At Shinto shrines there is always said to be a resident god to whom people offer coins, ring bells, and send prayers. Whether a person believes this literally or symbolically, it’s an important part of Japanese culture and deeply ingrained in daily life and holidays. On Dōgo Island in Shimane Prefecture we have a festival called Gorei centered entirely around these gods. It’s a once annual opportunity for Dōgo residents to pray to not just one god, but eight.
Every year, Gorei begins at ten in the morning on June 5th. Throughout the day, festival goers gather at the main Tamawakasumikoto shrine, a fitting place for the event. Tamawakasumikoto is home to the oldest giant cedar on Okinoshima, and at eighteen hundred years old, I imagine it’s also one of the oldest in Japan. Upon seeing it, a friend of mine commented, “It’s kind of funny how other trees were cut down to keep this one up.” I laughed, and I also found it remarkable. It’s easy to see the significance of this place.
Meanwhile, eight horses around the island are prepared for the festival. In truth, they’ve been preparing for months, and during the days leading up to the event their handlers eat, sleep, and live with them. It is a time of meditation and purity.
On the day of the festival the horses are saddled and fitted with small, transportable shrines. It’s not the men who will ride these horse, but gods, and at two in the afternoon the handlers set off around the island. They visit other minor shrines along the way, but the eventual destination for them all is Tamawakasumikoto. The journey begins leisurely enough, but by the end they are sprinting full tilt, the horses carrying the men along so quickly many of them are lifted off their feet or sent tumbling to the ground. It’s something like a Japanese Running of the Bulls, and not just because of the close contact between humans and animals. It’s rare for a Gorei festival to pass without bruises and blood, sprains and breaks. It’s a visceral experience as eight horses thunder one by one through a cheering crowd and beneath the massive shrine gate.
In front of the Tamawakasumikoto shrine building the horses are stopped, divested of their saddles, and the gods are officially gathered. By this point the temple grounds are packed, and people surge out from behind cordon lines to greet the horses and their handlers.
As the horses have finished their journey the main event is over, and the festival takes on a more relaxed vibe. The newly gathered gods are paraded on foot through the streets, so everyone has a chance to present them with a prayer. In the meantime the handlers ride their horses, putting on displays of archery and holding impromptu races up and down the road.
The festival winds down when the parade returns to Tamawakasumikoto, perhaps an hour later. Most people have left by this point, although a few remain to watch as the gods are returned to their residence. People break off into smaller groups, ready to continue to festivities with friends at home, and I reflect that Gorei is something I’m lucky to see. I’m sure that, relatively speaking, few foreigners have.
Gorei began sometime in the Heian period, perhaps as long as twelve hundred years ago, but despite its hazy origins the motivation seems clear enough. What better way to make sure the gods are listening than to gather them up and bring them together? Gorei is a tradition I’m pleased has continued to this day, a Dōgo cultural marker.
It’s difficult to recommend one time to visit Okinoshima over any other, but if you have just one opportunity, this is it.