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New Year’s Celebration of Martial Arts at Budokan

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By Ryuzo Suzuki / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Photographer
Diet member Eriko Yamatani brings a wooden hammer down on large cakes of mochi as the leader of the kagami-biraki mochi breaking ritual at the Kagami-Biraki Festival at the Nippon Budokan hall in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, on Jan. 9.

Over a thousand people came to watch the Kagami-Biraki Festival, an annual New Year event, held at the Nippon Budokan hall in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, earlier this month. The festival included demonstrations of various martial arts.

The stately martial arts arena was built in time for the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games in Kitanomaru Park, which opened in the former Edo Castle’s northern area. Commonly shortened to “Budokan,” the hall hosts large state events as well as concerts. But the Budokan still serves as a venue for various martial arts tournaments as well as educational activities for martial arts. One could call it the pantheon of Japanese martial arts.

By Ryuzo Suzuki / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Photographer
Participants clad in samurai armor march inside Nippon Budokan hall.

The Kagami-Biraki Festival has taken place at the Budokan almost every year since 1965 as the venue’s first martial arts event of the year and the year’s first training sessions of various martial arts.

On Jan. 9, the festival began with the kagami-biraki ceremony, a traditional New Year ceremony for samurai featuring four rituals; yoroi-kizome, the year’s first donning of yoroi armor; sankon-no-gi, the ceremonial toast; kagami-biraki shiki, ritualistic breaking of a mochi offering; and shutsujin, taking to the battlefield. The purpose is to pass down the beautiful traditions of samurai from long ago to the people of today.

By Ryuzo Suzuki / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Photographer
A woman receives help getting into samurai armor. Of the about 60 people who took part in the ceremony this year, an estimated one-third were women.

The yoroi-kizome ritual is said to have been held when a samurai’s armor was renewed or when a young samurai put on armor for the first time during the coming-of-age ceremony in the past.

The sankon-no-gi ritual took place before a general launched a campaign. The general would drink all the sake to the last drop and eat small dishes, such as thinly stretched abalone, hoping for good fortune on the battlefield.

Kagami-biraki is a ritual to break mochi that had been used as an offering on an auspicious day when New Year’s decorations are taken down.

By Ryuzo Suzuki / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Photographer
A demonstration of kyudo traditional Japanese archery

After going through the three rituals, all the participants clad in samurai armor shout a battle cry, “Ei, ei, oh!” before marching inside the venue to emulate samurai launching a campaign.

About 60 participants took part in the ceremony this year, led by lawmaker Eriko Yamatani, who, as a Budokan standing trustee, became the first woman to execute the role. Most of the participants were either members of the Association for the Research and Preservation of Japanese Helmets and Armor, or members of the general public who applied to take part in the event. The armor was prepared by a specialist costume rental company whose staff helped the participants put them on.

The ceremony was followed by demonstrations of nine different traditional martial arts — kyudo (Japanese archery), sumo, kendo, karatedo (karate), naginata, judo, jukendo (bayonet fighting), aikido and Shorinji kempo — by about 40 specialists in the disciplines. Afterwards, about 600 people practicing the nine disciplines themselves took part in the New Year’s first training sessions.

By Ryuzo Suzuki / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Photographer
A joint training session of various martial arts

Tiago de Brito Penedo, the deputy head of mission at the Embassy of Portugal in Tokyo, came to watch the event with his wife and two sons.

“I think these are magnificent demonstrations of all Japanese martial arts,” he said. “I don’t practice any Japanese martial arts myself, but I came here because I wanted my sons to have interests in them. They like karate and sumo.”

About 1,300 people came to watch the festival this year. Anyone can watch the event for free.

By Ryuzo Suzuki / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Photographer
Nippon Budokan hall has an octagonal shape when seen from above, as it was modeled after the Yumedono pavilion at Horyuji temple in Nara.