Tuesday, October 29, 2013

2013 Myouenji Walk

(Stamp booklet front cover.)

The Myouenji Mairi takes place in Ijuin on the 4th weekend of October. "Mairi" translates to "temple visit", and the festival commemorates a forced march of Satsuma retainers following a battle near the old castle site in Kagoshima to what is now Ijuin, in 1600 AD. The route starts at Terukuni Shrine, in Kagoshima City (near Central Park) and runs 20 km (12 miles) to Myouenji shrine in Ijuin. I did the walk 2 years ago, and finished at around 3 hours and 40 minutes. The following March, I was hit by a car and broke a bone in my foot. I was hoping to do the walk again last year to see if my foot was really healed, but I got the date wrong and I ended up not going. I did do a practice walk last Spring, and followed the route pretty much from memory, so I knew I could do it this time. I just wanted the certificate for finishing the walk again. Thing is, there was little advertising for the fest this year, and I really had to dig on the net to get information on it. One site mentioned that registration would open at 7:30, so that's when I planned to be out the door at the latest.

(Two of the support staff, already going back into the shrine grounds.)

In fact, I got out at 7:40 AM, and reached Terukuni at 7:50. At that point, the walk was officially starting and the two leaders in armor at the head of the walkers were passing me as I neared the shrine entrance. Some of the other support staff had only gone 2 blocks from the shrine before turning around and going back. This was very different from what happened 2 years ago, and I was surprised to learn that there's no insurance fee this time. I signed in at the registration table, received my stamp booklet, and started out.


2 years ago, there was a 500 yen insurance fee ($5 USD), and in return we each got a bottle of water, a kind of jersey to alert drivers to not hit us when the street gets narrow, a bandana, a map, and a stamp rally sheet. There are 3 water/rest stops along the way and the idea was to get stamps from each rest stop, then turn in the stamp sheet at the end for a certificate of completion, and a chance at a lottery for various prizes. I ended up winning a 50 cent rice cake, and I was hoping to be a little luckier this year. However, after talking to one of my English students, who had done the walk last year, it sounded like the route organizers had stopped doing the lottery, so I wasn't holding out much hope now.

Most Kagoshima residents do the walk once or twice as elementary school students and refuse to ever do it again. A guy I know says that when he went as a child, they were only allowed to eat 1 rice ball along the way, and there was an official Myouenji walk song they had to sing. The song is printed in the stamp booklet.

(Terukuni Jinja (shrine).)

I set out at a fast walking pace, hoping to average around 3.5 to 4 miles an hour. Generally I'm closer to 3 or 2.8 mph. Almost immediately, the two lead walkers in armor passed me on their way back into the shrine. 2 years ago, they'd walked at least 2 km of the route, to the other side of the Kotsuki river. This time, they'd gone less than 5 blocks. Regardless, there were clumps of people all the way to the backside of the main train station, so I stayed on the opposite side of the street to pass them. I ended up talking to a few people along the way, just to make conversation, but for the most part I was significantly faster than all but the joggers and was mostly just by myself.

(The walk leaders not leading.)

2 years ago, I had a cheap $50 Korean MP3 player from a company called Green River. I'd started the walk with the player fully charged, and the battery ran out after 2 hours. During the second trip, the battery lasted about 3 hours. However, in the last few weeks, it wasn't holding a charge any more, and would go dead within 15 minutes. Sometimes, I'd charge it one night and it would already be dead when I turned it on the next day. So, I figured I might as well get a new MP3 player before the walk. I went to Bic Camera at the main train station and got a 4 GB E-Series Sony Walkman player for about $100, then copied 20 CDs onto it. That helped make the walk go by much faster, and I'd only heard about 30% of the music by the time I got back home

I was surprised at the lack of variety for MP3 players. The main choices were just Sony and Apple, and there was nothing in the $50 range. I guess the popularity of smartphones and tablets is making smaller, stand-alone MP3 players obsolete.

The first water stop is at about 5 km. Just past that, I encountered 3 more guys wearing full armor. They let me take a photo, and one of them mentioned that they planned on walking  30 km. I don't know if this means that they started early outside of Kagoshima, or if they began at Terukuni shrine and were going to turn around at Myouenji and walk back to the halfway point. It's tough enough to go 12 miles; doing 18 miles while wearing armor and bamboo sandals can't have been any easier.

(Entering Ijuin. The watch tower in Joyama Park is barely visible at the top of the hill, center-right)

The rest of the walk was uneventful, although I had been fading at the halfway point (I hadn't had breakfast before starting out). The rest stop had little servings of pickled radish, baked Japanese sweet potato (yaki imo), hard candies, brown sugar, tea and water. The other two stops only had water and hard candies. After getting solid food to eat, I recovered enough to make it into Ijuin. There, a number of restaurants had tables set up on the street to hand out free baked potato, cookies and more brown sugar. That helped a lot. Actually, pressed brown sugar is a popular snack in Kagoshima, anyway. The city is relatively close to Amami island, which grows a lot of sugar cane. It tastes a lot better than American brown sugar, and is easier to eat than "sugar in the raw".

(Looking back out from Ijuin.)

Getting into Ijuin, I got caught up in the traffic lights. I had to spend maybe 5 minutes waiting for the various lights to change. A few people did catch up to me then, but I dropped them after the lights turned green. Ijuin looks almost abandoned, even though there were lots of people on the route, having started at different schools or temples along the way. At this point, the street is still open to traffic. An hour later, it was closed off for the marching bands. I didn't see any mascots this time, though.

Just short of Myouenji, the organizers had set up the final check point. This year, instead of handing out separate certificates of completion, they just stamped the one printed in the rally booklet. The headbands were available for sale for 200 yen, music CDs for 1,000, and event t-shirts for 2,200 yen ($22 USD). I already have enough t-shirts, so I didn't buy another one. And, instead of the lottery, they just gave me a bottle of water and two small rice cakes for finishing the walk. My final time was close to 3.5 hours.

(Inside Myouenji.)

The Myouenji Mairi Fest runs both Saturday and Sunday, while the walk is only on Sunday. There are stalls displaying local products, tables with ikebana, and places for people to sit down and drink tea.

A very popular spot is the sumo arena. Myouenji holds children's sumo competitions every year. The local school kids participate during the weekend.

On the other side of the grounds, there's a stage set up where various singing, dancing and entertainment acts perform. I didn't catch the name of this group, but I guess they have been competing in dance contests at the national level. You can see a video of them below.

Here, we have a recreation society dressed up as samurai warriors, with training on "Tanegashima". When Japan was closed to outside trade, some of the ships from the Kagoshima area would sail south to Tanega island, and conduct trade with the Portuguese merchants there. One of the prime products purchased were fuse-lit rifles. Because the rifles came from Tanegashima, that's the name they were known by on the main Japanese island. There's a video of the group, below.

The food court is next to the main stage. I was hungry at this point and I got a package of yaki soba for 400 yen. There was no place to sit down, so I wandered over to the side of the court and ate standing up. I didn't need to buy anything to drink because I had the water from the final check point. The yaki soba was plain and greasy, but it still tasted good.

I could have gotten an ear of corn or grilled pork kebabs for $3, but that seemed just a bit too overpriced. Maybe next time. Besides, it was a lot of yaki soba.

Myouenji also has an archery range, and they hold contests during the fest. Japanese archery, called kyu-do, is not very similar to the western style, and is as much about tradition as it is about hitting the target.

The judges sit on the sidelines and the contestants each shoot 4 arrows. The arrows have different colored feathers to show which contestant they belong to. When the 4 flights of arrows are shot, the judges place the white boxes in front of the targets, with the number of arrows to hit the target facing the contestants. Someone records the numbers, then the arrows are collected and the range cleared for the next set of contestants.

The first goal of the visitors during the fest, whether they do the walking route or just drive to the grounds, is to go to the shrine and pray. There's a fairly long line, and the wait is about 15 minutes. After spending about an hour here, I walked to the Ijuin station to take the train back to Kagoshima. 340 yen fare one-way. The trains don't run very often, so I had to wait 30 minutes for the next one to arrive, and it was maybe a 20 minute ride back home. My legs weren't happy, but I wasn't in real pain. Yet.

Youtube video of the J-Pop dance show

Youtube video of the traditional rifle demo

(Certificate of completion in the booklet stamped.)

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