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.

Summer Purification

Last weekend, there was a very interesting summer purification rite at Shimogamo Shrine. This time, we random spectators were not allowed to participate, but it did involve the Mitarashi Pond at the Shrine again. When I arrived in the early evening, there was a circle of arrows stuck into the pond, and some fire places were set up and a table for a prayer ceremony.

A circle of arrows in the Mitarashi Pond of Shimogamo ShrineEventually, two priests came to pray in front of the little shrine you see in the back of the above photo, and when it became dark, the fires around the pond were lit. There was quite a bit of waiting, but when it was really dark, two groups of men arrived together with a number of priests. The men took their seats on the steps leading down to the pond on both sides, and there was more praying and a blessing of both groups.

When this was done, a sign was given, and all of a sudden, both groups jumped up and into the water and tried to get as many of the arrows as possible. While they were splashing about, the priests were throwing yellow pieces of paper into the water and onto the participants.Everything was over in two or three minutes when there were no more arrows to be grabbed. The participants, now all wet, sat down again for another blessing, and then left quickly, and the whole ceremony was over.

Nagoshi no Harae ceremony at Shimogamo ShrineThis ceremony is meant to pray for health for the rest of the year, and getting one of those arrows is meant to be extra lucky. I could not find out what was happening after the official ceremony, and what purpose the arrows have, but I guess they will be put in the houses of the participants who won them. However, the yellow paper was in the shape of humans, and on each piece was written a name and the wish of that person for the rest of the year. Those paper dolls were fished out of the water rather unceremoniously in the end, I guess they were thrown away or maybe burnt afterwards.

The most interesting part of the ceremony was that there was one woman amongst all the guys competing for the arrows. Never before have I seen women participate in this sort of religious events (other than as helpers somehow), so I don’t know if this was an exception or common at Shimogamo. Maybe Japan is changing after all?

Fire Walking

Last Friday evening, I went to the Tanukidani Fudoin Temple. This beautiful old temple is reminiscent of Kiyomizudera, which is also built on “stilts” at the top of a steep incline. However, Tanukidani Fudoin is much less famous, probably because it is so much smaller, there is no nice view over Kyoto from there, and getting there is much harder – especially climbing the 250 steps at the end of the already steep road is very exhausting. At least in winter, you’ll be nicely warmed up at the end though…

Tanukidano Fudion TempleAnyway, I went there last Friday for the hi-watari – fire walking – ceremony. It is meant to pray for protection and health, and it was the longest religious ceremony I have watched so far in Japan. It started with chants and prayers in the main hall, which I could hear but not see because I had stayed outside to secure a good spot for the main part of the ceremony that started about 30 minutes later.

On the central open space of the temple, a large pyre had been built with logs and pine branches. When the monks had finished their ceremony in the main hall, they went down to the “temple square” and took their places there. Four seated themselves at the corners, surrounding the pyre, the others took their seats at some benches that had been specially provided.

Beginning of the hi-watari ritualThen there was more chanting by the monks, and the head priest performed some rituals, the meaning of which I did not understand. At some point, one of the monks took up a prepared bow, went to each of the four men sitting in the corners of the square, took an arrow from them, said an incantation, and then shot the arrow out towards the four corners of the world. A fifth arrow was shot into the pyre. I assume that this part of the ceremony was meant to repel evil coming from the four cardinal directions, but as I said, I am not sure.

Only after this was done, the pyre was finally lit with a large torch. More chants and prayers followed, including walking around the bonfire, and the head priest threw bundles of wood into the fire, possibly ema, prayer tablets. This whole part of the ceremony took maybe one hour, and at the end of it, the bonfire was nicely ablaze and its sparks were flying high into the nightly air.

Starting the fireWhen all the chants had been spoken and all the monks had taken their rounds around the bonfire, the fire was torn apart by some of the monks and the wood was formed into a pathway of maybe 6 by 3 meters. The larger logs, still burning, were moved to the outside, and at the inside there was left a layer of glimmering charcoal. And then came the moment all the spectators had been waiting for: The monks lined up at one end of the fiery path – and walked over the coals to the other side.

Final FirewalkingThey were accompanied by a large taiko drum, which gave the scene a sort of earnest urgency. It looked very serene, the monks went rather slowly and did not seem fazed at all. A lady next to me, however, remarked that the coals in the middle of the path were completely black by now, meaning they were probably not too hot anymore. Still, it was impressive to watch, and the burning logs at the sides of the path were probably hot enough anyway.

This marked the end of the ceremony, and once all the monks had passed over the hot coals, those who had so far only watched were now also allowed to try fire walking. A large amount of people did, the idea of this part is to pray for good health over summer. Interestingly, many of the ceremonies that take place in summer are to pray for good health; I wonder if in the olden days people were more prone to die from summer heat (or maybe hot weather diseases) than from whatever cold or pneumonia you can catch in winter. It might explain why most Japanese still seem to suffer less in the cold winter than in the hot summer, even though a too much of both is unpleasant.

Mitarashi Festival

Today I went with a friend to the Mitarashi festival at Shimogamo Shrine. This was at least the third time I went there, but it seems I haven’t written about this before. Time to fill the gap then! The Mitarashi festival is an extremely popular festival in Kyoto, and thousands of locals go to Shimogamo Shrine each year to celebrate it. It is very interesting and “hands-on” and there are several steps involved. First, you go to the shrine to pray as usual. Then you turn to the little stream and pond of the shrine that is usually off-limits. Mitarashi festival at Shimogamo ShrineYou take off your shoes, buy a small candle and then wade through the waters of the stream. Somewhere in the middle of the way, you light you candle, and then you walk with your candle to the end of the stream and place it in front of a tiny little shrine. Some people say another quick prayer there. Don’t let the candle go out – you will have to go back and light it again! (Using somebody else’s fire is frowned upon.) The water is ice-cold, which is nice for a short time, but can get very unpleasant if you have to go back and forth more than once or twice.

The idea of the ritual is to pray for good health over summer, and bathing your feet in the cold water definitely helps to cool you down for a while. After you step out of the stream and put on your shoes again, you can drink a cup of fresh water from the shrine’s own well. And there are also little bamboo sheets in the shape of feet for sale, where you write down the names and dates of your loved ones in order to pray for their health as well. Those are put in the water in front of the little Mitarashi Shrine I mentioned before and will be floated down the stream to take the ailments of the people with them. Prayer cards in the form of feetAs I said, this festival is immensely popular, and it lasts about one week each year in July. It opens at 5:30 in the morning and ends only at 9 in the evening, and especially after sunset, there are always lots of people. Many of the smaller kids who come with their parents take the opportunity to splash about noisily in the water, they don’t seem to be concerned about the cold at all. The officials of the shrine don’t seem to mind that, after all, shinto is meant to be a celebration of life.

I really enjoy visiting the Mitarashi festival, and so far, this has been the only festival in Kyoto where I went to each and every year. And I hope that there will be many years to come!

Setsubun

Setsubun – literally seasonal division – is a religious festival that usually takes place on February 3rd in Japan, and it marks the last day of winter. It dates back more than 1000 years, and was introduced in Japan as a part of the New Year’s festivities in the lunar calendar. Because of this, the main part of the setsubun festivities is the driving out of the demons of last year, bad habits and bad luck may stay behind as well.

Red Demon of avariceThe way to do this is very interesting: One throws fukumame – lucky beans – at the demons while shouting “Oni wa soto” (demons outside) and one eats the beans with a hearty shout of “fuku wa uchi” (luck inside). This mamemaki ceremony is done in many Japanese homes at 5 pm, and it is great fun for kids. Somebody of the family will wear a demon mask, and the kids are allowed to throw beans at the demon, all the while shouting on top of their lungs. Even some of my adult friends do the shouting! As for the “fuku wa uchi” part, once the oni are out the door, people are supposed to eat the fukumame, one for each year of their lives plus an extra one for the coming year.

Many people also visit a shrine or temple for setsubun to take part in the mamemaki. Often, not only beans are scattered there, but among them little gifts or coupons for larger prizes. In the larger shrines, celebrities like actors, sumo wrestlers, or Geisha who were born under the same zodiac sign as the coming one (they are called toshi-otoko or toshi-onna) perform the mamemaki, and the visitors can get quite rough in order to catch the prizes.

Yoshida Shrine's ShinshiThe banishing of the demons itself is a religious ceremony. In Kyoto, Yoshida shrine has the largest setsubun festival, and in a shinto ritual, complete with music and dance, and archers who are actually shooting arrows at the oni, three demons are vanquished that have come to the shrine from the mountains and threatened the people on the way. I have not quite found out the precise meaning of the figure with the four eyes, but he does not seem to be a demon himself, rather the one who does or helps with the banishing.

Demon of selfishnessHowever, the colours of the demons do have meaning, and there are five different oni easily distinguishable by the colour of their skin (since they only wear loincloths):

red: avarice
blue: anger and irritation
yellow: selfishness
green: ill-health
black: complaining and hesitance

Once the ceremony is over and the demons of last year are defeated, the oni return to the mountains, no further threat for the people residing below.

Some shrines also have a bonfire later in the evening, where people can bring last year’s omamori amulets and similar things to have them ritually burned.

A very interesting – and unfortunately, almost forgotten custom – is dressing up in disguises, wearing different hairstyles or even crossdressing altogether. The latter custom is still maintained by the Geiko in Kyoto and their clients, who dress up as the other sex when meeting on setsubun.

Of course, no Japanese festival can do without special food. Except for the fukumame, people are supposed to eat sardines with grated daikon radish, and then put the fish heads on the doorpost together with holly leaves to drive away the demons who apparently don’t like the smell of fish. As accompaniment, ginger sake is drunk.

Ehomaki and OnimaskA relatively new culinary custom has its origin in Osaka: eating ehomaki, literally lucky direction roll. Nothing more than a usual fat sushi roll, one must eat the whole, uncut (!) roll in one sitting without speaking and while facing the lucky direction of the year, which depends on the current Chinese zodiac. This year’s eho is north-north-west, by the way.