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Into ancient sports? Then check out the Nara spirit on display at Tanzan-jinja shrine's Kemari-matsuri festival!

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Kemari began in ancient Nara

Kemari is a traditional ball game mentioned in the “Nihon Shoki,” a text that dates back to 720 and is Japan’s oldest historical record. It is said that the imperial government’s Taika Reforms of 645 resulted from the deep friendship between Nakatomi-no-Kamatari and Prince Naka-no-Oe. That relationship reportedly began when Nakatomi-no-Kamatari swiftly picked up the prince’s shoes after he had slipped them off to enjoy a game of kemari. Hence, the Kemari-matsuri is a semi-annual festival held at Tanzan-jinja shrine on April 29 and November 3. At the festival, six to eight performers in traditional garb play an elegant game of kemari, chanting “Ari,” “Ya” and “Oh” as they keep a ball 17 to 18 cm in diameter from falling to the ground. Although the game resembles soccer, it is not a sport with winners and losers. Instead, players try to serve the ball so that others can kick it easily. It is a graceful game of cooperation, where participants enjoy their time together.

Photo: provided by Nara city Tourist Association

Crafting “mari” balls to sustain a traditional Nara event

An essential part of the Kemari-matsuri is the “mari,” a ball made from shika deer leather. However, a crisis unfolded in the 1950s when the last mari makers passed away. Uncertain over the festival’s future, the shrine explored reproducing the balls. Today, Hisao Fujita is charged with this task. Although he had extensive experience in the leather industry, Hisao had to start from scratch to make a mari from shika deer skin. This was because there were no written records providing instructions for constructing the balls. He had to figure out how to do it all on his own.

Imbued with artisan skill, one ball at a time

“Gofun” is a pigment made from shells and is used to paint the mari and give it its beautifully round, white appearance. The inside of a completed ball is hollow, but it must be stuffed with barley to give it its shape. Hisao had to try over and over again to find a way to remove the barley without letting the air leak out. Otherwise the ball would not bounce well. Hisao says, “Nobody knows what kinds of mari they used long ago, so I had to meticulously research materials on my own. I made it my mission to be stubborn and uncompromising in my search.” Kemari performances are still held in the garden of Tanzan-jinja shrine. In this setting that seems to resemble a Buddhist temple, the mari are carefully crafted, one at a time, and imbued with the Nara artisan spirit.

INFORMATION

Kemari festival at Tanzan shrine
Time
April 29th / November 3rd 11:00 a.m.〜 every year
Venue
Tanzan shrine
Address
319 Tonomine, Sakurai-shi, Nara Pref.
Admission
Adult: 600 yen / Child: 300 yen / Children under primary schoolchild are admitted free of charge.
Contact
+81-(0)744-49-0001

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