All About Japan

Kicking It Old School

Shrines Sports Events Video New Year's Kyoto

When people think of Heian-Period (794-1185) aristocrats, the first thing that comes to mind usually isn’t a sport that looks like a cross between soccer (or football, whichever you prefer) and a game of Hackey Sack played on your college quad. But it turns out the classical ruling class sometimes played kemari (or, literally, “kick ball”)—apparently while decked out in their robes and funny little hats, or eboshi (literally meaning "bird's hat").

The game is played quite a bit like you might expect: everyone stands in a circle and works together to keep the ball aloft, using whatever body part necessary excluding the arms and hands. The game was originally introduced from China in the seventh century, becoming particularly popular among the Heian aristocrats in later centuries. Sei Shonagon, who served Empress Teishi, even commented on it, saying that the game wasn’t dignified but that it was interesting.

Of course, like many traditions, kemari isn’t quite as popular as it once was, but it hasn’t been forgotten. For example, the game has been played since the Meiji Period (1868-1912) by members of the Kyushiku Hozon-kai, a society that was apparently established at the behest of the emperor and is dedicated to preserving kemari. In fact, the Kyushiku Hozon-kai provides a demonstration at Shimogamo Shrine in Kyoto at the beginning of every year. Even Former President Bush (the elder) played kemari during one visit to Japan in the '90s—in a suit.

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