Japan Festivals: Shirahige Festival
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Shirahige Tahara Doburoku Matsuri
October is rice harvest time in Japan. Wherever you go in the countryside, farmers will be busy cropping their tiny terrace fields with miniature combine harvesters. Large machines won't work in these hard-to-access paddies. Sheaves of freshly cut straw dot the shaved fields in the mild autumn sun, smoke rises from fires burning the chaff.
The rice harvest is also the start of the sake-making season. Large quantities of the grain will be immediately shipped off to the sake breweries - but not all of it. There are still some remote corners where things work differently. One of them is the tiny village of Ota on the Kunisaki Peninsula in the northeast of Kyushu.
The village, located in a wide valley between dense forests, is home to the ancient Shirahige Tahara Shinto shrine and thus to a by now very rare festival to celebrate life, the harvest and freshly made doburoku sake. Welcome to the Shirahige Tahara Doburoku Matsuri.
The Shirahige Shrine, founded in times immemorial, has a tradition of making doburoku since at least the year 710 AD. The festival that took place in that year has been noted in old documents. It has been going on ever since. Traditions are well kept in these parts.
Doburoku is sake in its earliest stage. In fact, it's nothing but fermented mash straight from the wooden barrels where the enrichment process takes place. Absolutely unfiltered and unprocessed but the fermentation has already done the job - creating a strongly tasting beverage with about 20% alcohol content. It's delicious - even though it looks like okayu (Japanese rice soup) with all the crushed grain still swimming in the mushy white drink. Gulp it down and swallow the grain with it. Drinkers quickly develop a liking for it.
In old Japan, doburoku was a common drink. Now, the filtered, clear and pasteurized versions of sake available on supermarket shelves are the standard. They can be stored for a long time, they can easily be transported. Doburoku on the other hand will spoil after only a few days. As the fermentation process in the sake is still ongoing, it's a rather volatile brew too, easily shooting the cork out of the bottle and erupting in a messy white fountain if handled wrongly. Don't shake it, keep it cold if you get the chance to obtain a bottle.
The Shirahige festival is a good place to get your hands on the original brew. Ota Village, the site of the festival, is now part of the city of Kitsuki. If you look at an area map, you will find that Kitsuki is right on the shore. The city center and Kitsuki Castle are right down at the sea. The train station connecting Kitsuki to Hakata and Oita City is inconveniently located outside the main city but still just a short bus ride away.
If you look at a local map however which indicates the city limits of Kitsuki, you will see that they stretch out far into the rarely visited, mountainous countryside in the center of the Kunisaki Peninsula. That's where Ota is. Far away from everything. Fortunately, during the time of the festival, a shuttle bus service from the train station to the Shirahige shrine and back is available.
When you arrive in Ota, you will first encounter a large farmers market along the village road. It's all local farmers selling the products of their own fields. The nashi (Japanese pears) are delicious and so is the rare kijimeshi, (pheasant rice), served ready to eat with generous helpings of fried pheasant meat in it. Get a good bite to eat here before you climb up the stairs to the shrine.
Wash your hands at the water basin in front of the shrine as you should always do before entering a shrine. Here, a cute looking dragon sculpture is watches over the ritual and it's a great place for a picture if it's not too crowded.
Then enter the shrine. Offer a coin or two to the kamisama (gods) - and right next to the prayer steps, friendly old farmers will be handing out small cups filled with fresh white doburoku. All sake is for free and you can get as many refills as you want.
This is not the Octoberfest however. The brew is to be tasted and enjoyed in small quantities, not to get drunk from. In fact, when visiting the festival, I didn't see anyone visibly drunk at all.
Entertainment - Kagura & Taiko
On a stage down at the farmer's market, a non-stop program of traditional Japanese arts presents ancient kagura dances and plenty of taiko drummer groups. No big name performers but well-crafted shows by locals deeply rooted in the music and dance.
The funniest show takes place in the morning of the second day of the festival. Shirahige, the name of the shrine, translates as "white beard" and so a contest of who has the most beautiful white beard is held. Old men show off their impressive facial hair to great applause.
On the same day, young men parade a mikoshi (portable shrine) on their shoulders along the village road. They eventually stop right in front of the lower end of the steps leading up the actual shrine. They will keep standing there and anyone who wants to drink their sake up at the shrine has to duck and walk through under the wooden beams carrying the sacred artifacts. Go and head up the stairs for another one!
Strictly speaking, you can't buy the sake. It belongs to the gods, and even they are careful not to violate any liquor sales licensing laws. But if you donate some money to the shrine, you get a bottle as a gift.
In fact, the process of donating in exchange for sake is thoroughly organized. A donation of 3000 yen will get you one bottle, 5000 yen will be two bottles and so on. You go to a desk, hand over the money and write down your name. Pick up your sake and wait a little.
Your name will be skillfully written with a calligraphy brush on a wooden board which in turn will be nailed to the display wall where hundreds of other people already have their donations announced. This honorable list of generous spenders will stay in place until next year's festival. Unfortunately, the doburoku will stay good for only about one week.
The Shirahige Tahara Doburoku Matsuri always takes place on October 17th and 18th regardless which days of the week they may be. It is held from 10am to 4pm.
Getting there: Kitsuki is on the Sonic Express train route from Hakata to Oita City. However, not all of the Sonic Express trains stop in Kitsuki. Make sure which one does. Alternatively, take a fast Sonic Express to Beppu and then backtrack to Kitsuki using one of the frequent local trains.
During the Doburoku festival, a shuttle bus from Kitsuki train station goes to the festival and back every 30 minutes. The ride takes about 30 minutes.
Warning: In case you travel to the festival by car, make sure you have someone at the wheel who didn't drink a drop when you leave the festival. A police checkpoint at the exit of the village does an alcohol check on every driver.
This site refers to the 2009 Shirahige festival. In Japanese only.
This blog describes all doburoku festivals in Japan in 2007. As these events have histories of more than a 1000 years, things aren't likely to change very quickly. In Japanese only.
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Words + images Johannes Schonherr