Kemari at Kamigamo-Jinja Shrine

#kemari #kamigamojinja

Kemari at Kamigamo-Jinja Shrine(蹴鞠)

I come from Italy, a country with a strong passion and many fans for the national sport soccer. Today at Kamigamo Shrine(上賀茂神社) there was a “soccer event”, called Kemari, which has about 1400 years of history. I could not miss to see one of my favorite game played in Heian period costumes in the ground of one of the most old and beautiful Shinto shrine in Kyoto. I did not bring the flag of my loved team, only my camera indeed. I did not need to run to get a seat, or to be checked by the police. At the main entrance gate of the shrine I bowed to enter into the holy territory. With my surprise and delight I found out a game played from the elegant aristocrats since hundreds of years ago, and having “fans” still today.

Players passing through the “Tori”, Shinto shrine gate.


Kemari game was introduced to Japan from China about the year 600, during the Asuka period (飛鳥時代:538 – 710). Its Chinese origin seems to be before Christ. It became very popular during the Heian period (794 – 1195) in Kyoto among the aristocracy. The game is played with a ball made of deerskin with the hair facing inside. The ball is white and looks soft. In general eight persons a time play together kicking the ball with any part of the body. It is not a competitive game. The most important rule is trying to keep the ball in the air as much as possible and the team cooperates to do so. When the players try to get the ball or to kick it, they say “Ya -ari - o”. The players wear colourful cloths of the Asuka period, and a crow hat, typical of the Shinto priests. Nowadays Kemari is played as a special event in Shinto shrines. The most important ones in Kyoto are held in Shimogamo Shrine (January 4) and in Kamigamo Shrine (February 11).  

A prayer before the game starts.

Shinto priests going to the main building.

Kemari players enter into the field

Players “on the bench”

Details of the costumes

A purification ritual for the “Holy” ball

The ball and pine branch

Ritual on the soccer ground

Ball on the field: ready to start!

Kemari game starts

“Ya – ari – o!”

Kick! Kick!

Well done! 

Look at this!

Again “Ya – ari – o!” 

The game is over! A respectful bow to the fans

I watched the game with a mix of curiosity and joy. Nobody looses nobody wins. The game is a pleasure for the whole group of players.
The colours of the costumes contrasted the austerity of the Shrine. It was a hymn to the elegance and spirituality. I think the Gods of the Kamigamo Shrine enjoyed the Kemari this year too. And so did the people who came to watch it.

I heard that probably Marco Polo bring this game from China to Europe. I have a question for him: “Did you forget to say that Kemari is a game to be played just for fun and not for competition?”
I cannot guess his answer!