Chrysanthemum Festival

September 9 is one of the special days in the Japanese calendar. It is the day of the Chrysanthemum Festival, also called choyo or kikku-no-sekka, and many shrines and temples have ceremonies to pray for health and, in particular, longevity. This is because 9. 9. is the largest single-digit day possible, and so there is a connection. Looking at the Japanese statistics of people who lived beyond 99 years of age, the prayers actually seem to work.

In Kyoto, the most famous Chrysanthemum Festival is at Kamigamo Shrine, where there is karasu sumo, a special event with kids performing sumo for the gods. I visited this event already in 2013, you can read about my impressions in the post I did then.

So, today I had to go elsewhere, partly also because the karasu sumo was cancelled because of Covid19. Many other shrines have cancelled their events too, so I decided to visit Kuramazaki Jinja who promised a special dance for the occasion. I have passed the shrine before, on my visits to Arashiyama, and it looked interesting, so off I went just before noon.

At Kuramazaki Jinja, the kikku-no-sekka ceremony started with the usual prayers to the gods, accompanied by gagaku music. Then, different types and colors of chrysanthemums were offered to the gods in a comparatively short but nevertheless solemn ceremony. Afterwards, there was indeed a dance performance by a female dancer who also held chrysanthemums in her hands during the dance. For some reason, the music for her performance came from a tape, I did not quite understand why, since there were gagaku players present. Finally, guests to the ceremony were allowed to make their offerings to the gods as well.

Altogether, the ceremony took about 30 minutes. I felt that it had been scaled down from its usual size. For one, there was no chrysanthemum sake offered to the visitors because of Covid19. Also, I believe there should have been more performances of music and dance after the religious ceremony, but whether they were cancelled because of Corona or because of the rain, I am not sure.

One thing that struck me immediately: There was a woman among the priests of the shrine. I have never seen this before. Usually, all the priests are male, and the only women allowed near the gods are the miko, the shrine maidens, who to this day have to be unmarried women. And here, there was a young female priest, and she even seemed to lead the ceremony. Slowly, slowly, even Japan is changing. Maybe.

Obon Reduced

Today is the last day of Obon in Japan, the mid-summer period where the ghosts of one’s ancestors return to earth. During this time, many people return to the gravesites of their family to clean them and leave little gifts for the dead like flowers or foodstuffs. I once even saw a small beer can placed on a tomb, which I found rather touching.

In Kyoto, the evening of August 16 is the time for the Gozan-no-okuribi fires, or short: the Daimonji, where on 5 mountains surroundig Kyoto large bonfires are lit that spell out five kanji characters and are meant to guide the spirits back to the realm of the dead. Even though I am not religious, watching the fires being lit is very moving, and even I think of my family…

Anyway, although these fires draw large crowds every year, they do have a religious background, so it’s not a tourist spectacle. For this reason, they are always lit on the same day, regardless of weather or other outside influences. Only during WWII, the characters were drawn onto the mountains using white cloth, because making nightly signal fires for airplanes wasn’t a great idea.

This year, of course, things are different than usual because of Covid19. And because the fires draw so many spectators to only a few strategic points, the organisers decided to drastically scale them down: All except for the one on Daimonji Mountain were to be reduced to a single point.  So, here is the big “dai” 2020 as seen from my balcony:

I am torn about this to be honest. It was nice that the organisers went through with the fires – and if you know what the big dai should look like, it was easy to make out – but at the same time it felt very sad too, somehow. If Corona does not go away, how much of our culture will we have to sacrifice?

Hina Matsuri

Tuesday was March 3rd – the day of Hina Matsuri, or the doll festival. It’s an ancient purification festival dedicated to daughters. In the old days, special dolls were used to absorb illness from people and then often ritually discarded.

Nagashi Bina dolls at Kamigamo Shrine.This year, I went to Kamigamo Shrine for their Nagashi Bina ceremony. Many shrines have a ceremony like this and the core of it is simple: You write your name and your wish onto a slip of paper that is often shaped like a human figure, and then you place the doll into a stream at the shrine so that the water “purifies” the paper and takes your wish with you. Some rituals have you rub the paper doll at your (aching) body or you blow on it to have the doll soak up all your misfortunes or illnesses before you place it into the stream.

At Kamigamo Shrine, there is first a ceremony at the main shrine. I did not see it because I was rather late and the entrance to the building was crowded. Anyway, I bought a little paper box and wrote my wish onto a piece of paper that I put into the box. After the ceremony at the main shrine, the priests and shrine maidens came down to the stream and did a quick purification and prayer ceremony at the stream. They were then the first ones to release boxes into the stream. Afterwards, the other visitors were allowed to do the same.

Nagashi Bina and Plum Branch from Kamigamo Shrine.It was a nice ceremony and overall, there were not many people, either because of Corona or because Kamigamo Shrine is a bit off the beaten tracks. There was an NHK TV team filming the scene though, and the friend I was with told me later that they showed a short segment on the evening news (sans yours truly, thankfully.) As a bonus, we received flowering plum branches to take home as the doll festival is often also called the plum festival, fitting the season. My branch is now gracing my living room, and I hope it will remain blooming for a while.

As I have mentioned before, now that I know about all those fun events, I rarely have time to go anymore. However, I am resolved to see more of Kyoto’s traditional events, especially at places I have not visited before. I hope I can get out of my shell a bit more and meet more people this way too.



Setsubun at Rozan-ji

Yesterday was setsubun, the last day of winter in the traditional calendar. It is said that between the seasons there is a gap through which evil demons enter the world. Obviously, this is not good, so they have to be repelled – by throwing roasted beans at them while shouting “oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi”. I wrote about setsubun and the ceremony at Kyoto’s Yoshida Shrine on this blog before (and also on What’s up in Kyoto by the way), if you are curious about details.

Yesterday I went to two setsubun rituals. In the morning, a friend of mine invited me to the temple were she usually goes to. First, there was a normal worship with lots of chanting done by the congregation, which was the first time I experienced this – usually, it’s only the monks chanting. Afterwards, there was a short sermon by the current head of the temple (broadcast from Tokyo, another first time for me) and then there was the mamemaki bean throwing. My friend’s mother was smart enough to bring a large shawl that she draped on our laps, so we got an extra amount of lucky beans without straining too much.

After lunch, we went to Rozan-ji temple, where Kyoto’s second largest setsubun ritual (after the one in Yoshida shrine) is taking place. Here, there is a Buddhist ceremony taking place inside the temple, and while only selected guests may enter, you can hear the chanting outside as well. Then, all of a sudden, three scary demons in red, green, and black appear on the scene, wielding a sword and a torch, an axe, and a mallet. They perform a kind of dance on stage and slowly and with lots of looking about, approach the temple and finally enter it.

Inside, the priests appear undeterred from their ritual and keep on chanting as if nothing has happened. Unfortunately, I could not see what was going on, but after a while, the three demons ran out of the temple, without their weapons and staggering from left to right. They disappeared somewhere at the back of the precinct, never to be seen again – setsubun mission accomplished!

Right afterwards, an archer came out and shot arrows into the four cardinal directions. This is meant to create a kind of blessed circle around the temple, which evil demons cannot cross. Catching one of these arrows is also considered lucky, and if you do, they should be displayed in the altar of the home or, lacking one, near the entrance door.

Finally, it was time for the setsubun highlight, the mamemaki bean throwing. Some of the priests and other invited people came onto the stage where just before the demons had danced, and started shouting “oni wa soto” while throwing beans to the spectators. Besides the lucky beans that were covered in white and pink sugar-coating (and were quite delicious), they also threw small mochi into the crowds. Some of them had a stamp on them saying “lucky”, and you could exchange these mochi for a sacred arrow.

There was quite some scrambling for the beans and the mochi. It’s surprisingly hard to catch them, but people were just as happy to pick them up from the ground (which meant more scrambling). I was not lucky enough to catch an arrow, nor did I catch one of the “lucky” mochi. I did catch one normal mochi though and picked up a second one, and one of the lucky beans caught in my collar.

All in all, with all the beans I got throughout the day and the two mochi, I think I will be decked in with luck for the time being. Which is always a good thing, I think we can agree on that!

I’ll add some pictures tomorrow!

Coronation

The new Emperor of Japan was officially crowned today. It was another special holiday today – I missed that completely – but since the main events of the transition are over, it was also the last holiday.

The ceremony was rather solemn and subdued, with lots of traditional pomp that goes back to the Heian Period, about 1000 years ago. I didn’t have time to watch all of it, but here is a video of the coronation ceremony, it’s about 70 minutes long. Be warned though, there are long, long periods in between where nothing much happens!


From a quick glance at the video, one thing is interesting: The whole family is there in the throne room, plus a few members of the Japanese parliament – but I could not see the Emperor Emeritus or his wife anywhere. The man in the wheelchair is the uncle of the current Emperor, as far as I know, but his father is not present. Interesting, isn’t it?


Sokushinbutsu

When browsing youtube the other day, I found an extremely interesting video about Japanese monks who turned themselves into Sokushinbutsu, Living Buddhas.

“Living” is not a good word though, since these monks practised extreme asceticism in order to have their body mummify after their death. This was an extremely rare religious practice to enter Nirvana and to thus help the people who stay behind on earth.

It is said that this practice originated in China and the founder of the Shingon sect of Buddhism, Kukai (aka Kobo Daishi), brought it to Japan upon return from his studies. It is believed that hundreds of monks attempted to become Shokushinbutsu, but only 24 mummified Japanese monks are known. Some of them can be visited in Northern Japan, in Yamagata prefecture, where most of these monks lived.

Here is the video (6:52), but be warned: it’s graphic!

Since I do have an interest in anything morbid, I can definitely recommend Caitlin’s channel. She is a funeral director in Los Angeles and has written a number of books related to death.

End of Hiatus

Hi, I’m back – remember me? Sorry for not posting last week, I needed a break from writing for a while… I’m fine so don’t worry and now I’m back in full glory and with a bit more energy – hopefully even enough to start my weekend posts again…

My Golden Week holiday turned out to be a mix of work and fun stuff. In the first weekend, I went with friends to Kyotographie, a large international photography exhibition event. And because said friends came from Kobe and Osaka, we were determined to see all the venues in just two days. And we managed: 11 venues with art by various international photographers, all in less than 30 hours. It was fun – and very exhausting, but we’re planning to go again next year!

Later that week, I visited three exhibitions and one traditional event at Yoshida Shrine. This was a so-called shiki bouchou ceremony where a large fish is cut and offered to the gods – in this case, the God of cutlery. The interesting twist here is that the fish is only touched with two large metal chopsticks and a large knife. There are a lot of specific movements and (forgive my language) waving of the knife before the first cut into the fish is made. At the end, the fish is put onto a plate and served to the gods.

Offerings to the gods

I had seen a shiki-bouchou ceremony before and to be very honest, I was slightly disappointed. When I saw the ceremony the first time, the movements and cuts were very smooth and executed with a lot of confidence. This time, I had the feeling that the priest performing the ceremony was very nervous, and although I did not have the best view, I could see his hands tremble on occasion. Whether this was because he was unfamiliar with the task or because of the film team directly in front of him, I can only guess.

The ceremony was a relatively small affair, but the first two rows of seats were reserved for dignitaries somehow connected to Kyoto’s food industry, like the “Head of the Kyoto Kaiseki Organisation” and suchlike. They were allowed to pay their respects to the gods at the end of the ceremony, obviously in return for making a significant donation to the shrine.

The ceremony took about one hour overall, and afterwards my friend and I were left wondering what would happen to the food that was just offered to the gods, the fruit, rice, and vegetables in particular. I guess nowadays it would just be thrown away, but I would not be surprised if, in the olden times, the priests would eat the leftovers after the gods had partaken…

Anyway, although I had fun at this ceremony, it was not the highlight of my last two weeks. That one came at the end of the Golden Week: A visit to the Sugimoto Family Residence. However, this one deserves a post of its own, possibly in the weekend. 😉

Saga Dainenbutsu Kyogen

Dainenbutsu Kyogen are short theatre performances that were originally meant to teach Buddhism to the general population of Japan. In Kyoto, there are three major such kyogen performances: Mibu Kyogen (in Mibudera Temple), Senbon Enmado Kyogen (in Injo-ji Temple) and Saga Dainenbutsu Kyogen.

The latter ones, shown in spring and autumn in Arashiyama’s Seiryo-ji Temple, originate in a ceremonial event called Dainenbutsu-e that was initiated by the monk Engaku in 1279. In modern times, their history was a bit rocky: In the 1960s, these plays went through a crisis when the number of actors declined and performances had to be cancelled. In 1975, volunteers founded the Saga Dainenbutsu Kyogen Hozonkai organisation to train new actors and keep the art alive through regular performances. In 1986, the Saga Dainenbutsu Kyogen were designated as a Japanese Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property, and today, the performances have become an integral part of Kyoto’s cultural calendar.

the servant stereotypeThe Saga Dainenbutsu Kyogen are pantomimes, where a set of (male) actors dressed as certain stereotypes (like the young woman or man, the monk, the servant, etc.) breathe life into the story that is performed on a simple stage with barely any stage design and only a few necessary props. The actors – called kyogen kata – share the stage with musicians – hayashi kata – who play a special, 9-hole yokobue flute, kane bell, and small taiko drum. There are only two basic patterns of alternating the bell and drum, it is more of a rhythm than a melody, and is played throughout the performance. Also on stage is a supervisor – koken – who may help the actors with props etc.

Musicians and supervisorThis is necessary, because in the Saga Dainenbutsu Kyogen, all actors wear full face masks in the style of Noh masks, a tradition going back to the Muromachi era (14th – 16th century). These wooden masks have only very small eye holes through which the actors can see, which makes finding small props or immediately reacting to another actor quite challenging. Thus, the actors sometimes clap their hands or stomp their feet as a sign for the others who may wait at the edge of the stage for their next action that the play has progressed to a certain point. It is possible that two unrelated scenes that are taking place at the same time but in different places, are acted out simultaneously on stage.

Monk and woman with childThe Saga Dainenbutsu Kyogen has a repertoire of about 20 plays. Not all kyogen are funny, or “soft” Yawarakamon plays, about half of them are more serious or “hard” Katamon that have their origin in Noh. Up to three plays may be grouped together and performed in one afternoon, usually the focus lies on the funny Yawakaramon though.

surprising the monkThe atmosphere around these plays – whether soft or hard – is very relaxed, it is an outdoor performance in spring or autumn, when the temperatures are pleasant. Because the plays were developed to teach laypeople about Buddhism and they work without any speech, the stories are very easy to understand and transcend time and culture. Universally funny, they are definitely worth watching!

Yutate Kagura

Yesterday, I went all the way down to Takeda, where Jonan-gu shrine is located. It was built in 794 to the south of then newly founded Kyoto to protect the capital. And each year on January 21st, there is an interesting purification ceremony called Yutate Kagura, involving lots of hot water…  But, let’s start at the beginning:

When I arrived at Jonan-gu, a large cauldron of water was already being heated over a fire, and the offerings for the gods were placed in front of the main altar. As usual, the ceremony started exactly on time, when the shrine priests arrived, followed by musicians and five miko, shrine maidens. Pot with boiling waterAfter some initial prayers, a first purification took place – a priest waved sacred paper over his fellow priests, the shrine maidens and musicians, and finally, the spectators. Then, four of the miko danced a sacred dance, this is done to invite the gods to the scene. Afterwards, offerings were made and prayers were said, and the gods were implored to help purify the visitors. Sacred DanceOnly now the main part of the ceremony started. The fifth and oldest miko, so far being a silent spectator only, stepped forward to the cauldron with the now boiling water, and started to add a few extra ingredients: salt, rice, and sake and thoroughly stirred the mixture with a large stick adorned with sacred paper. She then took two large bunches of bamboo leaves, soaked them in the “soup” she had just prepared, and then, with large and forceful gestures, she splashed the hot water around her, three or four times.

Splashing Water aroundAs you can see on the picture, the water together with the smoke from the fire made quite an impressive scene! She then moved on to sprinkle the hot water over the visitors in the same way, who had to bow their heads to be purified from evil spirits and bad luck by the hot water. One final sprinkling before the main shrine, a bit more music, some more prayers – and then everything was over.

The bamboo branches that had been used in the ceremony were then sold as lucky charms to take home for a hefty 1000 yen apiece, and many of the spectators took the opportunity. A large part of them went up to the cauldron where some hot water was left to fan some of the – quite evil-smelling – steam over their heads and bodies for additional purification and blessing.

Selling the used bambooI enjoyed the ceremony, and it was expected of the visitors to take part in it. We were asked to stand, bow, and clap a number of times. This is the first shinto ceremony where everybody took part, rather than only paying guests. Often, people are only expected to watch, and maybe can do their own thing before or afterwards. It was fun, even though I didn’t quite know what was going on all the time – but then again, neither did the Japanese, I’m sure…

Sento Kuyo

In August, when the Japanese celebrate Obon – the festival of the dead – there are many related events, and not all of them take place during the few days leading up to August 16th, when the dead are sent back to the underworld again. The Sento Kuyo or Manto Kuyo festivals take place at temples throughout Japan, and they are meant as memorial services for ancestors long gone.

Tonight, there was the Sento Kuyo (literally: 1000 lights memorial service) festival at Adashino Nenbutsu-ji Temple. This temple from the Heian period, located in the Arashiyama mountains west of Kyoto, is famous for its approximately 8000 stone monuments. Many of them are quite small and have been found during excavations in the area – which has long been a graveyard – in the early 20th century and relocated to the temple grounds. Some of them are in the shape of small Japanese tomb stones, others may have once been Jizo statues; it’s hard to say because they are heavily worn with age.

8000 Monuments at Adashino Nenbutsu-jiWhatever their former purpose, they now stand densely packed in a walled part of the temple grounds, with a large stone pagoda and Buddha at the center. And this garden of stones lies at the centre of the Sento Kuyo ceremony. In the beginning, the monks chant sutras in a small building adjacent to the cemetery. Then, the first candles are lit before the central Buddha in the cemetery and the monks pray there, before making a round through the cemetery.

Temple staff will now light the first candles and distribute them throughout the graveyard, there are little iron spikes everywhere, on which the candles are placed. When the first candles have been lit, visitors to the temple are now invited to also light a candle at one of the stones. I have seen many people doing this and saying a little prayer there, even though it is not known whom the stone belonged to – or if it was ever meant as a tomb to begin with. Lit candles during sento kuyo festivalThe ceremony starts at 18:00 and there is chanting all the way through until the temple closes again at 20:30. It is very nice to watch as dusk is falling and the candles are (almost) the only thing lighting up the graveyard in the end. I think it was a beautiful and spiritual sight, but the Japanese friends I talked to say to them it’s just creepy. Maybe that was part of the reason why the ceremony attracted relatively few people. At least it did not feel crowded at all, even though the part where the ceremony took place is relatively small.

After I had decided to have taken enough photos, I left, and downstairs, on the street passing the temple, there was another, more profane light up: Large hand painted lanterns lined the street on both sides, and here and there, huge oval lanterns were hung up and served as a focal point. Many of the lanterns were painted by kids, but there were a few really artistic ones as well. The backdrop there were old houses; apparently this is part of a special preservation area at Arashiyama.

Lightup in ArashiyamaIn any case, I had a nice evening watching the ceremony. It was touching to see people coming and praying over their candle that they had just placed somewhere… I really should go there again at some point and have a closer look at Adashino Nenbutsu-ji and its surroundings – during daylight hours.