The leaves may not be turning until November, but Kumamoto likes to kick off the autumn early with the five-day fall festival at the city’s Fujisaki Hachiman Shrine. While the weather may still be a tad on the warm side, who doesn’t love dancing, drumming and … drunken horses???
The origins of the festival are rather convoluted. Supposedly, the celebration originally centered around the re-release of wild animals back to their natural habitats. While the current incarnation of the festival holds no trace of this custom, the samurai parade that takes place on the festival’s fifth and final day does have a clearer history. It honors the return of local lord Kato Kiyomasa and his troops from military campaigns on the Korean Peninsula.
In the Edo Period, only Kumamoto’s upper class samurai presented horses to the priests of the shrine for use in the festival parade. The priests, however, for reasons unknown, never rode. So the decorations on the horses gradually grew more and more ostentatious (and often phallic) up to the present day, where it seems the main decoration now is a large ring and oodles of ribbons.
While I missed the first four days of the festival the other year (drumming, lion dances and special haiku composing events at the shrine itself), I did manage to catch the parade. Though the initial festivities start at 6am, the horse running is the final event. Over the years, the number of horses participating has grown from six to over fifty. Each horse is sponsored by a community organization, a company, a school group or a private club.
The parade takes place in the covered Kamitori and Shimotori arcades downtown and basically involves each group chanting, banging taiko drums and chasing their horse down the thoroughfare. Though the horses are now very well controlled, in years past they actually gave local sake or shochu to the animals, causing quite a stir and – in my opinion – endangering the welfare of the animals. There’s more than enough excitement going on during the parade without the addition of alcohol.
To see the parade, simply stake out a place along Kumamoto’s covered shopping arcades. We got there around 10am and if I recall, things wrapped up around noon. With 17,000 actual participants in the festival, this is Kumamoto’s biggest event and a great one to catch if you’re in town.