By Kathryn Shea
Four year old me had many ideas about what I wanted for the future. Some included wanting to be a paleontologist or astronaut, discovering new species of the saurian or alien kind. Others were as mundane as wanting to be an ice cream truck driver because I liked the music. That was before I discovered how creepy that tinny music could be. Yikes.
One of the dreams that stuck around for longer (than my two week dream of selling ice cream, for example) was being a horse rider. Didn’t matter if it was as a rodeo rider, rancher, racer or jumper. I just wanted to ride horses. My aunt let me ride her horse a few times and my grandparents bought me cowgirl outfits when we went to see rodeo rides. My friends encouraged this by taking me riding for their birthday parties. Even if actually owning a horse or taking riding lessons wasn’t possible, I took every chance I could get to interact with horses.
So you can imagine how excited I got when I was told that there would a horse festival in Kikuma on October 20th.
Laura, the Kikuma ALT, told the Imabari ALTs about the upcoming event and of course I had to put it in my calendar. There may or may not have been several exclamation marks and hearts next to the entry. Maybe. Just a few. Bless Laura for telling me about Otomouma Horse Festival.
Before the date rolled around, Laura told us a little about the Kikuma Horse Festival. Kikuma used to be divine territory of Kamikoma Shrine in Kyoto so the ceremonial horse racing can be traced back from that shrine. The people pray for a good harvest and that their children grow up healthy. Horses used to be kept at the Kamo Shrine in Kikuma to bring lords down from the mountains and pay tribute to the shrine. Nowadays, roughly a dozen horses are kept by the local farmers for this festival. When I told my JTEs that I was going to Otomouma Horse Festival, she told me that all of the horses used were retired and only worked for the festival.
October 20th finally arrived. I set out with Jocy and J-Mae at 6.30 because we had decided to bike from Imabari to Kikuma. We were ambitious and it was beautiful weather, so why not? Sixteen kilometers and discovering the great invention of shifting gears on a bike later, we arrived in Kikuma. It was quiet and not many were about, but there were a few flags and people in traditional garb. Everyone was congregating in one area, so after ditching our bikes and joining the other ALTs, we followed the slowly gathering crowd.
We were greeted at first by a large gate and a sandy road for the horses to ride across. A few of the young boys were doing test runs on their horses while they were carefully accompanied and guided by men in white jodhpurs and purple happi coats. A few food and toy stands lined the roads and the further in we walked, the more packed with people the area became. A dozen horses were picketed to the side, resting or waiting for their turn on the track while four to six boys raced up the hill to the temple at the top. The boys shouted to spur their horses forward and the horses thundered down the track again and again.
My group was able to snag a spot on the hill which was steep enough that not everyone dared climb it. However it had a gorgeous view of the track and the riders and their steeds rode close by as they were funneled up the hill. It allowed me to take in how detailed the clothes and riding equipment were, which were just beautiful.
The bridles were braided in colorful patterns and rainbow sashes trailed down, connected to the saddles. The saddles were covered by huge pillows that were embroidered as well. To top it off, the horses had a light blanket tied underneath their bellies with patterns too detailed to take in as the horses flew by.
The riders themselves were almost as colorful as their mounts. They wore headbands to keep their hair and sweat from their eyes and bright vests and ribbons. They wore geta socks to have a good grip on their stirrup, which was a rope. I cringed when I saw that at first because it looked very painful. The older boys would be raised in their seat, toes holding onto their stirrup, legs pressing against the sides of their horse and a loose grip on the reigns. The younger boys sat and had a tight grip on the reigns. By that alone you could tell who had more experience than others.
The youngest boy was only four years old. He turned out to be one of my JTE’s sons. He was very excited to ride, she told me. He clung to his horse for dear life as this massive animal ran up the hill. Thank goodness he was tied to his horse. It didn’t help when his headband slid down and became a blindfold, but he managed and I was told afterwards that he had fun. Somehow.
I mean I would have been screaming, but I guess that’s just me?
The races were interrupted by roughly two dozen men carrying a construct that was made to resemble a… horse? up the steep temple stairs which had me clinging to the edge of the fence. Those stairs were steep and uneven enough that I was worried even just walking up there, let alone trying to coordinate with a bunch of other people AND carrying a two ton replica of a horse! The fetish was accompanied by two little boys beating drums at the top.
After a few more races the fetish was brought down again during which I was begging them not to fall and break their necks. Then came the last few races. At the end the horses were sweating and tired from running and being out in the sun all day. We checked on the horses after the races. I guess I mentioned it often enough that I would love to sit on one of the horses because before I knew it, my fellow ALTs had asked if I could sit on one of the horses. To my great delight (insert high pitched squeeing) I was allowed to get on, to the amusement of the Japanese men that helped me up.
The rope “stirrups” are hard okay?
I started biking back home that afternoon tired, hot, sunburnt and with another sixteen kilometers to go before I could rest. However, I am definitely doing it again next year. I keep remembering those flashes of colors of the horses thundering by, the children shouting and the excited current running through the crowd.
I never became a professional rider or even a hobby rider. The opportunity just never presented itself. My love for horses never waned though. As a child in Germany I was introduced to the rhyme and saying: ”Das Glück dieser Erde, liegt auf dem Rücken der Pferde.” It translates to: ”The joy of this Earth, lies on the back of the horse.” I think I got a little closer to understanding it at Otomouma Horse Festival. I can’t thank Laura enough for taking me there.
Kathryn Shea is a first year ALT living in Imabari. She studied Early Childhood Education and wants to continue in that field with a focus in foreign language education.