Kyushu’s Oita Prefecture is well known for its natural and historic sites such as the Kuju volcanic mountain range and the hot springs of Beppu. However, there’s another attraction that brings thousands of tourists and sake connoisseurs to Oita’s Kunisaki Peninsula — the Shirahige Tahara Doburoku Matsuri.
Shirahige Tahara Doburoku Matsuri — simply as the Doburoku Festival — is a 1,300 year-old autumn celebration held in the village of Ota, located on the outskirts of Kitsuki City. Every October, visitors offer prayers to Shirahige Shrine’s deities for a bountiful rice harvest and prosperity — plenty of events happen during this time.
As “Shirahige” means white beard, there are contests for best in beard and hair, attracting participants from all areas and across a wide range of ages. In addition, there is a mikoshi (float) parade organised by locals.
Of course, the namesake festival is all about the special homemade sake, brewed once a year, called doburoku which is served in celebration.
Doburoku is early-stage, unfiltered sake that’s comprised primarily of fermented mash — resulting in a beverage that’s cloudy and slightly sweet with chunky bits of rice, but with an alcohol by volume (ABV) of 10% to 20% (by comparison, an average sake has about 15% ABV). In Japan, doburoku is illegal to make at home, but many shrines are licensed to serve it during festivals like Shirahige Tahara Doburoku Matsuri.
North of Kitsuki City is Ota, a village populated with several nature trails and ancient shrines including Shirahige Tahara, where the festival takes place. However, before you take your first sip of doburoku, there are some courtesies you must observe.
First, you must wash your hands at the basin near the shrine entrance as is customary before entering such shrines. Then, you can enter the shrine and leave an offering of one or two 5 yen coins and perform a prayer which involves bowing (twice) and clapping (twice), followed by a final bow.
Then you can walk over near the prayer steps to find friendly Ota locals offering cups of fresh, homebrewed doburoku. The unspoken rule is that you must finish whatever is poured into your cup. The doburoku is provided free of charge, and you can drink as much as you wish — just try not to overdo it and remember that you can only drink within the shrine premises!
Depending on how much doburoku you indulge in during your day trip to Ota village, it’s probably a good idea to head back to Kitsuki City for some food. Thankfully, the city has no shortage of delicious dishes to try featuring fresh, locally-sourced ingredients.
Highly recommended dishes to try are Tai-chazuke Ureshino (a rice and soy sauce-marinated sea bream dish covered in green tea), Otakara-meshi (a rice dish cooked with five kinds of beans for prosperity), and dango dumpling soup (a miso-seasoned wheat flour dumpling dish served with seasonal vegetables).
Among the most popular restaurants to visit are Wakaeya, a renowned 300-year old restaurant known for its Tai-chazuke Ureshino (reservations are a must), and Uoichi Rakuza, a restaurant near Morie Bay specialising in affordable, freshly-grilled seafood.
If you have another day to spare, it’s worth staying in Kitsuki to see the historic samurai castles and residences in the city. If you’re not sure where to visit next, you can visit Kitsuki City’s official website for more information on sights and events to check out.
From Kitsuki City, the easiest way to get to the Shirahige Tahara Shrine is by taking a shuttle bus from Kitsuki railway station. The shuttle runs every 30 minutes and takes about 30 minutes for the shuttle to reach the shrine.
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