Feeling the Heat at the Tado Festival

The stairs up to Tado Shrine
Juan Martinez

Juan Martinez is an Assistant Language Teacher on the Japan Exchange & Teaching (JET) Program, currently working in Mie Prefecture, Japan. After starting as an Assistant Language Teacher this past April, he got the chance to experience the ‘Ageuma’ (Jumping Horse) Festival at Tado Shrine in Kuwana, Mie Prefecture.

The humidity is something completely different. You’ll feel like you’re swimming in your own sweat. Oh, and you’ll probably need an umbrella.” My friend had told me this before departing for Mie prefecture, but I completely underestimated the validity of her statement.

Since my arrival, the weather had been rather decent, neither too hot nor too cold. When my coworker invited me to the Tado festival during Golden Week, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to really bask in the Japanese summer weather. Having never experienced humidity before, I opted to wear jeans and a slightly thick cotton shirt, a decision I soon came to regret.
A horse and rider trying to clear the hurdle
Arriving at Tado, I immediately was star-struck by the gorgeous Tado Shrine. However, it wasn’t long before I felt the relentless sun beating down on me. It took all of two minutes before I realized the water in the air sticking to my body. It felt as if I’d walked straight into a sauna. I kept looking for a shady place, but all the spots under the trees were taken. I noticed that some people were positioned in balconies, which served as nice protection from the sun. However, my coworker noticed me examining said balconies, and immediately informed me of the cost to sit in those balconies. ‘Looks like the sun it is! Definitely should’ve brought an umbrella’ I laughed to myself.

After I resolved myself to enduring the heat and humidity, I noticed a long dirt road that led to a rather large dirt mound. The Tado Festival is famous for the Ageuma event in which young men ride horses and attempt to scale the dirt mound. Each rider is dressed in an elaborate and elegantly crafted costume, and the horse is adorned with matching accessories. Each rider is also accompanied by his own squad, who position themselves along the mound, and attempt to help the rider in his quest to successfully scale the mound. As each rider greeted the crowd, I positioned myself so I could have a decent view of the dirt mound. At this moment, my coworker delivered the worst news imaginable. “The event will start in an hour, and we can’t move or we’ll lose our spot.” I wish I could’ve seen my own reaction at that moment. I’m sure it was priceless.
One of the festival's riders and his horse
Nevertheless, I waited it out. Chanting began to fill the air, and the first rider was about to launch his attempt at the trial. Successfully completing the trail and scaling the mound, would bring the rider good luck. However, if he failed I wasn’t sure of the rider’s fate as my coworker didn’t really give a straight answer. I just assumed the rider would have bad luck. The chants were growing louder and louder, and through the sea of people, I was unable to see the starting point. I shifted my head and focused on the most important part, the mound. I could hear the galloping, until finally the rider went up the mound, with each member of the squad smacking the horse from behind as to give it that extra ‘oomph!’ to make it over. The horse attempted the jump, but fell short. The crowd let out a loud ‘aww...’ The rider made it over, but the horse didn’t. The horse slid back down, attempting to escape the small confined space of the mound. I was slightly terrified as the horse seemed disoriented. It took about five minutes for the squad to calm the horse, and lead it back down the narrow mound. All in all, six riders attempted the trail, but only two were successful.
After the event, we went up to the Tado Shrine. The lush greenery was captivating and beautifully complimented the stone façade of the shrine. As we walked up to where the shrine’s Kami (god) lived, I noticed that each building, each stair, each hand rail was perfectly engraved with a name. The overall atmosphere was tranquil. The sun, shining through the trees, the chirping of the birds off in the forest, and the sound of the running river each added a calming effect to the experience leading up to the Kami’s home. Once there, I offered up my 100 yen and tossed it into the bin while making a small prayer.

My experience at the Tado Festival was incredibly positive. However I didn’t leave the festival unscathed. A couple days later, I had the most awful sunburn, and I currently have the worst farmers tan I’ve ever had in my life. That said, attending a long-held traditional Japanese event and visiting a magnificent shrine was the absolute perfect start to my career as a JET.

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