Thursday, May 6, 2010

Ja Matsuri - Snake Festival at Mamada Hachiman Jinja in Oyama

Today was Children’s Day and the last holiday of the Golden Week. And since the weather was lovely, spending the last day before returning to work tomorrow would be pointless, Dr. and Ms Trouble got in their trusty, little k-car and zoomed down to Oyama to take a look at this festival.

And continuing with our tradition of presenting obscure local festivals, here is our report from Ja Matsuri.

But first things first.

A little bit about Mamada Hachiman Jinja (間々田八幡神社)
Since it’s named “Hachiman Jinja" (八幡神社) a.k.a. Hachimangu, that means Emperor Ojin (応神天皇) is enshrined there. Supposedly, there are anywhere between 10 to 20 thousand of Hachiman Jinja in Japan, which puts it at number 2 after Inari Jinja (稲荷神社), when it comes to sheer numbers. Mamada Hachiman Jinja in Oyama city, Tochigi prefecture, is one of them Hachimangus.

The 15th ruler of Japan, Emperor Ojin (the dude enshrined at Hachiman Jinja) appears in the collections of Japanese myths (Kojiki and Nihon Shoki) as Homutawake, or Hondawake (誉田別). This legendary emperor spent three years in the womb of his mom, Empress Jingu (神功皇后) - that must have been some pregnancy, I feel sorry for the woman, legendary or not. He was crowned at the age of 71 and reigned for 40 years until his death when he was 111 years old (or 130 years according to Kojiki). Yep, it’s a myth. Either that, or the guy and his momma were extraterrestrials. Hey, anything is possible…

Where is Mamada Hachiman Jinja?

It’s approximately 72km from Edo (old name of Tokyo), located along Route 4. Route 4 used to be called Nikko Kaido (日光街道). Yes, Route 119 is also known as Nikko Kaido – it’s the second section of the ancient road from Edo to Nikko. Among 21 stations located along this religious route, Mamada is number 11, and you’re supposed to arrive there on day 2 of your pilgrimage, by foot, naturally.

In fact, the legendary poet, Basho MATSUO (松尾芭蕉), spent the night at Mamada while on the way to visit northern parts of Japan. He wrote a travel book of haikus titled “Oku no Hosomichi" (奥の細道/ The Narrow Road to the Deep North). A monument celebrating one of his haikus is located at Mamada Hachiman Jinja.

Click on the map for larger view (sorry, it's a static jpg shot only).

A brief history of Mamada Hachiman Jinja

The name of Mamada Hachiman Jinja appears for the first time in 939 CE (AD if you prefer) when Masakado TAIRA (平将門) rebelled against the Kyoto Court by proclaiming himself “Shinno” - new emperor - 新皇.

Hidesato FUJIWARA (藤原秀郷), the Tochigi governor at that time, was ordered by the Kyoto Court to deal with the Taira fella. On the way to fight with the rebels, he stopped by at Mamada Hachiman Jinja to pray for speedy victory. After Hidesato’s arrow hit Masakado right in the middle of the forehead (bullseye!), the victorious governor returned to Mamada Hachiman Jinja, reported his triumph and donated a rice field (田) to the shrine.
Since then, the local people called this area “Mamada” (飯田). During the Edo period the kanji of Mamada changed from “飯田” to “間々田” because Mamada is located between (= 間) Edo and Nikko.

In 1189 CE (AD, whatever) Yoritomo Minamoto (源頼朝) heard of Mamada Hachiman Jinja’s divine power in aiding Hidesato’s famous bullseye arrow. So he, Yoritomo, also thought it would be a good idea to visit Mamada and pray for victory over yet another Fujiwara, this time - Yasuhira FUJIWARA (藤原泰衡), the 4th successor of Northern Fujiwara clan (奥州藤原氏) in Mutsu Province (陸奥国). But instead of donating a rice field, Yoritomo planted a single pine tree. Cheap bastard.

During the Kyowa era (1789-1803), the shrine burned down to nothing and the current buildings are reconstructions done in 1851 by some highly-skilled carpenters who were fixing Toshogu (in Nikko) back then. So when you happen to visit Mamada, you might as well pay attention to the decor of the shrine buildings - they have a very prestigious pedigree.

What the heck is Ja Matsuri (蛇祭り)?

“Jagamaita!” the kids screamed while carrying an over 15 meter-long snake made of bamboo, straw, vine, and fern. Mamada locals, children and adults alike, sacrifice over a month of their time and effort to construct this beast. Several such beasts, in fact.
Back in the ancient days, the festival was called “Jagamaita”, since that was the phrase repeated over and over while parading the snake around. Now it’s simply known as Ja Matsuri – a snake festival.

This festival has its roots as a ritual ceremony that took place at the time of planting rice (though now the event is celebrated on May 5th), wishing for rain and wind to keep bugs and disease away from rice fields. Snakes from each Mamada district get together at Mamada Hachiman Jinja, are purified by oharai (お祓い), and drink pond water (as filthy as the pond in New York’s Central Park). Then while still soaking wet, they go for a walk and drool around their local neighborhood.

Walking around with the snake

Drying the snake

Tochigi prefecture assigned this festival as a cultural asset.

It is considered as one of the more odd Shinto festival in Japan. No need to explain why. Watch this video and have fun!!!

And a few more photos are here - on our photoblog.
Part 2 of our posts about the festival is here.

PS. And yes, I know what "mamada" is a slang term for in a certain European language.


  1. What a funny festival. That video is great. I can't believe that legend too with the 3 year pregnancy!

  2. That looks like great fun!
    I enjoyed the video a lot, thanks!

  3. Hi Muza!
    Next year I'm planning to wear a scuba diving outfit and get a waterproof video camera and jump in the pond with them to shoot better footage!