Kemari is an ancient Japanese football
game that is essentially equivalent to modern games like hacky sack
and keepy uppy
. Kemari was first brought to Japan from China
in the 6th century
where it quickly found favor among the aristocrats of the Asuka
court. The game soon died out in China and Korea, but has continually been played in Japan
to this day, making it the oldest still-practiced form of football in the world.
Traditionally, the game was played using a deerskin ball, about eight inches in diameter. The ball was filled with barley grains to give it shape and partially sewed together with horsehide, and then the barley was removed and the sewing was completed. The rules were not complex - the object of the game was simply to keep the ball in the air as long as possible using only the feet. The game was played by anywhere from two to twelve players, and each player was allowed to kick the ball up in the air as many times as he wished before passing it to another player with a heads-up shout of "Ari!" The player currently in control of the ball was known as the mariashi.
Kemari was played on a pitch of varying size, known as a kikutsubo. In the old days, aristocrats would mark out a permanent pitch by planting trees to mark the four corners. Traditionally, they would plant a cherry tree, a maple, a willow, and a Japanese pine.
In the centuries following its introduction to Japan, kemari's popularity continually increased. At first only played by aristocrats in the Nara and Heian eras, kemari spread to the warrior classes in the Kamakura period. Kemari reached the zenith of its popularity in the early Edo period, when it spread to the common people, and was played in village streets across Japan.
In the later Edo period, however, kemari's popularity waned drastically, such that by 1903, Emperor Meiji was so concerned about its survival that he founded a Kemari Preservation Society which has preserved the game to this day. Each year, the Society sponsors two major kemari events - the "first kick" on New Years Day at the Shimogamo Jinja Shinto shrine in Kyoto, and the Kemari Festival in November at the Danzan Jinja shrine in the ancient capital of Nara. Although there was no prescribed uniform in the old days, modern kemari players wear a special costume modeled on the aristocratic fashions of the Asuka Era, including a high-peaked eboshi hat. The costume is very old-fashioned and elaborate, so it makes for a rather ridiculous sight to see middle aged Shinto priests running around in long colorful robes trying to keep a ball in the air.