The ancient sport of Kemari

On Saturday, January 4th, 2020, spectators assembled at the UNESCO World Heritage-designated Shimogamo Jinja 下鴨神社 shrine in Kyoto to witness a match of kemari 蹴鞠, an ancient Japanese kickball sport introduced to Japan from China over 1,400 years ago during the Asuka period. The purpose of the non-competitive game, historically played by members of the nobility, is to keep the ball aloft as long as possible, with all players cooperating.

Shimogami Jinja has long hosted the early January matches, called "Kemari Hajime" 蹴鞠初め, as they are deemed to be an auspicious way of beginning a new year.

Kemari Hajime: Kickoff

After an opening ritual in which the mari 鞠 (ball) was ceremoniously presented together with the sacred edamari 枝鞠 branch... was time to begin the game.

Decked in brightly colored mari-shōzoku 鞠装束 uniforms consisting of mari-bakama 鞠ばかま pants, a mari-suikan jacket 鞠水干 and a tate-eboshi 立烏帽子 crow hat, reminiscent of the Asuka Period, members of the Shūgiku Hozonkai 蹴鞠保存会 (Kemari Preservation Association) dexterously passed the ball to each other.

With their long sleeves and billowy clothes, the players sometimes looked more like dancers than participants in a sport...

You can see the players in action here:


Where to attend a kemari match when you visit Japan

Fortunately for visitors, there are several occasions during the year when you can witness this ancient sport. Here is the general schedule:

  • Shimogamo Shrine 下鴨神社, Kyoto: January 4th
  • Kamigamo Shrine 上賀茂神社, Kyoto: February 11th, 10:00 AM during the Kigensai 紀元祭 Festival
  • Kotohira-gū Shrine 金刀比羅宮, Kagawa Prefecture: April 5th, July 7th, and late December, from 10:00 AM
  • Shiramine Shrine 白峯神宮, Kyoto: April 14, 10:30 AM during the Spring Reitaisai 春季例大祭 Festival, and July 7th, 1:30 PM during the Seidai Myōjin Reisai 精大明神例祭 Festival
  • Tanzan Shrine 談山神社, Nara: April 29th, 11:00 AM and November 3rd, 11:00 AM
  • Fujinomori Shrine 藤森神社, Kyoto: June 15th, 1:00 PM during the Ajisai Matsuri hydrangea festival
  • Hirano Shrine 平野神社, Shiga Prefecture: August 9th, afternoon
  • Ai Shrine 阿為神社, Osaka Prefecture: November 23rd, 1:30 PM

Manyou Kemari

Based on ancient records indicating that the kemari was originally performed competitively before it became a pastime for the nobility, the NPO Nara 21st Century Forum NPO法人奈良21世紀フォーラム revived this form of the sport in 2001, and called it Manyou Kemari 万葉蹴鞠. Since 2015, the organization has been holding matches at Kasuga Shrine in Nara, where the sport was said to have originated. For more information, visit their home page here (Japanese only).

By - Ben K.