Nara: Ancient assassination plots and ball games

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Priest Misumi Doi talks about a kemari legend at Tanzan Shrine in Sakurai, Nara Prefecture.
The Yomiuri Shimbun
Statue of Kamatari enshrined as Shinto deity at the shrine

SAKURAI, Nara – Tucked into the side of a forested hill in central Nara Prefecture, Tanzan Shrine has been known for an annual event where a kemari hacky sack-like game is played.

In typical times, the shrine holds spring and autumn kemari festivals that feature a Kyoto kemari group putting on elegant plays. But due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, the performances have had to be canceled three times in a row since last spring.

So as an alternative, the shrine has decided to offer a service where visitors can experience playing the game while wearing traditional costumes. Participants can also learn the game’s history and rules from the priests on site.

In ancient times, kemari was played by nobles, but now it is performed as a Shinto ritual. The ball is received with the top of the foot as close to the ground as possible and then kicked up high. The noncompetitive sport has no winners or losers and the proper way to play is to pass the ball to your opponent easily so that a rally can get going for as long as possible. The game may sound like a walk in the park, but beginners on average tend to drop the ball after two or three rounds.

Tanzan Shrine’s connections to kemari go back to historic incidents. Nara was called Yamato and it was a center of politics and culture. In 645, the then capital went through massive upheaval now known as the Taika no Kaishin, or Taika Reforms, which were triggered by the assassination of powerful clan leader Soga no Iruka.

The major reforms followed the incident, changing the country’s political system. The Japanese era name system — like Heisei or Reiwa — was also established at the time.

Courtesy of Tanzan Shrine
Members of a kemari group play the game wearing formal costumes at Tanzan Shrine.

The central figures in the assassination plot were Prince Naka no Oe, who later became Emperor Tenji, and Nakatomi no Kamatari, who was the founder of the Fujiwara clan — which boasted immense power. It is said that the two men secretly discussed the plot to slay Iruka at the site of the shrine.

Legend has it that the prince and the clan founder met for the first time at a game of kemari, where Kamatari is said to have picked up a shoe that had fallen off the prince’s foot during a session and offered it to the royal. The gesture is believed to have established a foundation of trust between the two. The Tanzan Shrine’s festival is derived from this legend.

In 680, Tanzan Shrine was established as a temple to enshrine Kamatari. Over 1,000 years later, when the Meiji era started in the late 19th century, the temple became a shrine.

“Kemari is not about winning but about caring for others and respecting the harmony of the situation,” said Misumi Doi, a priest at the shrine.

“Although it is fun to watch the techniques of skilled players, why don’t you experience it for yourself and feel the spirit of the ancient people?”

— How to get there

Take a bus from JR or Kintetsu Sakurai Station, get off at the last stop, Tanzan Shrine, and walk five minutes. It is about 22 kilometers from Koriyama Interchange on the Nishi-Meihan Expressway. The entrance fee is ¥600 for adults. To participate in the kemari experience, you need to pay ¥5,000 per person in addition to the entrance fee. You can apply for this service with a minimum of two people for a duration of 60 minutes.