Horse Festival in Kumamoto which celebrates Kato Kiyomasa and the Imjin War.

Kumamoto holds a parade through the streets of the city every autumn which celebrates famous Lord, Kato Kiyomasa and his victories in Korea during the Imjin war. Lords of Kyushu were heavily involved in Hideyoshi`s attempted invasions, which came to an end after the death of Hideyoshi. The festival is popular with the locals but it is also controversial.

Fujisaki Hachimangu is one of many Hachiman shrines which is dedicated to Emperor Ojin and Empress Jingu. People pray to the kamisan (spirit) Hachiman to protect them from evil influences and to bring good fortune. There are three main Hachimangu shrines and many smaller shrines throughout Japan. Fujisaki Hachimangu is a branch shine of Iwashimizu Hachimangu in Kyoto. For those of you interested in visiting the other two main shrines, they are Usa Hachimangu in Oita and Hakozaki Hachimangu in Fukuoka — good for travellers who want to visit Kyushu.

Fujisaki Hachimangu Shrine
Fujisaki Hachimangu Shrine

Fujisaki Hachimangu was founded in 935 AD under the order of the 61st Emperor Suzaku (930–946). The shrine was originally located within the grounds of Kumamoto Castle but during the Seinan Rebellion (also known as the Satsuma Rebellion) of 1877 it was destroyed by anti-government rebels led by Saigo Takamori who besieged the castle. The shine was later re-built in its current location on the Shirakawa River about 1km east of Kumamoto Castle.

Fujisaki Hachimangu is probably the most important shrine in Kumamoto and has a long, rich history. It is closely linked to famous Japanese samurai such as Kato Kiyomasa and the Hosokawa family who reigned over Kumamoto (Higo Province pre-Meiji period) from 1632 to 1871.

In autumn, the shrine is host to a fantastic four-day festival ending on Sunday with a horse parade through the city. It is sometimes called the ‘horse chase’ as horse handlers often run trying to rein in a horse that is not interested in simply walking. From Friday, vendors start to set up food and drink stands along the street from the torii all the way to the shrine. As the weekend draws closer it becomes busier and by the weekend the festival is in full swing.

Horses are lead from the shrine past vendors selling food and drinks.

The festival has a long history which can be traced back to the Sengoku Period (Warring States Period 1467–1603) under the reign of Lord Kato Kiyomasa, who was a senior retainer of Shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The origins of the festival however, is not without some controversy. The festival was once known as the Boshita Festival and can be traced back to Hideyoshi’s invasions of Korea in 1592–1598, and Kiyomasa was one of Hideyoshi’s leading generals. However, Boshita, or horoboshita from the Korean language, can be loosely translated to ‘destruction of Korea’. On their safe return, samurai warriors lead by Kiyomasa visited Fujisaki Hachimangu and paid respect to the spirits. Kiyomasa then led a military parade with his warriors through Kumamoto city and up to the castle. On the march from Fujisaki Hachimangu to the castle citizens of Kumamoto lined the streets and welcomed back their loved ones.

Up until the 1980s everyone chanted ‘boshita, boshita’. On a couple of occasions in the past the festival was used by national extremists to promote Japanese imperialism, e.g during the Sino Japanese war to stir up anti Korean and Chinese feelings, and again during the 1930s Japanese expansions into Korea. However the boshita, boshita chant was changed in 1989 and these days people chant ‘doukai, doukai’ which means ‘what do you think?’

Stone torii gate of Fujisaki Hachimangu
The front Torii of Fujisaki Hachimangu looking west.

An interesting point is that upper class samurai did not mount their horses in the march, they walked alongside the foot samurai — a ritual which has continued through to today. The horse decorations we see today are thought to have begun about 100 years ago. They now have become much more elaborate, colourful and serious competition between groups (gumi) displaying their horses.

Handlers prepare their horses for the march.

Bright and early on Sunday the festival begins at the shrine with various religious events, then from about 7am the parade begins. Actually, the funny story is that I had forgotten about this parade. About 7am on Sunday morning I was woken up by the loud sounds of drums and chanting. Half asleep and a little grumpy, I thought, what the hell is that noise? After a couple of minutes I remembered, then quickly got dressed, grabbed my camera and ran downstairs.

The parade has become the biggest event in Kumamoto, with over 45 gumi taking part. Each group dress in their own unique and original designed clothes and each has a different style of dancing. The parade follows the main streets of Kumamoto, namely Kamitori and Shimotori, then makes its way up to Kumamoto Castle, pretty much the same path it has done for hundreds of years. Kumamoto castle, Ninomaru park then plays host to lunchtime activities and there are many food and drink stands set up for people to enjoy in the afternoon.

Handlers working to control a horse
A number of handlers are sometimes needed to keep the horse under control.

This is one of the most interesting festivals I have been to, if not the loudest. But get there early if you want to view the parade near the shrine, as it gets very crowded. The festival has a long and interesting history and is not to be missed if you are in Kyushu.

The Fujisaki Horse Festival is usually held in mid-September.

Words and photos by Stuart Iles.

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