Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Great Snake Festival in Shitada

The Furusato Festival was held in the Shitada District of Sanjo City on the 28th, August. The word “Furusato” implies a love for one’s rural hometown, and Japan is full of a variety of local summer festivals characterized by food stalls, traditional dancing and music, and huge fireworks exhibitions.
Shitada’s festival was no exception, but it also put on two more unique events. One is the National Big-Stone Throwing Contest. This event honors a local ruling warrior, Ikarashi Kobunji, who, legends tell us, was a mighty man and born from the Giant Rainy Snake of Maoiga Ike Lake and a human girl from the hamlet of Kasabori. The word “national” may be an exaggeration, but I am unaware of other contests in Japan where participants, both individuals and family teams, compete by throwing bowling-ball-sized stones.

The other remarkable event is the Parade of the Great Snake. In this event, young men carry an “omikoshi,” or sacred shrine shaped like a giant snake, parading it from the Yagi Shrine to the bottom of Yagigahana Cliff.

Yes, I admit that the Sekikawa Snake Festival, which is up in the northern part of Niigata Prefecture, is more famous and their snake, which measures 82.8 meters in length and weighs 2 tons, is more splendid. The Guinness Book of Records has authorized that Sekikawa’s snake is larger than Shitada’s, but size is not everything. The people of Shitada’s love for and enjoyment of their own Snake Festival and the legendary love story behind it cannot be measured by tape or scales.

In a nutshell, the legends tell of a young lady and her mother who happened upon a wounded young warrior, nursed him back to health and came to like him very much. After he recovered, he told the ladies that, for reasons unknown, he had to leave. The girl, however, was in love with him and wanted to know where he would be heading, so her mother told her to stitch a string in the hem of his clothes. Later, she followed the string until she reached the lake and found that he was actually the embodiment of the Giant Snake of Maoiga Ike Lake.

He told her that he was the master of the lake but that the pin the girl had used to attach the string to his clothing was actually poisonous to him and that he was now dying. However, he told her that she was now pregnant with his child and that he wished that she would raise their baby. The baby, the legends continue, grew to become Ikarashi Kobunji, a real-life historical figure whose tomb was located in Yamagata Prefecture. (It is reported that Ikarashi’s tomb had collapsed, but that a memorial marker is located close to the site of the original tomb.)