One of the most memorable festivals I attended during my time living in Tokyo was the Spring Grand Festival at Meiji Shrine (Meiji Jingu). Meiji Shrine is located in the western parts of Tokyo in Shibuya ward. This Shinto shrine is dedicated to the spirits of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken. Emperor Meiji was the symbolic leader of the restored Imperial government of Japan during a period of rapid modernization at the end of the 19th century.
Harajuku station and Takeshita street are located right in front of the main entry to the shrine grounds. Harajuku on a Sunday is the best place to see Japanese youth rockin’ their indescribable street fashion. My favorite was definitely the gothic-lolita kids hanging out on the bridge in front of the main gate to the shrine grounds. Imagine a cross between an emo Count Dracula and Alice in Wonderland. Yet once into the shrine grounds I always felt sense of sacred purity (especially after the craziness of Harajuku!)
During the Spring Grand Festival many rituals are performed and visitors pay their respects to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken. But the real pleasure of the Spring Grand Festival is the myriad of martial arts demonstrations. There were demonstrations of sword, spear, halberd, and hand-to-hand techniques in so many combinations. Unarmed against sword, sword against spear, spear against halberd, and every thing in between.
The most spectacular is a demonstration of mounted archery called yabusame. The horse-mounted archers come galloping down a straightaway, drawing and firing three arrows into three dinner-plate sized wooden targets. It certainly requires superhuman balance, timing, concentration, and skill. The rider comes charging down the field balanced in the stirrups holding up the great curving bow. The rider would grab and nock the arrow, then draw aim and loose the arrow in one smooth motion for all three targets. Here’s a great clip of a yabusame demonstration. (This takes place at Samukawa Shrine NOT Meiji Shrine but I couldn’t resist the rockin’ Top Gun soundtrack!)
Needless to say, the first time I saw yabusame it blew my mind. The first two riders I saw either missed all three targets or only hit one. Just getting close to a target was impressive enough to me. However, the next rider beautifully hit all three targets, each one with a popping sound and to cheers from the crowd. As the rider and the horse came around, I saw that this third rider was a woman. Shwing!
In fact there were many women performing in all the martial arts demonstrations at the festival. It made me wonder about the images of demure and passive women I saw in the samurai dramas and movies. In my experience practicing judo in Japan, men and women were treated the same and certainly were equal in strength and skill. I can tell you, I got my butt handed to me regularly by a 16 year old school girl. (I beat her a couple times… when she was winded. The payback was painful, but it was worth it!) Despite the differences I saw in the workplace or in wider society in Japan between men and women I never saw any apparent differences between men and women in the dojo. Was the martial arts world really that progressive or was it just a trick of perception?
I recently found a very interesting article about women and martial arts in Japan here It seems that in recent times a specific weapon has come to be associated most closely with women in Japan: a type of halberd-like weapon called a naginata. The versatile naginata is a long staff topped with a long curved sword-like blade. Most masters of naginata schools and lineages in Japan are women. Check out this clip of a championship match between two naginata users. This new form of naginata is sport-like and uses a scoring system similar to kendo or fencing. The intensity and explosive power of these two practitioners is amazing. It’s like a mongoose versus a cobra! Now I’m not expert enough to say much about women warriors in samurai era Japan, but I can say this: if I were a warrior I would not underestimate any man or woman, especially if they’re carrying a hefty staff with a wicked-sharp blade on the end of it.
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