• Name: Meredith Hodges-Boos
• Location in Japan: Ehime Prefecture, Shikoku
• Name of city/restaurant/venue: Uwajima’s Ushioni Bull-Demons
• Description: In the coastal city of Uwajima, a fierce but loving creature known as Ushioni serves as a lynchpin for local culture, heritage and commerce.
I met my first Japanese demon while biking through rural Shikoku’s mountain tunnels. It loomed out of the shadows, headlights illuminated two long striped horns, flared nostrils and a mane of hair thatched back over the hump of its bulking red body. My bike forgotten in the gutter, I cringed against the side of the tunnel wondering if I’d lost my mind or if this thing was going to eat me alive. After numerous trips to Tokyo, Kyoto and the other oft traveler trod stomping grounds, I thought nothing in Japan could throw me. Too bad no one warned me about the Ushioni.
But Ushioni, literally translated as bull-demon, serve as Uwajima City’s gentle guardian spirits. Charged with protecting homes and businesses from other less savory demons, they are revered and loved by their seaside community. The creature in the tunnel was just a float headed for the Warei Shrine for the summer Gaiya Festival. But I was still cautious of the colossal critters. A Bull-Demon is still a demon. Harmless or not, it must have done something to get that title even if it didn’t swallow me whole.
Uwajima City is located in the south of Shikoku’s Ehime Prefecture. It takes a short plane ride from any large domestic city to Matsuyama, then an hour train ride to reach this hidden treasure of Japan. There are no hints of the unending bustle of Tokyo, but the Seto Inland Sea is a constant jewel of blue reflecting Uwajima City’s ample fishing and pearl culturing industry. There is no Mt. Fuji; instead announcements and songs pipe through a hilltop castle, affectionately nicknamed the ‘Wedding Cake Topper’ due to its petite size. Uwajima City lacks Geisha, but its inhabitants stream through many narrow backstreets and bridges to the city proper with determination and pride. And to the northwest, between terraced orchards of tangerine trees, is a Bullfighting Arena. Yep, an honest to goodness bullring.
Some cringe to hear this sport exists in Japan. But unlike its European equivalent there is no bloodshed. Uwajima City has adapted the sport into sumo matches between two bulls. The first bull to back out of the ring or touch a knee to the ground loses. Legend has it the curious pastime originated in the late Seventeenth Century. Local fisherman rescued a storm battered Dutch ship and as thanks the crew gifted two bulls from their cargo. The bulls, confused and grumpy from the voyage, began to fight. Pushing and shoving each other, the bulls kept at it until everyone in the village came to cheer on their favorite. The sport stuck and gave substance to a local myth…the Ushioni Bull-Demons.
Uwajima City celebrates the Gaiya Festival annually from July 22-24 to thank the guardian spirits. Ushioni floats are constructed out of bamboo reeds, palm tree bark covers the long necks, wooden swords are used for tails and gigantic swaths of red cloth make up the skin. The enormous 20 foot tall floats parade through town on the shoulders of the locals. The heads, masks with flapping jaws, horns and bull-like faces, are thrust into businesses and homes as a blessing. Hundreds of dancers perform the Gaiya dance to a recorded song caught between hip-hop and traditional Japanese festival chants. Finally, the creatures ‘fight’ in front of Warei Shrine, mimicking their flesh and blood counterparts in the shadow of Japan’s largest stone torii gate.
There are many amazing sights throughout Japan. But the terrifying yet endearing image of an Ushioni lumbering out a dim tunnel towards Uwajima City’s coast will haunt any traveler’s imagination lucky enough to witness the beast’s passage.
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