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Oyama Dog Festival: A 300 years old tradition

Proud Akita Dogs standing in front of the dogs parade's line

Oyama Inu Matsuri 大山犬祭り : "Oyama's Dog Festival", is not what we commonly think of when we come across the expression: "dog festival". There is no fancy dog costume, and no dog beauty contest. Oyama's Dog Festival is a celebration of every dog's courage and loyalty toward humans and is based on a 300 years old legend called: Mekke Inu Monogatari めっけ犬物語 ("The Legend of Mekke the Dog").

Before telling you what the festival is about, let me tell you a little bit more about that legend.

The story takes place back in early 18th century. Oyama village's people's beloved Sugio Shrine 椙尾神社 was tormented by demons. The version differ about the identity of the monsters, but one tells about 24 mujina ムジナ(demonic tanuki dogs) and the other tells about 2 onyûdô 大入道 (giant and disgusting old men). All you have to know is that those monsters were ill-natured. They didn't only cause trouble to Sugio Shrine's priests just for fun, but on every 5th of June of each year, they would ask to be brought a young and beautiful maiden as a sacrifice. What's more, they were cruel to the point they asked the villagers to organize a wonderful, colorful parade to bring the little girl to them. A sort of mental torture, I guess.

Of course, the villagers first refused to do so. There is no way they would agree to sacrifice one of their precious little girls for such abominable monsters.

But the demons' powers were strong. If their wishes were denied, they'd go in the fields and destroy all the crops, condemning all the villagers to famine and disease. Everybody was too afraid to try combating the monsters. But everybody knew there was no other way to sacrifice one little girl to save the entire village. Thus, every year, villagers complied with their atrocious request and organize the big parade to bring the young girl to the demons.

Japanese carriage kago 駕籠 where the sacrifice was waiting for her fate

They put the most beautiful little girl of the village inside a traditional carriage kago 駕籠. From that moment, the little girl became karinyôbô 仮女房: the demons' spouse in waiting. All the villagers dressed in the most colorful clothes they had to please the demons.

The village's little girls following the Karinyôbô

Once arrived at the top of Sugio Shrine, located on top of a mountain, they had to follow the procession without a word. They had to go deeper in the forest behind the shrine, and leave the kago alone, without turning back. If any of those rules wasn't respected, the demons got in a furious rage and killed everybody present on the site, and would on top of that destroy the crops as initially planned.

What happened after that was a mystery.

Until the day when a shugendô practitioner, who came to visit Dewa Sanzan, stumbled across Oyama's villagers on a 5th of June. He was surprised to see such an extravagant, expensive-looking festival where people would have faces as sad as a dead leaf on the ground.

He couldn't help himself but asking one of them:

"What is it you are celebrating? Why are you all so sad?"

"We are bringing our prettiest little girl to be killed by the demons of Sugio Shine," a villager answered.

"Demons? Killed? What?," the gentleman was puzzled.

The landlord opening the parade

He thought for a second that the villager was out of his mind and that what he told him was total nonsense, but still, he had to check it with his own eyes. He followed the parade until Sugio Shrine without being noticed, and managed to hide himself behind a rock.

As he was waiting for something to happen, he got more and more convinced that the villager was completely lying.

Then, all of a sudden, in the dark night, the demons appeared. Grosser, scarier than everything he had seen in his life.

The demons took the little girl out of the carriage, and lied her down on a flat rock. As they were tearing her in pieces, they were joyfully singing something that said:

"May Mekke Inu never know any of this"

They took a part of the poor girl's body and went back to the void they were coming from, happy at the idea of doing it again next year.

Karinyobo being brought to the demons

Now the shugendô man knew. He knew the villager told true. Every year, atrocious demons were slaughtering a little girl for their own fun. And seemingly, they had something to be afraid of a certain Mekke Inu. A good samaritan like him couldn't let those things happen any more.

He decided to seek that Mekke Inu to defeat the monsters.

After a long research throughout all Japan, the practitioner finally arrived in Kyôto, where Mekke Inu was said to be living.

He went screaming all around the city: "Mekke! Mekke!"

And it is at the corner of a little teahouse he found the dog, playing with a cow.

Mekke answered immediately, but the shugendô practitioner was surprised to see the dog was nothing but an ordinary dog.

"Well, there's nothing else I can try," thought the gentleman, while bringing the dog with him.

When the practitioner went back to Oyama, it was already the 5th of June.

He had to think fast, of a way to bring the dog to the demons without being noticed. By chance, the kago had doors on the sides. When closed, there was no way to distinguish what's inside. He convinced the villagers to give his idea a try, and put Mekke the dog inside the kago.

The villagers brought the kago as usual in Sugio Shrine's forest, but everybody was afraid that the plan would fail.

Then they left, without turning back.

When they came back, hours later, the Demons weren't there to torment them as usual. They were gone!

But when looking at the ground, they saw Mekke Inu, agonizing from his battle wounds.

Mekke the dog fought to death to protect the humans of Oyama village.

The villagers were very sad about the dog's death. Moved by his tremendous courage, and his strong loyalty to humans, they decided to create a festival, that every year, would celebrate his heroic deeds. Sugio Shrine also dedicates some altars to Mekke Inu who replaces the traditional komainu dogs in the Japanese shrines.

Priests praying inside Sugio Shrine. Will you see it?

In summary, Oyama Inu Matsuri is a festival that celebrates dogs' courage and loyalty to their masters, sometimes at the cost of their life.

People gather every year in Oyama, with their beloved dog, to show them all the gratefulness they have for being so loyal and loving. Oyama Inu Matsuri is a real tribute to all the dogs in the world.

The festival begins at 11:30 am. It consists of large and colorful karaguri (big decorated festival carriage), processions of young ladies dressed in kimonos, and historical reenactment of the karinyôbô offering. A small dog parade is also organized by the dogs lovers of the region. You can participate for free, but the number of participants is limited. The festival ends generally around 18:00 at Sugio Shrine. Just follow the horse riders and the samurai to see where to go next.

DEGAM Tsuruoka Tourism Bureau (General Incorporated Association)

Adresse: 3-1 Suehiromachi, MARICA East Building, 2nd floor, Tsuruoka, Yamagata 997-0015, JAPAN

TEL: (+81) 0235-26-1218

E-mail: tsuruoka@degam.jp

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