Tag Archive for shinto

Tado Horse Festival

Phew! What a day. I felt like I was in the army today, “hurry up and wait”, and a lot of standing. As I type this, I’m cooling off with a can of Suntory Premium beer. It was the sort of day that was the end of spring, but people’s wardrobes had not kept up. There was a guy who chose to wear a knitted beanie; I’m sure you could call it a ‘seasonal-wardrobe miscalculation’.


The Tado horse festival is an annual religious event held at a Shinto Shrine. The basics are that a drunken horse is ridden up a drunken steep slope by a drunken rider. Seriously, they get the horse drunk, the rider is drunk, and they splash copious amounts of sake (Japanese rice wine-like alcohol) on the slope and obstacle. If the horse and rider make it over the slope, then that heralds a good rice harvest later in the year.

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Religious preparations:

Accurate information on this event is hard to gather, as each person can tell you a fragment of what they know of this event, and sometimes these fragments contradict what other people have said. But from what I think I can reliably gather is this. For a couple of weeks before the event, the riders are kept in a kind of religious quarantine. They are fed traditional food, partake in specialised religious ceremonies, and are taken care of before the event. Everything is provided for them, and everything they need is given to them. Even during the event, it appears their feet are not permitted to touch the ground and so the riders need to be carried either by horse or by human, otherwise they are permitted to stand on tatami mats or rocks.

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What happens:

The slope is rather steep, and has an added mound-obstacle at the top with a bamboo pole sticking out. At about midday the mound is ceremoniously broken making a small gap for horse and rider to attempt their climb over. The horse is raced down a long straight gaining momentum that should assist it to get up and over the mound. For each horse and rider, there is a dedicated team of mostly young (brave) men who stand in file either-side of the path to guide the horse to the break in the mound and help the horse and rider over. As you’re probably beginning to imagine, it is dangerous. Last year I saw a guy carried away on a stretcher with blood coming from his head. No blood this year, but there were several casualties taken away by ambulance. There was a dedicated doctor on site who did need to attend to a few people.

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The event today drew a crowd of approximately 100,000 people. The Tado Horse Festival often attracts crowds of about 80,000 to 90,000 people over the Tuesday and Wednesday of the Golden Week holiday at the start of May.



Animal rights groups do campaign against this event, as horses can get injured (and possibly later put down), and the horses are made drunk for this event. However, this event is far, far older than the notion of animal rights. The owners of the horses attend the event, and the horses are probably re-used and needed for the second day of the event. There are apparently other similar events in Japan which reportedly have as a compromise lowered the mound to make it easier and less risky for horses. Furthermore, why should animal rights groups call for the cancellation of a centuries all event? To demand an end to such a cultural event in any Asian country, by those influenced by Western values would seem a little culturally-imperialistic. Moral relativists would be saddened to see a cultural event cancelled to please a few people, but would rather let the Japanese decide for themselves what is appropriate for their culture. There are opposing views of this event, and they all have valid arguments, as you can see. So, what’s my position really? I cannot pass judgement.

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How to get there:

From Nagoya Station, take the Kintetsu Express train to Kuwana Station (about 30 minutes) with a ¥440 ticket. On the same platform you get off at, is a connection to the Yoro Tetsu train company. There will be a little table there selling tickets (specifiy “return”) for about ¥310. From that Kuwana platform to the Tado station, it will take about approximately 13 minutes. Just follow the crowd for a 10 to 15 minute walk up the gentle slope through the town and along the river. Ticket prices may be updated without notice. Check Hyperdia.Com for train times and prices.

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These images are available at both Asia Photo Connection (aka Henry Westheim), and my portfolio at PhotoShelter > Tado Horse Festival.

New Year

Welcome to 2010. I hope your hangover isn’t too bad.

Last night I had the great honour of being able to go to both a Buddhist temple and a Shinto Shrine to see in the new year. Japanese people do not have a problem with going to both a temple and shrine to pray for happiness and health in the coming year. As I went to meet my friend, the weather really reminded me of England: the cold, the light snow, the wind, and the darkness.

The remains of Tokugawa

Left, Ieyasu Tokugawa's remains; right, his mother's remains.

First, we made a stop at Kougaku-ji Temple. It’s a small temple, just a two minute walk from where I live. I’d seen it before, and the Tokugawa Emblems that adorn it. Previously, I thought it was just a small insignificant place. However, it is the place where the remains (or some of) of the very first Tokugawa Shogunate are kept. Following the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, Ieyasu Tokugawa ended the Japanese Warring States Period and established a military dictatorship which ran from 1600 to 1868 (Wikipedia). In modern Japanese pop culture, this is a very important time. Many television dramas, comics, and books are written about the establishment and end of the Tokugawa Era. Considering the immense impact that the Tokugawa Clan has had on Japan, it is amazing to think that I live just around the corner from a small, unknown temple where Ieyasu Tokugawa’s (some of the) remains are now kept. This is a real local ‘best-kept secret’.

A monk chanting sutras to welcome in the New Year

In Kougaku-ji Temple, where Ieyasu Tokugawa's remains are kept

It was here, at this very small and intimate temple where I saw in the New Year. The Buddhist monks (pictured) chanted sutras from books from about ten minutes to midnight, and ended just after midnight. Afterwards, we were taken outside (in the freezing cold, where snow was still settled on the ground) where we would, in turn, strike the temple bell. The bell was struck 108 times, as it is said that we have 108 sins that need to be cleansed. Fortunately for me, I only had to strike it once, the crowd and the monks would do the rest.

Unfortunately for me, I didn’t know what to expect, so the camera that I took was only just enough to capture the events for this blog. I hope to go back to this temple with a tripod and other gear and take my time to photograph it properly, and do it justice.

A Shinto priest in front of a shrine on New Years eve.

A Shinto priest in front of a shrine on New Years eve.

After having the New Year chanted and tolled in, we went to Heaven Shrine, known locally as Hachiman Jinja. Here we had offered to us invitingly hot noodles to eat, and refreshing sake to drink. After refuelling and getting warmed up again by the huge fire (where last year’s prayer / wish boards are burnt) we went up and got new prayer / wish boards. On these, you would write your wishes for the New Year. Unfortunately, the lighting here was absolutely terrible, and so this is the best image I could manage under the conditions. Afterwards I went out for one more small cup of sake (I swear, it was only a small amount that I had), was introduced to some of my friend’s friends. Warmed by the fire a little more, then went home at about 1.30am.

Thanks for the invitation and your help, Mr Kato. Update from Mr Kato, the Buddhist ceremony is for New Year’s Eve, whilst the Shinto ceremony is for New Year’s Day. Arigatougozaimasu, Kato-san.

Some men standing by a fire at a Shinto Shrine at New Year's eve

Some men standing by a fire at a Shinto Shrine at New Year's eve

New Year

Happy New Year, and best of wishes for 2010.  Below are some Japanese New Year related images.

Among other themes, sunrises are used to symbolise the New Year and a new start. So, many Japanese use the sunrise theme as well as Chinese Zodiac animals for New Year’s cards that they send to friends and family. Increasingly, young families are sending cards that include pictures of themselves on it. This sunrise image unfortunately also includes industrial emissions from factories in Nagoya Port. The foreground is of the roller-coaster and ferris wheel of Nagashima Spa Land.

Sunrises are often used on New Year cards in Japan

Sunrises are often used on New Year cards in Japan

Link to another sunrise image with Nagashima Spa Land, Japanese fishing boats with Shinto New Year mementos for the luck and safety of fisherman for the coming year.

The second image is a door decoration that is usually hung over the front door of a residence. Both of these images will soon be available at my agent’s website, Asian Photo Connection.

A Japanese New Year decoration

A Japanese New Year decoration

Naked Man Festival

The Naked Man Festival (Hadaka Matsuri) is an annual even held at Kounomiya, just outside of Nagoya City in central Japan. It’s held in the depths of winter and is a weekend-long event. The part that the public sees (and is shown in my portfolios) is held in the afternoon. The event date varies from year to year, according to the Chinese lunar calendar, but is held during the lunar New Year.

It began over 1,200 years ago, in the year 767, when Nara was the capital of Japan. At that time, there were plagues affecting the Japanese people, so Emperor Shotoku ordered special prayers to be said nation wide. The governor of Owari Province (now Aichi Prefecture) asked the shrine at Kounomiya to do something about this, and to remove the bad luck. So, the Naked Man Festival, held in the coldest time in winter was formulated (first published by me at Winjeel.Com, Feb 2009).

See these portfolios:

PhotoShelter, Asian Photo Connection, and Gekko Images.

Naked Man Festival – Images by Andrew Blyth

Tado Gagaku

A few weeks ago I saw a wonderful performance. Tado Gagaku is a traditional Shinto-related performance troupe. They have both actor-dancers and musicians. The Tado Gagaku performs two or three times a year. This time, they performed at Kuwana Mansion, known locally as Roka-En (Roka Park).The performances are done outdoors on a temporary stage. On this particular day, it was cold, rain threatened, miserable, and the lighting was less than par. But, the people were really nice. I was fortunate enough to get some model releases. A performer of Tado Gaku

There are several performances done in the course of two hours. Some are solo performances, some were group performances, in some the performers wore masks, but they all wore wonderful costumes. The musicians played all Japanese court instruments.

All images are available at Asia PhotoConnection / Henry Westheim.

A performer of Tado Gaku playing the sho (cheng)

Homepage picture: Kuwana City Ishidori

The current homepage picture was taken in the Kuwana City Ishidori. “Ishidori” literally means ‘stone-bringing’ festival. It’s an all weekend Shinto religious festival held annually in Kuwana City in mid summer at night.A man marks his town's portable shrine cordon in a crowd of onlo

It’s history is a little uncertain, but probably dates back about two or three hundred years. Each town or ward in Kuwana City has a portable shrine. Each portable shrine has a large drum and Japanese style cymbals. They beat out a traditional rhythm non-stop, for the entire duration of the procession, lasting for about six hours on Saturday and Sunday evenings. They follow a set route around the town. This route can vary from year to year, as it is said that it is lucky for the businesses to have the festival pass by their shop fronts. So, in consideration of these businesses, the route is varied each year. Along the route there are intersections, where there can be four portable shrines that meet. In concert with each other they would play the traditional drum and cymbal rhythm with extra energy and zest. This can last for up to 10 minutes, before they quieten down slightly, and move on, allowing the next shrines behind to have their moot. The Kuwana City festival is said to be the loudest in Japan.

Eventually, at somepoint in the night, they portable shrines make their way to a local Shinto shrine and hand over a white stone. These stones were previously gathered from a nearby river perhaps some weeks before hand. It is uncertain as to why the Kuwana City festival is unique in that they bring white stones to the shrine, instead of rice-balls, which is the norm in other places in Japan. It is thought by a local high school teacher and Ishidori enthusiast, that at one time rice might have been quite scarce, and the local people might not have been able to bring their annual rice-ball offerings to the shrine. So, it is possible that white stones were accepted in place of rice-balls.

Once these portable shrines make their way to the front of the Shinto shrine, they perform the drum and cymbal rhythm in earnest for the Shinto priests. Once the priests are satisfied, they give their blessings to that town or ward which is represented by the portable shrine.

I have many photos of this event on both film and some in digital. It is a night festival, held in the humidity of summer. Consequently, the quality of some images is a little compromised. However, other images can be made available upon request under Rights Managed licensing.

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