「天子宮祭」 ～ Tenshigu Festival
Author: James Smyth
Editor: Huang Xin-hui
During my two years of English teaching in Taiwan, I lived on the outskirts of Kumamoto City, in a town called Tensui. It’s a rural village whose main industry is mikan tangerine farming. Tensui was prosperous fifty years ago, but now there are only six thousand people living there, and its population declines year after year. Because it’s so small, five years ago its government merged with Tamana, a city of 50,000 residents, but Tensui’s citizens will never forget their one thousand years of history and tradition.
Without a doubt, the town’s most colorful event is the Tenshigu Matsuri on October 15th. (Tenshi: Son of Heaven; Gu: Temple; Matsuri: Festival.) They say that over 900 years ago, in the town of Oama, the precursor of Tensui, there was a wildfire that killed many people and razed countless farms and homes. The townspeople decided they should ask the god of fire for his intercession. The following harvest season, they met at Tenshigu, made a bonfire, played sacred music, walked across hot ashes, and prayed for good luck and protection against disasters. The townspeople had very good fortune that year, so they have performed the same ceremony ever since.
Since the festival is especially energetic and traditional, it’s well-known throughout the area. Of course, there are all kinds of food and drinks on sale. Tenshigu is only 200 meters away from my former home, and everyone in the neighborhood, even the elementary school students, takes part. Although both men and women attend the festival, only males perform in the ceremonies, in keeping with tradition. Some students play sacred music and dance, and some perform other roles together with the adults.
The most important parts are played by two male students. At midnight, after the bonfire has burned out, they cross the ashes barefoot. It’s an important experience in their lives. Students who have done it before told me they were so frightened that they can’t remember the pain. For the townspeople, it’s a spiritual occurrence. Because the festival is always on the 15th, even if the next day is a weekday, everyone still has to come to school. The young men who walked on fire, however, receive special respect.
I had so many friends there that I could talk all night, but the townspeople also had me take part in the ceremonies! My first year, I drank with the fire department and had profound conversations with them about love, religion, and so on. Though my Japanese was very basic, they graciously listened to me and sincerely responded to me. At the end, they gave me my own uniform, and I put it on and helped them out. (As you can imagine, they were a lighthearted bunch.)
My second year, I took part of one of the traditional performances. Again and again, I stormed the temple gates with the other young men, and we were repelled by the older men. I was the flagbearer three times, but then I accidentally cut an older man’s forehead open. I was terrified. I was afraid I’d just started World War III. But he and his wife were actually very relaxed about it, and they said, “This sort of thing always happens at festivals. Don’t worry! Go back and celebrate!” He recovered, and somehow none of the townspeople scolded me.
Since I’m studying in Taipei, I couldn’t be there this year, but I was happy to hear that my successor had a lot of fun at this year’s festival. My neighbor ran across the ashes, and he sent me a video. I hope the Tenshigu Matsuri will continue forever.