Japan (October 2018): Otomouma-no-Hashirikomi in Kikuma

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Kikuma is a small coastal town some 23km north of Matsuyama. On a normal day it has nothing much to offer to visitors, except a couple of Buddhist temples, ceramic roof tile manufacturing facility, and the best spot for night photography of the illuminated Taiyo Oil refinery! But every year on the 3rd Sunday of October it is home of Otomouma-no-Hashirikomi, a colorful annual horse racing festival said to be 600-year old.

 

Left: Henjoin (Buddhist temple). Right: One of the many ceramic onigawara produced in Kikuma.

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Left: Announcement of the 2018 festival on a window shop in Kikuma. Right: A small crowd of well-equipped photographs who came early to the racing site to occupy the best spot.

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The festival is held on the grounds of the Kamo shrine (Shinto), slightly outside town. The horses are ridden by boys, some incredibly young, some in their teens. The horses are caparisoned with well-padded embroidered saddles and the riders are dressed in colorful clothes. The racetrack is approximately 300m long; it consists of a straight course, then a turn to the left, and finally a steep straight ascent to reach a flat between the Kama shrine and a small pond. The event starts at 8:00am and lasts at least until 11:00am. Initially it is rather formal and well-organized. First the riders and their helpers come with the horses to the base of the shrine to pay their respects. Then a sequence of races, each involving 2 to 4 horses, are performed. But after a couple of hours things loosen up somewhat and become more chaotic. Races are intertwined with weird and noisy dragon dances, while beer consumption around the temple increases dramatically. Overall, people seemed to have a lot of fun.

 

Start of the race track. The temple (not visible in the photo) is on the left.

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Arrival of the riders and their helpers.

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Riders and helpers paying their respects at the base of the stairs leading to the temple.

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Horses and riders. I was amazed by the youth of some riders and the fact that they do not wear helmets during the races. Not surprisingly, accidents occur. Some of the youngest riders seemed to be proud to be here, others to be scared.

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Rest area for horses between races.

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Race snapshots.

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Racers reaching the end of the track with helpers trying to stop the horses.

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Riders returning from races with their helpers.

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Shots of a procession/dance to the temple between racing events.

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Then beer started flowing with no end in sight...

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Amid the growing chaos and noise, there was this couple sitting still in the shade in front of the temple. They were not drinking beer. They were not talking. They were unlike anyone else. I did not see them moving before I left. I still wonder what was on their mind. Had I been able to speak Japanese, I would have talked to them.

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