Five days of parades, displays, performances — and lots of horses.
Though officially called the Great Autumn Festival of Fujisaki Hachimangu, a local Shinto shrine, Kumamoto’s most famous event is known as the Horse Festival because of the exceptional role that equines play in the festivities.
The climax of the festival, which is held in September, involves a procession of elaborately decorated horses led by Shinto priests, samurai reenactors and people carrying portable shrines. The atmosphere is lively, with high spirits not only at the parade, but also across the city.
More than 17,000 people visit Kumamoto during the festival, indicating its popularity, but it’s also not without controversy. So, how did it begin and why is it so hotly debated?
Origin and development
The Horse Festival is rooted in the Buddhist ritual of hojoe, whereby captive animals are released into the wild as a symbolic act against taking a life. When Buddhism and Shintoism began to be practiced together in Japan, this idea was introduced to Shinto shrines and led to the release of horses.
In addition, samurai of local feudal lord Kato Kiyomasa who returned from the Japanese invasions of Korea (1592–1598) started a custom of parading through the Kumamoto streets. Kato is said to have lead the procession to thank the gods of Fujisaki Hachimangu for the safe return of his men.
Today’s festival is the result of these practices and other unknown influences.
In the late 20th century, the festival had more controversial names, such as Boshita Matsuri, which is derived from the words horoboshita (Japan destroyed Korea). Chanting “Boshita Boshita” was common but was replaced with "Dookai Dookai" (meaning “how about this?”) by 1990. The event is also known as the Drunken Horse Festival as the horses are fed alcohol before and during the festival to increase their reactions.
Lead up and structure
Each day of the five-day festival centres around a particular activity. On the first day, Shinto priests say prayers and hold ceremonies to purify the items used in the parade, including the lion dance costume and musical instruments. A tea ceremony and haiku poetry readings are held on the second day.
On day three, there is a divine ceremony dedicated to traditional Japanese ways of fighting and dance. The fourth day involves the purification of the horses, flower decorations and portable shrines to be used. The horses are also decorated: an activity also steeped in history.
The families of the upper-class samurai returning from Korea presented horses to the shrine’s Shinto priests to ride during the procession but, as the distance to cover was short, the priests chose to walk, leading to more and more elaborate adornments on the horses.
On the fifth and final day, festival activities begin at 6am with a ceremony by shrine priests. Then, a procession of portable shrines (carried by both adults and children), samurai re-enactors, lion dancers and groups of colourfully decorated horses make their way from Fujisaki Hachimangu Shrine to Gokoku Shrine.
The parade passes through the main part of the city, accompanied by music from large drums, trumpets and other instruments. The excitement is palpable.
The horses can get spooked by the atmosphere, causing them to buck and pull at the ropes, which are held tightly by teams of men. If you are standing nearby, it can be scary or add to the adrenaline rush of the festival.
If you’re not comfortable with the treatment of the horses, we wouldn’t suggest visiting the area during September when the city is gearing up for the festival. There are special events and an uptick in local restaurants serving basashi (raw horse meat).
During festival time, there are also many attractions away from the parade so it’s best to make the most of the city’s jovial vibe. There are samurai displays, exhibits, concerts and street performances. The parks, streets and bars are full of people wanting to drink and be merry.
Find out more
For details on getting around during festival time, visit Kumamoto City's Tourism Guide.