two days earlier with a purification of fathers and their young sons in Yunomine Onsen. Today however, was the main event.
When we arrived, crowds were already gathered in the gravel forecourt of the shrine. Shrine attendants were waiting, a screen was set up, the deity was preparing to embark on the annual journey from the shrine to Oyunohara, the original site of the Hongu shrine. The men carrying the mikoshi stood ready to hoist it.
As you can see, the main approach to the shrine is really up this steep flight of steps. The three mikoshi had to be carried down this way.
I really enjoyed watching the fathers with their sons on their shoulders. It can’t have been easy to balance the child for so long and to walk down the steps, all the time keeping your footing steady. And the boys garbed out like royalty? They were so cute. I saw one nodding off – the afternoon must have seemed quite long!
Like a string of brightly-hued gems, the procession made their way slowly down and then through the main street of Hongu to Oyunohara, several hundred metres away.
These are the yamabushi – loosely translated to be mountain priests. The yamabushi train under very tough, rigorous conditions in the mountains and forests. Think long periods of meditation under icy waterfalls! They have a long tradition as mystics and hermits. Note the conch shells they carry and the animal fur. At one stage in their history, the yamabushi were even trained in martial arts. I was actually surprised to see a woman yamabushi. I think this is very rare – especially since there are parts of the sacred Omine mountain range where women are not even allowed access.
Meanwhile the yamabushi were preparing for a bonfire. One of the ceremonial actions was to shoot arrows in various directions. Inevitably these arrows would fall among the crowd standing at the perimeters. In one cute instance, an arrow was caught by two middle-aged obasan – who promptly had a mini face-off complete with tug of war, before one reluctantly let go. Another time the arrow landed among a bunch of young guys and another obasan. Both parties grabbed it but after some good-natured tugging, the guys sheepishly let her have it. Call them obasan, ajumma (korean), ah-yi (chinese) or aunties, these middle-aged ladies are the same the world over- fierce, awesome and usually with a heart of gold. Best not to mess with them!
As with all matsuri, the event was a great excuse for food, fun and games. On the perimeter to the clearing, stalls were set up selling the usual matsuri menu – hot dogs, pancakes, beef on skewers and so on. I liked the warm little doraemon and kitty-chan cakes!
The drizzle had turned into rain by then but that did nothing to dampen the spirits. The old folks gathered to chat, children ran around the clearing or played at the various games stalls.
It was quite a carnival atmosphere and reminded me of the pasar malams (night markets) we have at home when families would patronise the street food stalls, hang out with neighbours and try their luck at the usual games stalls.
We saw the same American family we’d seen on the bus at the Nachi and Hayatama shrines. There were also a number of other foreigners too but overall, it was not very crowded. I don’t know if this is the norm for past festivals or if we were seeing a thinned out crowd due to the fallout from the tragedy up north.
We made our way back to the main shrine before we left Hongu. In the rain, without the crowds, it had a dignified, pensive feel about it.
Standing there in the silence, with the rain giving the air a diffused dreamlike glow, you could feel the heft of hundreds of years of mystical worship and understand that, like others before you, you are no more significant than the very ants the pilgrims are likened to. Just as there have been thousands before you, many more will come after you, walk the Kumano Kodo and perhaps discover their own sense of spirituality along the way.