Every year on Jan. 3, the Tama Seseri festival is held at Hakozakigu Shrine in Higashi Ward. The origin of this festival is unknown, but it is thought to date back nearly 500 years to the Muromachi era. Under the cold winter sky, men clad only in loincloths battle for possession of two wooden balls, which are said to ward off bad spirits, all while getting splashed with cold water. The Tama Seseri is considered one of the big three festivals in Kyushu.
At 13:00, the balls are purified in a cleansing ceremony, after which it is carried about 250 m to Tamatori Ebisu Shrine, which marks the start of the festival. From here, the men grapple for the balls until the finish line at the Sakuramon Gate. Tradition dictates that those who touch the purified balls will be protected from misfortune, and the intensity of the crowd of nearly naked men clamoring for the balls, which represent yin and yang, respectively, is truly a sight to behold. The men are divided into two groups, one on inland side of the shrine and one on the side nearer the beach. The last man standing with the ball from the former group is said to be assured a good harvest, while his seaside counterpart can expect an abundant catch of fish.
Several theories exist as to the origin of these balls. One theory is that Empress Jingu offered two balls to the dragon god Ryujin upon dispatching soldiers to the Korean Peninsula. Another theory says the two balls were found on Ushiohama Beach next to Hakozakigu Shrine on New Year’s Day in 1494. Yet another theory says a mysterious ball found floating in Hakata Bay was enshrined at Hakozakigu Shrine, and when this ball was heard emitting a strange noise at night as the moonlight shone upon it, the decision was made to enshrine another ball.
No matter the true story, Hakozakigu Shrine is not the only place in Fukuoka that holds a Tama Seseri festival. There is a similar festival at Sumiyoshi Shrine in Meinohama, and some say that these festivals were much more commonplace in olden times. There also used to be children’s versions of the Tama Seseri in the neighborhoods of Hakata up until the Meiji era. Children would carry balls around their respective districts and leave them as an offering at the household altar of the last house on their circuit. This custom can still be seen in some parts of the city to this day.
Originally published in Fukuoka Now Magazine (fn228, Dec. 2017)