Japan is famous for its many traditional and inspiring festivals which take place all over the country throughout the year. One festival in particular, the Okunchi Festival, is held every October at the Aoi Aso Shrine (青井阿蘇神社) in Kumamoto. Come and visit this amazing national treasure and Kyushu tradition this Autumn from 3 to 11 October 2017, and participate in a unique cultural experience celebrating tradition, food, dancing, and music!
The Aoi Aso Shrine is a Shinto Shrine which was founded on September 9 in the year 806 AD. It enshrines three gods; Takeiwatatsu no mikoto, Asotsuhime no mikoto, and Hayamikatama no mikoto. In 2008, the Aoi Aso Shrine was awarded the status of National Treasure for its unique identity and distinct architectural style. It was the first cultural property to be given this status in the Kumamoto Prefecture.
The design of the shrine dates back to the middle ages and its interiors reflect the beautiful patterns and design of the Momoyama Period. Its present buildings were built during the reign of the Sagara clan in the region in 1609.
The Aoi Aso Shrine, also known as Aoi-san (青井さん), has protected the Kuma region for over a thousand years. It can be found in the castle town of Hitoyoshi (人吉市), a city located south of Kumamoto.
Okunchi Festivals are held all over Japan, and every October the Aoi Aso Shrine holds its festival. It is celebrated from October 3 to 11 and there are many activities which take place at the shrine during this period. On October 5, a special ceremony is held to identify who will carry the lion’s head during the lion dance and parade. Many people want this role because it is said to protect the person from misfortune.
Various preparations for the Shinkou ceremony are carried out on October 8. The priest also prays for peace, prosperity, and happiness to people. The day ends with a three-hour kagura dance in the evening.
October 9 is considered a significant day as it is called Shinkou-shiki, meaning God’s coming. In the Shinkou ceremony, the wooden lion, shrine treasures, portable shrine or mikoshi, flag, and decorated horses are paraded around the city and return to the Aoi Aso Shrine. On this day, sumo and archery competitions participated in mainly by children are also held in sports facilities within the city.
Another traditional custom that continues to be practiced is to place children’s heads in the wooden lion’s mouth. To be “bitten” by the wooden lion is said to protect the children from illnesses for the coming year! Tsubon-jiru, a traditional soup, is also prepared and served during the festival.
The Aoi Aso Shrine and the Okunchi Festival is one of the 41 Cultural Assets of Hitoyoshi Kuma and was designated as a Japan Heritage site by the Agency of Cultural Affairs in 2015. Hitoyoshi Kuma’s story focuses on the Sagara clan, considered the longest reigning clan in the region which ruled for 700 years. The Sagara family and the Chomai family, a family that served as Chief of Retainers in the Hitoyoshi region, developed and promoted the shrine which has contributed to the Aoi Aso Shrine’s status today.
The Aoi Aso Shrine is within a 5-minute walk from Hitoyoshi Station (人吉駅) on the JR Kyushu Hisatsu Line.
Visit the tranquil city of Hitoyoshi and admire the Aoi-san and its long history and traditions. See the city come alive and join the festivities in Aoi Aso Shrine’s Okunchi Festival!