Needles

I am not sure whether this is a genuinely Japanese thing, or if it is something of the Eastern culture in general, but I have to say, there are all sorts of … interesting religious ceremonies around… Yesterday I went to Horin-ji temple in the Arashiyama district of Kyoto, where a memorial service for needles was held, needles as in sewing needles. The ritual appears to date back to the Heian era, even today people bring their used or even broken needles to this temple and pray for better sewing skills and a happy family.

The ceremony took place in the main hall of the temple and started – after four women with colorful dresses and beautiful hair ornaments and a number of priests had entered and seated themselves – with a short performance of traditional music. Then, the head priest who was sitting in front of the altar started reading or rather chanting a long incantation or prayer in a loud voice. When he was finished the other priests placed themselves in front of the altar and, also chanting, threw little oval pieces of paper over their shoulders to the people sitting behind them. The paper was about the size of a palm and had an image of the Buddha on one side; apparently it is a charm and the way it is distributed is meant to resemble falling leaves. Anyway, those leaves were readily snatched up by the worshippers, and the dancers also distributed some. Their big performance was shortly afterwards, when they started dancing a very slow traditional dance to traditional music. 4 women dance at the needle ceremonyWhen the dance was over – it started and ended with a bow to the altar – more chants were intonated, but all of a sudden and without warning, permission was given to start the actual needle ceremony: A number of large needles with colorful threads had been prepared as well as blocks of what I first thought was wax (it turned out to be much softer, like jelly, but I have no idea what it really was), and people were invited to take one of the needles and stick them into the blocks while saying their prayers. sticking the needles into the blockThat was the main part of the ceremony, and most of the people left immediately afterwards. They did not hear the final piece of music or saw the women and priests clean up and leave. They also did not notice when two of the dancers returned to do their own needle ceremony. Once again, I found this very strange, but then again, the whole idea of a service for needles is a bit … special, isn’t it?

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