When you think of horses in relation to Kumamoto, the first thing that springs to mind is Basashi – horse meat served raw like its fishy equivalent sashimi.
But horses are famous in Kumamoto for more than one reason, and the Kumamoto Horse Festival (known locally as the Great Festival of the Fujisaki Hachimangu Shrine) is a popular event with locals and tourists alike.
There are several stories as to the origin of this festival, and the festival itself has changed much over the years to become a sort of amalgamation of all these different legends. It has roots in an old ritual for ‘releasing living beings’ (called Ho-jo-e), and also has roots in the Zuibyo parade of following the samurai warriors who had returned from the invasion of Korea in the 1590’s.
Taking place over several days, there is much preparation needed before the main event. Running up until the big day, groups practice taking the horses out on the street, and the ceremonial drums and bells can be heard at all hours of the day.
During the actual festival, different groups parade between the Fujisaki Hachimangu Shrine and Gokoku Shrine (near Kumamoto Castle.) The parade passes through the main part of the city, and there are thousands of spectators. The horses are decorated and dancers in extravagant uniforms play a big part, as do the musicians. Large drums and other instruments play incessantly in a samba-band style. What with the noise, the colours and the excitement in the air, participants and the crowd are both worked up into a fervour, not to mention to horses, which buck and pull at the ropes which hold them down. Each team has several strong men in charge of holding the horse and guiding it safely along the chaotic, crowded streets.
There have been several controversies relating to the horse festival, mostly to do with the phrases shouted during the parade. The phrase ‘Boshita’ was an old name of the festival, and one of the phrases that used to be chanted. However, the phrase has several meanings, one of which is ‘Japan destroyed Korea’ – a controversial phrase which led to the parade being rejected admission to the 1970’s Osaka World Exposition. In 1990, the Shrine Community ruled that groups in the parade were not allowed to shout ‘Boshita Boshita’, or their team would lose points. These days, many of the groups shout ‘Dookai Dookai’ instead.
Some animal rights activists condemn the festival as being cruel to the horses involved, who are probably frightened by the noise. Whether or not the horses are still made to drink rice wine on the day of the festival (giving it the colloquial name of the ‘Drunken Horse Festival’) I do not know, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this practice continues to the present day.
Because of the many controversies of the festival, it’s quite usual for people to be against the festival. Many local people who I spoke to said that they didn’t like the festival and tried to steer clear of it, not just for the questionable treatment of the horses, but because of the noise and the crowds.
Taking place in late September, the 2015 festival was blessed with a day of perfect sunny weather. From early in the morning when the festival started, radiant sunshine greeted the celebrating crowds.
The road leading up to Fujisaki Hachimangu Shrine was flooded with stalls selling snacks, beverages and souvenirs, with the stalls precariously located near the path of the parade. Even the hoards of policemen on the street fail to make the crowds feel completely secure, especially when you see the horse-handlers trying to control the giant animals. Of course, at an event such as this, it’s not rare for people to get hurt – during the 2015 event, a man fell and was stepped on by a horse, but luckily his injuries were not serious.
The Kumamoto Horse festival is one of the biggest events of the year in the South of Japan, and is well worth seeing if you are in the area. While some local Kumamoto people are not in favour of the festival, it’s clear from the crowds that turn out to support it that many people enjoy the celebrations and there is a great feeling of community spirit around the town all week long.
The crowds wave flags and cheer on the competing teams, and everyone is particularly excited when a horse passes by. When the horses are frightened or excited and pull against their reins, it’s a scary moment if you are standing too close by, but of course this adrenaline rush just adds to the general excitement and makes the experience more fun… provided you don’t get stepped on by a horse.