Sagicho Matsuri in Omi-Hachiman City dates back to medieval times. It is said that Oda Nobunaga (a powerful warlord who ruled Japan in 16th century) enjoyed this festival himself.
At those times, the festival was held a short distance from current place, at the foot of the Azuchi Hill where Nobunaga’s huge castle stood. After his death and burning of the castle, the townspeople moved to the current place where general Toyotomi Hidetsugu built his fortress.
It is one of the most crazy Japanese festivals requiring laborious preparations of the decorations only to burn them in one evening.
Sagicho is a pile of straw or a ceremony in shrines during which new year’s decorations (also made usually made from straw). Such events (sometimes called “tondo”) are held throughout Japan on January 15th or 18th, but in some places however the ceremony became more and more elaborate and was moved to a different day. Such is the festival of the Himure Hachiman Shrine which became a yearly festival of the townspeople of Omihachiman.
Each of the thirteen neighborhoods of the old castle town prepare their own platform. Each is decorated with an edifice of a different animal from Chinese zodiac.
Platforms weigh up to 1.5 tonnes and are carried on shoulders. Their bases are a huge piles of straws with wooden frame. The decorations are made using food ingredients like beans, dried seaweed, noodles. Neighborhoods compete for the best decoration each year.
Ashes to ashes
The most disturbing thing about Sagicho Matsuri is that all those decorations that took months to prepare are burnt in one evening.
The festival in 2011
Sagicho Matsuri in 2011 took place the day after the Great Tohoku Earthquake. It was the beginning of the Year of the Rabbit which was supposed to bring a calm and peaceful times after the previous Year of the Tiger. It did not.
While Shiga Prefecture was not hit directly by the earthquake or tsunami, those events had a huge impact on everyone in Japan at that time. When the time for burning the decorations came on Sunday evening, people immersed in a fury against the symbol of the year that brought the disaster. They beat and burnt the images of the rabbit. The contrast between the cute images of rabbits and people releasing their aggression against them was surreal.
Omi Hachiman Sagicho Matsuri takes place on the third weekend of March in the old town area of the Ōmihachiman city around Muro-Hachiman shrine (牟呂八幡社). The nearest train station is JR Omihachiman which is barely 35 minutes from Kyoto on regular express train. It takes about 30 minutes by foot to reach the shrine, but you might encounter festival activities on the way.
Saturday is for parade and platform decorations contest, but there is a lot of lively dancing anyway. Sunday is when violent things start to happen. It is the day that fight “kenka” starts and decorations get broken.
The climax of the festival (Sunday evening, on the premises of the shrine) is attended by large number of people, but surprisingly very few people visit the town during the day.