Kamakura’s Mounted Archery Festival
Reitai-sai is a great Shinto festival held annually at Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine in Kamakura during three days from September 14 to 16. The last day is highlighted by a ritual based on yabusame, the practice of archery on horseback, which attracts crowds of spectators applauding the performers.
The peak season for matsuri in Japan just came to an end while Kamakura welcomes the last tourists for summer. The heat has become more bearable, even though humidity is still high when the city’s first shrine holds it great yearly festival Reitai-sai. As many events of importance, it unfolds over several days and represents an opportunity to attend to various Shinto ceremonies, some of which are quite the show.
September 15: prayers and traditional processions
The main annual ceremony, that gave its name to the matsuri, happens on the morning of September 15. A solemn ceremonial, the prayers to the gods from the shrine’s attendants (involving everyone from miko maids as well as the head priest guji) are exceptionally opened to the public.
It is then strongly recommended to stay in the vicinity for the livelier Shinko-sai procession. It consists of a parade of portable mikoshi shrines and traditional dances starting in the beginning of the afternoon and performed in the vast Tsurugaoka Hachimangu’s grounds.
September 16 September: an athletic feat for Shinto gods
Horses lovers gather on the next day, September 16, to attend Yabusame-shinji, the special highlight of the festival, mixing horse riding and archery. This event is said to have taken place from the beginnings of the matsuri in 1187, as initiated by Minamoto Yoritomo. As for mounted archery in Japan, it dates back to the mid-6th century when samurai trained their archery and horsemanship skills in the shrines’ grounds. After a successful shoot, the target and the arrow could be kept as lucky charms and amulets.
In Kamakura, the yabusame ceremonial is held to honor the war deity (kami) Hachiman. The three horsemen to perform are selected from the best archers in the area. Very popular, this event attracts many spectators who gather along the two sides of the course trail. Even if the event only starts in the beginning of the afternoon, it is highly recommended to arrive in Tsurugaoka Hachimangu in the morning to secure a good viewing spot, preferably at the front row. The show is indeed very fast: each participant is riding a galloping horse and has only one round to score. So better be ready and stay alert to not miss a second of this few minutes show!
During the waiting time, you can observe the setting up of the trail as well as the arrival of all the ceremony’s stakeholders: priests, horsemen, and horses with their lads. Archers wear traditional costumes reminders of ancient hunting garments, arranged in layers of clothes with particularly crafted fabric and designs, and typical accessories such as hats. A couple of food stands and music animation help spend the last moments before the show. Once the archery performance is finished, the crowd quickly disperses to continue visiting Kamakura or to head back home, for example to Tokyo.
Other interesting feature of the Reitai-sai Shinto festival: several types of animations are held in the shrine, such as tea ceremonies, taiko drums performances, dance performances, and many martial arts demonstrations like kendo and judo.