Reader discretion advised: the treatment of horses that participate at this event has been under the spotlight given alleged animal cruelty.
Dressed in samurai attire, the riders race their horses along the narrow alleyway alongside Kuwana City’s ancient Tado Shrine and up the steep, muddy slope to where a two-meter high earthen wall awaits. Thousands of people lining the slope roar their approval and urge the riders on as the horses kick up the dirt and strain to maintain momentum before finally making an attempt to jump the wall. Not all are successful.
Designated one of Mie Prefecture's Intangible Cultural Properties in 1978, the annual Tado Festival, also known as Ageuma, dates back over 1,000 years and is used to predict the state of the coming harvest. The exciting festival takes place during Japan’s Golden Week holiday period, May fourth and fifth alongside the Tado Shrine in the city of Kuwana. Hundreds of food stalls and entertainments surround the spacious shrine catering to the expected 80 to 90 thousand strong crowds.
The main event is the horse jumping trials. Six local young men between the ages of 17 and 19 are chosen to represent the six regions of the city. For a week or so before the religious event, the chosen riders are sequestered away in a part of the shrine for purification purposes, and carefully attended. This ritual cleansing is taken most seriously. Indeed, no part of their body may touch the ground until the festival is complete and they have jumped the wall, and for that reason each rider has a number of attendants on hand to carry them, and lift them onto their horses.
On the first day, each rider is allowed two attempts at clearing the wall, making for a total of 12 jumps. On the second day, the samurai garbed riders, complete with Jingasa hat and swords fitted in their belts make their most earnest attempts at making it up the slope and over the wall. The spectators go wild as the horses thunder down the dirt path. Ambulances and the riders’ attendants wait at the steeper part of the slope, made boggy and slippery by copious amounts of sake, deliberately spilled in a purification rite and to partly stymie the efforts of the participants, to help pull and slap the sweating beast on and over the top. Sometimes the horses fail and back down, or turn on the attendants, trampling or kicking them. Sometimes the noble beasts suddenly stop, throwing their riders ingloriously and painfully to the muddy ground. Sometimes the horses themselves fall, or are injured in the attempt. Often they make it, much to the relief and enjoyment of the crowds. Either way, it’s a raucous, riotous, religious ritual.
Following the second day’s main events are other samurai-based equestrian events, such as Yabusame, the ancient sport of archery from a speeding horse, with participants shooting a target no bigger than an old LP record cover.
The first rites for this religious festival begin as early as 5am, and to obtain a ringside seat on the stands adjacent the shrine along the runway, you may have to get there just as early. It’s a spectacle, its crowded, its noisy, its exciting, and its well and truly worth it!