One May Sunday, in a rice-paddock filled corner of Shiga prefecture, a collection of costumed festival participants posed for the crowd. The nearby high-school girl’s volleyball team were joined by some local ALT teachers, many who had returned for their second, or more, chance to play in the mud.
As the rice-planting season gets into swing, all over Japan festivals like this one are held to pray for a good harvest. Famous ones like Sumiyoshi Taisha in Osaka attract hundreds of participants and onlookers, but the majority are smaller affairs. While the shrines continue these traditions so to relay them to the younger generation, in reality they attended by only a handful of aging devout, who are sometimes dwarfed by the larger number of fervent photographers.
It is a shame that more non-retired Japanese don’t have the inclination or the time to continue, or even just spectate on, their own history. Tarabogu shrine (太郎坊宮) is a place that claims a 1400 years old life-span. It was once a place considered holy to both Buddhists and Shinto followers, is guarded over by a Tengu, and is in possession of an Indiana Jones style, only-the-worthy-may-pass passage-way between a giant split rock.
The festival itself is part of a national tradition that harks back into the murky past possibly 2000 years. Called Otaue Taisai (お田植え大祭) in Japanese, the event, like all good Shinto festivals, involves a lot of ritual and ceremony.
And then the main event. Taiko drums, singing and a long rope helped the planters keep in time, and generally along the same line. Despite attending a rehearsal session the week before, separating a clump of plants takes more time than dropping the straw they used in practice, and some said later they found the pace tricky to match.
After planting 20 odd rows, and just as they were getting into the swing of it, the festival was over and it was time to wash off the mud and pose for more photos. The teachers were popular targets, especially one who had photogenic streaks of mud across her cheek.
While sad that more young Japanese didn’t come to enjoy the festival (all the male jobs this year were filled by ALTs), small festivals like these continue through those who choose to join them, no matter their age, or origin, or how many cameras they are carrying.
For those who are interested in visiting next year, the festival is held on the 3rd Sunday in May, starting at 11am. The nearest public transport is Tarobogumae station.
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