Hats off to Chiyoda’s rice-field rites

by Steve John Powell

Special To The Japan Times

I can’t quite believe we’re getting up just after dawn on a Sunday morning for an event that doesn’t start till lunchtime. But our Japanese friends all assured us we’d regret it if we didn’t arrive early.

After all, this is no run-of-the-mill event: It’s the centuries-old Mibu no Hana Taue Matsuri annual rice-planting festival at Chiyoda in Hiroshima Prefecture.

In 1976, the Hana Taue, as it’s known, was officially designated a National Folk Culture Asset. Then, in 2011, Unesco awarded it Intangible Cultural Heritage status — and “Lonely Planet” has dubbed it one of the most spectacular Shinto festivals in Japan.

OK — I’m convinced. I’m up. My wife, Angeles, double-checks her camera bag and we’re out into the sweet early-morning air. The only other people about are a couple of agony-eyed joggers and a gaggle of giggly schoolgirls cycling to some tournament with naginata (pole weapons) across their backs.

We buy our bentō (box lunches) at Hiroshima bus station and find the correct stop. “Welcome aboard the Chiyoda bus,” the jovial middle-aged bus driver announces in English through his microphone. “Please enjoy your travel.” I expect him to say the same in Japanese, like on the Shinkansen — but no, he’s only said it for our benefit.

Some claim Chiyoda’s rice-planting ritual dates from the Kamakura Period of military government (1192-1333). What’s certain, though, is that around 400 years ago, in the Edo Period when Tokugawa shoguns ruled from 1603-1867, wealthy landowners across the land celebrated such festivals on a grand scale to offer prayers for a good harvest.

In today’s mechanized times, Chiyoda (which we are now supposed to call Kitahiroshima, but few do) is one of the few places where you can still see what these ceremonial events used to be like. But even here, only one token rice field is still planted in the time-honored way.

We arrive at said field, a broad rectangle of waterlogged mud, a full five hours before the scheduled start. The long lines of benches set up around the field are quite empty. Taking our pick of front-row seats, I’m just about to complain about coming too early, when several buses arrive and disgorge torrents of camera-toting tourists. The benches are overrun in seconds.

Five hours is a long time to sit in the sun, yet with the benches filling up I’m reluctant to abandon our prime position. An elderly gent next to us overhears us weighing our predicament and suggests we write our names on a piece of paper and leave it on the bench with our gear, including my wife’s brand-new tripod. This is the accepted way of “bagging” one’s place, he assures us.

After living in London’s East End, I can’t help feeling that leaving even a half-eaten pork pie unattended — let alone valuables — is ill-advised, if not downright insane. But our new-found friend just sits cross-legged on the bench with 10 tons of cameras round his neck, beaming like Buddha in a lotus blossom and insisting: “No problem!”

I bid a silent goodbye to our bags as Angeles and I set off through the streets, where takoyaki (octopus dumpling) and yakitori (grilled chicken) stalls are just coming to life in readiness for the biggest day in the village’s calendar. The rest of the time, though it’s only 40 km north of the big city of Hiroshima, Chiyoda is a bucolic backwater set amid a patchwork of rice fields that are now rippling with millions of tadpoles wriggling in the morning sun.

Today, as on the first Sunday in June every year, Chiyoda’s peaceful rural routines will be shattered by the arrival of hundreds of visitors from all over Japan.

On a mountainside behind the town, in a dark forest of ancient whispering pines and waist-high ferns, we come upon Mibu Shrine. It merges into the trees and rocks and contours like it’s part of the landscape — reminding us that we’re deep in Honshu’s westernmost region of Chugoku, where the Elder Gods never feel far away.

In a clearing nearby, we find tourists and locals gathering to witness the arrival of farmers with the stars of this show — their oxen. Amid much joke-telling and chatting fueled by cigarettes and sips of sake, the farmers wash and brush the beasts, spray them with insect repellent and polish their horns. The scene has the air of country cattle market, unchanged in centuries, as the festival’s full contingent of 15 cows and one bull are assembled there.

A farmer explains the disproportion: “The cows don’t like plowing up the rice field, but when the bull goes in, they just follow him.”

With the cattle now shining clean, it’s time to get them dressed up: lavish blankets, harnesses, saddles, flowers and head-dresses (15 kg of trappings for each cow, and double that for the bull). In fact the bull is quite a show-stealer, sporting as he does a beautifully embroidered blanket which, says its owner, has threads of real gold woven into it. “The dragon’s-head motif alone is worth over ¥100,000,” he boasts.

We leave them to their preparations and head back down to the village, in time for a stunning display of traditional dancing. Decked out in colorful costumes, the performers moving energetically to the hypnotic sounds of drums and flutes range from young children to women in their 70s, and we’re told some have come from as far as Tottori on the Sea of Japan.

The highlight is the Hanagasa-Odori (Flower Hat Dance), another National Folk Culture Asset, which in ancient times was performed by women to drive insects away from the fields. Centuries ago, though, men took over in order to commemorate a band of samurai who donned Flower Hat garb to enter an enemy castle with swords hidden beneath their pretty kimono, and then overpower their foes.

In fact these Flower Hats are more like boxes completely covering the dancers’ heads, with small rice-straw veils for them to see through and toppings of chrysanthemums from which sprout thin bamboo canes embellished with fake cherry blossom that hang curtainlike almost to the ground. The dancers look like shidarezakura (weeping cherry trees), the “branches” swishing and swaying as they move. It’s surreal, and just a little eerie.

With the dancing over, it seems a good moment to tuck into our box lunches. Just as we sit down, an announcement booms out: “We are happy to welcome Angeles, our guest from Spain.” How did they find out?

We get back to our seats by the rice field to find the benches jam-packed with spectators — all except for our front-row spot with all our gear just as we left it.

On the other side of the rice field, two Shinto priests in white blouses, baggy turquoise trousers and tall black hats chant prayers before a little altar ladened with offerings of cabbage, fruit, rice and sake.

The sound of more flutes and drums announces the arrival of the procession of oxen. The owners, now wearing traditional costumes of wide-brimmed straw hats and cloaks of matted rice sheaves, hook up the plows to the cattle. Sure enough, the cows appear decidedly reluctant to get into the squelchy spirit of the occasion. But then, as the farmer said, once the bull is coaxed down into the muddy field, the cows meekly follow.

The oxen are led round and round the field, churning up the thick mud with their huge hooves — and splashing us each time they come past (the price of a free front-row view). With just a short break for the men to have some green tea and sake, the whole field is turned over in half an hour.

Next, dozens of flute players, drummers, gong-bongers and saotome (rice-maidens) get down into the field, wearing colorful costumes and wide-brimmed bamboo hats. Musicians and maidens alike line up to face a village elder dressed as the mythical figure of Sanbai-san (the Rice God), who acts as a kind of conductor with his bamboo wand. The rice-maidens sing as they pluck rice seedlings from little wooden boats and begin planting them. All the while, they’re walking backward, knee-deep in mud, their ritualized movements in perfect synch with the lilting tunes played by the ranks of musicians behind them.

It’s a glorious ballet, the whole field a technicolored blur of windmilling arms, rising and falling, bodies arching, bending and swaying, as ornate drumsticks are hurled into the air and caught again without missing a beat — 200 people moving in complete unison.

Against a backdrop of blue sky and glistening emerald hills, the spectacle is mesmerizing. But it’s all over surprisingly quickly. Before I can say, “That was amazing!” the crowds disperse, calm returns to the rice field and the frogs resume their croaking, content in their newly planted watery home. And once again the local legend has held true: “It never rains on the day of Hana Taue.”