The Fighting Shrines Of Japan’s Imari Ton-Ten-Ton Festival

Every year in the Japanese city of Imari, a great fighting festival takes place that is known for its colourful costumes, decorative shrines, and occasional hospitalisations. Running across 3 days, the Ton-Ten-Ton festival is known for its great clashes between wooden shrines, as shrine bearers search the streets for their rivals and crash into each other. The festival is named after the signature sound of the festival’s beating drums, Ton-Ten-Ton.

The matsuri (festival) is notable for its portable wooden shrines, called mikoshi, weighing up to 500kg each (1100 pounds). While they are called shrines, they are more similar to palanquins, with a decorative shrine on top and a carrying frame for dozens of men to carry it with. Women are traditionally prohibited from touching the mikoshi, and walking underneath one is said to bring bad omens.

Drawing of two shrines fighting at the Imari ton ten ton matsuri festival
Fighting Shrines in the Ton Ten Ton Festival

Start Of The Ton-Ten-Ton Matsuri

The matsuri has been held since 1829, and takes place over 3 days in the third weekend of October. It begins in front of the Imari Shrine, on the river banks by the Imari River. While only a few are allowed to participate in the battles, anyone can come watch and enjoy the festivities. 150,000 eager spectators flood the city each year.

The festival is a battle between two shrines, the Kokitsu-Jinja (which promotes a good harvest, and is represented by the Ara-mikoshi mikoshi) and the Totoshima-Jinja (which promotes good fishing, and is represented by the Danjiri mikoshi). The mikoshi leave their shrines and begin parading around the city, cleansing the city of evil. At several points in the city, they start their battles, called Gassen.

Fighting Mikoshi Battles (Gassen)

When it’s time for the mikoshi to battle, the drums begin and a flag waver starts the battle. The two shrines line up their wooden fork-like frames, placing them in position. When they’re interlocked, the pushers put all their strength into pushing the mikoshi, while the rest scatter away. The shrines raise upwards like two stag beetles grappling for a mate. Eventually, one shrine falls down and is the loser.

On the third day, the epic deciding battle takes place next to the river. The kawa otoshi gassen (river throw-in match) starts. The shrines collide as usual, and the tangled wooden frames, still locked together, are allowed to tumble into the water. The winner of this match is the first shrine to be dragged back onto the land. Depending which shrine wins, the Ara-mikoshi or the Danjiri, the city will see a good crop harvest or good fishing.

The Nakashima Shrine Of Sweets

The Imari Shrine is made up of smaller shrines, named Nakashima, Totoshima, Kokitsu and Iwakuri Shrines. While two of them are off doing battle, Nakashima has its own speciality – it is said to be the birthplace of Japanese sweets, with its own sweets deity, Tajimamori! Tajimamori was asked by the emperor to bring a fruit back from the Chinese mainland. He returned with a tachibana, a type of sweet mandarin, planting it in the ground and providing sweet fruits for the city. Since then, some consider Imari the birthplace of Japanese sweets.

Dangers Of The Ton-Ten-Ton Festival

Given the nature of the festival, it’s no surprise that accidents and injuries are rife. Ambulances are always on standby next to each scrum. Rules implemented in 1955 banned alcohol consumption by the shrine bearers, and the number of matches was reduced (today, there’s about 1-5 battles per day). In 2006, sadly, an enthusiastic 17-year old supporter was killed when a shrine landed on top of him. The following year’s festival was swifty cancelled, but has since resumed its annual schedule.

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The Imari Ton-Ten-Ton Matsuri festival is one of the highlights of the year for Imari, and joining in the action is a great experience for anyone in the city. For those involved in the gassen – the Ton-Ten-Ton fighting festival can be as dangerous as the name suggests. However, for the vast majority of spectators, it’s a fun weekend to celebrate the city coming to life.