Shiiba is a mountain village where the Heike clan and the Genji clan co-exist. After they lost at the Battle of Dannoura, the Heike sought refuge in these Miyazaki mountains and their offspring still live here today. Shiiba is known to have maintained ancient cultural traditions with little influence of modernization. We had the unique opportunity to join the festivities and talk with some of the locals at the Shiiba Heike Festival.
We spent the previous day in the mountians of Gokase, river kayaking, cabin retreating and warming our bodies with nabe. Our guides, who seemed to be a bit on the awesome hippy-outdoorsy side, took us on a wild drive on winding, crumbling roads to a leisure kayaking trip on a section of the Gokase River. Once back at our cabins, we spent the evening feasting on warm pots of nabe.
The next afternoon we carpooled to the festival. The hour drive turned into be one of the prettiest drives we have experienced in Japan. The leaves on the trees were almost at their peak of changes and were bright red, yellow and orange. The colors were breathtaking.
Like all festivals, this one was bombarded with the various festival type foods like grilled corn, meat on a stick, fried chicken, curry, crepes and Japanese sweets. However, we were pleasantly surprised and excited about about the options. As soon as we arrived, we tried the grilled homemade tofu and mochi, amazake (fermented sweet rice alcohol) and Japanese curry rice made by the local villagers. They were all far better than any festival foods we have had so far!
And while we ate our food, we watched the Yamoto warrior parade. It was an ode to the meeting of Nasu Ohachiro, the general of the Genji clan and Princess Tsurutomi. Men, women and children all proudly dressed in homemade costumes to resemble traditional attire, were escorted on horseback and foot. Some even wore scary “kami” (god) masks and drunkly danced down the street, not missing the chance to scare and hug a foreigner…!
As we were exploring the food vendors, we were summoned by an old man into a tiny local barber shop. Inside, the man and his friends were eager to talk to us and we quickly realized that they had one too many drinks. Surprised (like always) by Jon’s use of Japanese, the group was delighted by our company and gifted us with shochu (Japanese sweet potato alcohol) and a jar of home-grown honey. Leaving a little overwhelmed, we couldn’t help but feel, yet again, completely grateful for the kindness of the Japanese people.
On our way home, we found the most random pizza restaurant on the side of a country road in Misato. Otto-Otto was exactly what we needed to refuel us for the drive home. The pizza was cooked in a wood-fire oven and the atmosphere was anything but pretentious or tacky. It was beautiful. Seated in the middle of the countryside surrounded by farmlands, we ate our pizza as the sun set in this little farmhouse-turned-restaurant. Japan never ceases to surprise us.