Picture a rainy Saturday morning. I’ve just finished getting ready – I washed my dishes after breakfast and started a load of laundry. I’m planning on making a quick trip to Daiso to pick up a few cleaning supplies, like wipes and fabric softener. I have clean the bathroom, buy groceries for the week, and finish up a blog post on my to-do list: your classic, uneventful Saturday. But, as has been a recurring theme for my weekends in Japan, it ended up being the very opposite.
The moment I stepped outside, I came face to face with who I immediately thought to be a member of the Japanese mafia…
He was wearing a long, black robe and, to my horror, a mask – a bright red mask, with menacing eyebrows and an absurdly long nose. A little farther, in the middle of the street, stood a group of three other people dressed in the same black robes and horrid, nightmare-inducing masks.
All I could do was stand, stiff with fear, hoping this masked stranger was not actually a member of a terrorist group, or a hired assassin, or an FBI agent who’d come to arrest me for illegally throwing my trash out at convenience stores… But luckily for me, he was none of those. He simply offered me a nod and then meandered toward the other masked men, who I realized – now that I’d finished overreacting – were laughing and cracking jokes with each other.
Later that day, I eventually learned that the people I’d run into were dressed up for a festival that was happening that night in Minoh called the Tengu Festival, held in honor of Japanese spirits known as tengu.
If you aren’t familiar with what a tengu is, (I definitely wasn’t) here’s an excerpt from its Wikipedia article:
Tengu (天狗, “heavenly dog”) are a type of legendary creature found in Japanese folk religion and are also considered a type of Shinto god (kami) or yōkai (supernatural beings). Although they take their name from a dog-like Chinese demon (Tiangou), the tengu were originally thought to take the forms of birds of prey, and they are traditionally depicted with both human and avian characteristics. The earliest tengu were pictured with beaks, but this feature has often been humanized as an unnaturally long nose, which today is widely considered the tengu‘s defining characteristic in the popular imagination. Buddhism long held that the tengu were disruptive demons and harbingers of war. Their image gradually softened, however, into one of protective, if still dangerous, spirits of the mountains and forests. Tengu are associated with the ascetic practice of Shugendō, and they are usually depicted in the garb of its followers, the yamabushi.
I read online that Tengu Festivals are widespread throughout Japan in the fall. Most festivals typically include a parade featuring impressive statues, as well as Japan’s classic festival street food. Minoh’s annual festival, though, is actually a little different – when the sun starts to set, men dressed up like tengu gather at a specific marked location. And once the locals have arrived at the same place, these tengu start hitting people! Yes, I’m serious. They run around hitting everyone.
They carry these bamboo sticks with tapered ends and hit anyone they can find on the head – usually, children. Apparently, if a child is hit on the head by a tengu, that child receives lifelong blessings. And women receive good fortune too – supposedly getting tapped by a tengu blesses them with fertility and successful kids.
Of course, I was super fascinated, and a bit horrified, by the thought of kids getting struck by middle-aged men, so at around 5pm that evening I found my way to the location where the tengu were expected to gather. It wasn’t hard – all I had to do was follow the sound of high-pitched screams.
I arrived at the gate, and proceeded to watch one of the strangest events I have ever seen in my entire life.
Exactly as the internet warned, men dressed up in tengu attire started running up and down the street and attacking people of all ages – from toddler to teens to middle aged women – while onlookers simply pointed and laughed and recorded videos on their phones. I too, took lots and lots of videos, which I plan to keep forever in case I’m ever in need of a laugh. (Sadly, I’m not able to upload the videos to the post, but shoot me an email and I’ll send you some!)
The festival was mainly intended for the kids, since they’re supposed to receive the bulk of the blessings, but the most memorable part of the festival was watching the parents, who were either taking pictures of their sobbing children or pushing them, literally pushing them, into the tengu’s path!
Though some children were running from the masked men in terror, other, braver, children walked right up to the tengu, asking – begging even – to be hit on the head. And the tengu were happy to oblige.
I ended up getting hit by a tengu too! It didn’t hurt at all, like I thought it would. But I’m pretty sure that he was going easy on me… I wouldn’t be surprised if a few of the other tengu targets woke up the next morning with bruises on their heads.
The festival was short, but it’s become one of my favorite memories in Japan! Not only do I have a new story to tell, but I also have a long line of successful children to look forward to, thanks to a masked stranger and his magical bamboo wand.