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Yagorodon rises up in the middle of the night. The giant doll, accompanied by young people wearing happi coats, parades through the town with dignity.
A Giant Doll Parades Through the Town
It's the Yagorodon festival, and a giant doll over four meters tall lumbers through the streets of Osumi-cho in the Soo city, Kagoshima Prefecture. The sight has been imprinted in my mind ever since I saw a photograph of the event in a travel magazine over a decade ago. I was captivated by the fierce yet winsome face, with its goggle eyes under thick eyebrows, and the air of melancholy that seemed to hang around the oversized figure as it travelled along with solemn dignity. I've been wanting to see it with my own eyes at least once ever since, and now at last the time has come for my dream to be realized.
So who, or what, was the original Yagorodon? A number of theories exist. One is that he was a chief of the Hayato clan who led a failed resistance against the Imperial Court in the ancient Yamato period, another does the opposite and identifies him as Takenouchi no Sukune, a member of the Imperial Court.
I suppose interpretations tend to differ according to the different sides – the side in control, or the side under control. All you can say is that it's a common story.
I was in my room at the inn where I was staying, sleeping peacefully under the influence of the imo jochū (sweet potato liquor) I'd drunk the previous evening and in the middle of a dream, when I was suddenly awoken at just after one in the morning by the sound of a drum beating on the road outside and a voice calling “Yagorodon will awake.” It was the ceremonial drum signaling that the “waking ritual”, in which Yagorodon is assembled, was about to begin at the shrine. Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I set out for the shrine.
This town may be down south, but midnight in late autumn was still cold, so I bought a can of hot coffee from a vending machine along the way.
When I arrived, a crowd of young people wearing happi coats were in the main shrine, in the midst of a struggle to get Yagorodon into his kimono. Apparently this is also an important ritual. As work progressed, a giant cylinder-like object woven from bamboo gradually took on a human form. The moment the face was attached, the goggle eyes appeared to move slightly and it really did seem as if something was in there. But that might have been because I was still half asleep.
At four a.m. Yagorodon was carried outside and placed on a float to be pulled up for the start of the waking up ritual. A popular belief is that participating in this ritual confers good health and increases good fortune, which is probably why a crowd of men and women of all ages had gathered in the shrine grounds before I knew it. At a signal the crowd pulled on the rope and Yagorodon rose to stand straight up against the background of an ultramarine blue night sky. Cries went up from the crowd: “Ooh,” “He's awake,” and “Huge!” I was a bit taken aback – wasn't this supposed to be the most important part? But it had only taken one or two seconds to pull up Yagorodon. I wish it could have taken a bit longer.
Everything up to this point could be called the first act, in which case the second act is the Hamakudari parade, when Yagorodon ambles through town. Accordingly, at one in the afternoon he descended the slope from the shrine and passed through the torii gate.
After a brief stop, as if to take a look down at the crowds, the children pulled on the rope and Yagorodon moved off. One man rode on Yagorodon's shoulder, holding a stick to push away the power lines. Apparently in the past they used to actually cut the power lines. Those Hayatos of Satsuma are really something! Every time the man moved, the giant doll swayed to and fro so that it looked as if it were really walking. The road was thronging with people, all excited about this once a year event – the parade of the giant.
Irrespective of who Yagorodon originally was, this event has definitely grown bigger and bigger, becoming something that encompasses reverence for the souls of various people and all kinds of beliefs.
The sound of the drum leading the way grew fainter and fainter as the somehow melancholy sight of Yagorodon's swaying back grew smaller in the distance as it made its dignified way through town.
Held every year on November 3, and with a tradition stretching back 900 years, this is one of three major festivals in Kagoshima prefecture. The over five meter tall giant doll known as Yagorodon parades through the city with two swords, 4.2 and 2.85 meters long respectively, hanging from his waist. One theory is that the original Yagorodon was chief of the Hayato clan, another is that he was Takenouchi no Sukune, who served the sixth Emperor. These days people pray to him for good harvests and venerate him as a guardian protector deity. Assembly of Yagorodon starts at one in the morning at the Iwagawa Hachiman Shrine on the day of the festival, and the Hamakudari parade through town starts from one in the afternoon.
How to get there
●By public transport
Take the Miyazaki Kukosen bus from Miyazaki Airport and get off at Miyakonojo Station bus stop. Change to a bus bound for Shibushishi and get off at the Iwagawa bus stop. Walk about 15 minutes from there.
Exit the Miyazaki Expressway at the Miyakonojo interchange, and drive about twenty minutes on route 10.
Illustrations and Text : Itaru Mizoguchi