Revenge of the Son of the Bride of Mummyboon: Stag Night

I’m back!

As promised Mummyboon is back onto its former regular schedule. To start you off I have some exciting news about deer.

Yes, deer.

I have blogged about the sacred deer of Nara before when I visited the city the first time. For anyone interested in my opinions of the deer and the famous enormous Daibutsu-den (great Buddha) at Todai-ji please check out this post from last year.

Since then my opinion of Nara is much the same. It’s a lovely city, very leafy and the main historical attractions are gorgeous and well worth the visit.

This time around I had gone to Nara with my partner in crime (or girlfriend if you will) to see a famous festival exclusive to Nara, the Shika no Tsunokiri or Antler Cutting Festival.

It seems that around the mating season the male deer start to get a bit crazy. They frequently clash with other bucks, rub their horns up against the trees (damaging the ancient primeval forest) and pose a danger to themselves and to the many tourists that flock through the city. So the priests at the shrine, along with local volunteers, participate in a festival to cut the antlers from the bucks. The festival has ancient roots so I’m not entirely sure how much of it is merely a tradition and a game and how much stems from a cause of genuine safety. Considering that the parks are full of both bucks butting each other furiously and very small children it is safe to say that there definitely is some safety purpose behind the event.

The event is held in Kasuga Taisha, the main shrine in Nara and the one from which the tradition of keeping tame deer stems. Kasuga Taisha is a pretty lively and colourful shrine with many different festivals associated with it. Okay, every shrine in Japan that consists of more than a covered statue has lots of festivals associated with it, but Kasuga Taisha has exotic, unusual and interesting festivals that attract a lot of attention. Besides the Shika no Tsunokiri it is also famous for the lantern festival in February and August, where all of the enormous stone lanterns that surround the shrine are lit and visitors are invited to admire the combination of lamplight, ancient woods and deer.

We approached Kasuga Taisha at about 2:40, a good 2 hours and 40 minutes after the festival began and loooooong after I intended to be in Nara. This was in part because I badly misjudged the amount of time it takes to get to Nara (I always forget just quite how far away it is) but primarily because many of the trains we intended to catch were delayed due to “human accident damage” i.e. a suicide on the rails.

Not to make light of what is obviously a tragic event and a damming indictment of the alienation in modern society and modern Japanese society in particular but I have never understood the impulse for people to kill themselves on public holidays. Why do you want to make your last action on the planet one that will annoy hundreds, if not thousands, of people?

Anyway, late arrival or not we didn’t actually miss much. Apparently the festival functions largely like a short show that lasts about 15 minutes and is repeated for three hours every Sunday and holiday in October. Visitors join a short queue and then are led into an amphitheatre. The theatre is roughly oblong with curved ends and long straight sides like an ice hockey rink. Visitors sit or stand all around the edge and peer down onto a field. Surrounding the field are very high walls which the seats join onto so that spectators are about 8 or 10 feet above the field. At either end of the field is a stake or post stuck into the ground. In the field are about 10 men known as Seko along with a Shinto priest and three bucks. The deer are gathered and corralled into a “deer house” (basically a very large pen, along with some does, food, water, etc) beforehand and three bucks are used in the ceremony at any one time.

Some of the Seko are armed with Danpi, basically a long bamboo pole with a red flag on the end. One of the Seko has a blue flag. Apparently the bucks will avoid the red but will move towards the blue. About 4 men are holding Juji basically a lasso but with the circular part stretched across a bamboo frame shaped like a cross.

The bucks are mostly just standing around, eating grass and occasionally butting heads with one another. They are clustered at one end and the Seko are gathered at the other. Eventually once the crowd is full the game begins.

Some of the Seko armed with flags begin to chase the deer, making noises and calling out. The deer spring about trying to escape but the men begin to herd them towards the other end of the field. As the bucks reach the far end the remaining Seko use their Danpi to make a wall forcing the buck to run around the edge of the field and speed up. Finally the Seko with the blue flag stakes it down and the buck leaps towards it. As he passes it the Seko’s with Janji strike the bucks horns. The bamboo cross is knocked away by the force of the buck and the noose immediately tightens around the antlers.

Well, this is what happens in theory. In practice the bucks have to be goaded to dash past the Janji several times before a successful contact is made. Whilst this is happening the audience is tantalized by the various missed throws, the times when the rope catches but the buck dislodges it or moments when the buck decides not to play the game by the rules and make a mad leap or a dash towards one of the Seko, threatening him with those antlers.

Eventually a rope is tied around both antlers and the buck is dragged towards one of the posts. He struggles, pulling his head this way and that and attempting to get free. Sometimes he does so but the rope is immediately snatched up again. Eventually with all 10 of the Seko pulling at him he stands no chance and is brought to hell and left to bang his head fruitlessly against the post.

Now all of the participants begin to restrain the buck, using primarily their own strength they hold him still and carry him onto a tatami mat. They rest his head on a pillow, hold him down and bind his legs.

Now the priest comes over. He offers the buck a drink of water and pets him until he begins to calm down. The priest then takes out a saw and goes to work swiftly removing the antlers.

Finally he raises the antlers up, turning to let the audience see and offering the antlers to the kami of the shrine.

Whilst the priest is sawing at the antlers several of the remaining Seko are holding up a bright red wall which stretches across the field. This prevents the remaining bucks from attacking the prone one or interfering in the sawing.

The antlers raised, the buck is untied and he immediately leaps up and moves, almost nonchalantly, out of a gate and back into the “deer house”. His demeanor doesn’t seem to suggest loss, anger or annoyance but rather a graceful defeat. His movements say “well, I put up a good game but you won in the end lads.”

Rinse and repeat with the remaining two bucks and you have an interesting afternoon.

Despite all the difficulties involved getting there I greatly enjoyed the Shika no Tsunokiri. It genuinely is a thrilling spectacle. I’m not usually one for spectating at sports but there is something very different when the deer are involved. The way they move, the grace and power in their assured, confident leaps is hypnotic. They are simply amazing and beautiful to watch. In a way the loss of their antlers is a big anti-climax. Whilst you do root for the Seko and the capture of the deer feels like a victory seeing these proud stags divested of their antlers is a little bit sad. However the momentary sadness is more than made up for by the thrill of simply watching these animals move.

The rest of the day was nothing particularly blog-worthy. Fran and I visited the Daibutsu (it is still amazing) and the enormous bell (which is also still amazing) and we fed deer in the park. I didn’t do this the last time I came to Nara because I had nobody to feed deer with. This time around I gamely had a go and it was, well, rubbish really. I think you need to be a kid to get any sense of wonder from it. Still I am glad I did it because I got to see the spectacle of Fran being mobbed by 3 deer at once. As she frantically tried to feed them all she had they butted up against her and frantically scrambled for food. She got very annoyed that I was taking pictures instead of coming to her rescue but the memory of the sight of her was more than worth it.

We finished the day in a café called “Shizuka’s” which I can highly recommend. Shizuka’s specializes in a Nara-specialty known as Kammameishi. Basically an iron pot in which rice is cooked together with fish and vegetables. We ordered the Nara special consiting of crab, prawns, eel, burdock, onion, egg, peas and rice all cooked together. It came served in the pot together with miso soup, pickles and some vegetables cooked in broth; as most Japanese meals are. It wasn’t exactly a culinary revelation but it was tasty, cheap and very filling. Like most Japanese cooking the idea is to let the quality ingredients speak for themselves rather than heavily season the dish and in this respect it was superb.

We had yet another delayed train on the way home but not even that could dampen a unique and thrilling experience.

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