July 17, 2007 / 10:37 AM / 11 years ago

Japan shrine keeps ancient soccer alive and kicking

KYOTO, Japan, July 17 (Reuters Life!) - Soccer fans, rejoice: there is a god after all and he lives in Japan.

Soccer players often worship at the Shiramine shrine in central Kyoto, home to the deity Seidai Myojin who is popularly known in as the god of sports, and especially soccer.

Twice a year, the shrine dedicates a game of kemari, an ancient form of the beautiful game, to the god. And weekly, the grounds turn into the practice pitch for the local Kemari Preservation Society.

Kemari was all the rage in Japan more than 140 years ago and was particularly popular among the aristocrats of Kyoto. The game is believed to have been introduced to Japan from China, which is regarded as the birthplace of soccer.

While the Chinese version of the game developed into a training tool for the military, the Japanese aristocracy gentrified it.

“In Kemari, the player that drops the ball is not at fault. In fact it is the guy that gave him a bad pass that is considered at fault,” said Shigeyuki Kitamura, the head priest at the shrine.

Players dressed in traditional robes and wearing special leather shoes kick around a deerskin ball stuffed with barley grains to a certain height marked by four trees surrounding the small square field.

Unlike soccer, players cannot drop the ball, bend their knees or use their right foot. But in this game, there are no winners or losers — the object is for players to demonstrate team spirit.

Locals are proud to have preserved a sport that has practically disappeared in China after it was banned under the Ming and Qing dynasties. And this ancient game has some young enthusiasts.

“I think kemari is harder than football, because in football you can use both feet, bend your knees and drop the ball,” explained seven-year-old player Takara Ishida.

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