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 – 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.

Out with the Demons!

Tomorrow is setsubun, a very old traditional festival which at the times when Japan was still using the lunar calendar was part of the New Year’s festivities. And a part of these is the driving out of the old year and its demons and bring in luck for the coming year, and it is big fun for kids young and old…

setsubun demon and eho makiThis evening there was the demon vanquishing ceremony at Yoshida Shrine, which is the largest one in the city. I just returned home, cold and tired, but at least I had lots to eat – there were many food stalls lining the entrance to the shrine. Tomorrow is the big bonfire where people can burn their old amulets and charms from last year, I brought a few of mine as well and bought a new one instead.

Anyway, very short post today, I will write in detail about setsubun in the weekend. Apparently I have never done so before, so that gives me something to do!


Japanese New Year Traditions

There must be a million and one New Year’s traditions in Japan, and I have resolved to try at least one new one each year. I did not ring any bells this (or rather: last) year, but I did go out to Shimogamo Shrine for hatsumode, and I bought a new general luck and happiness charm there for this year. On top of that, I have bought a kagami mochi this year:

Japanese kagamimochiIt generally consists of two layers of flattened mochi rice cakes, a Japanese bitter orange called daidai on top, and is decorated at least with a two-coloured bow that is considered lucky. The two mochi pieces are supposed to symbolise the old and new year, the moon and the sun, or yin and yang; whereas the daidai symbolises the continuation of a family from one generation to the next. My friends simply said that the two layers of mochi are meant to double the luck that comes into the household.

Kagami mochi are sold at the end of the year and are usually displayed in the household’s shinto altar until January 11th, when they are ritually broken apart in a ceremony called kagami biraki and are eaten. This is meant to ask the gods for good fortune during the coming year. Yes, the mochi are edible and according to my friends you just cut off the hard (and probably dusty) outer part and then fry them and that they are quite tasty – as far as mochi go, I guess.

Kagami mochi can have different sizes, the largest ones are usually those placed at the altars of shrines. Mine is a rather small affair, and the daidai on top is made from plastic. As you can see, the whole thing is wrapped in plastic as well, which is a good thing because I placed it near my entrance (I don’t have a shinto altar in my home) and I do indeed intend to try and eat it!

With the new year comes a new format for the blog. Since I have started working and am rather busy, I have much less time to go out and have fun with the Japanese and their culture. And I think that writing about my daily routines is quite dull (one reason I never kept a diary), and so is reading about it. So, I will reduce my personal posts to two per week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. However, I will restart my weekend posts about all things Japanese that are hopefully of more general interest. I hope you’ll keep enjoying the blog!

Otsu Matsuri

Last Sunday I spent in Otsu, the capital of Shiga province, which lies on the shore of Lake Biwa, maybe 30 minutes east of Kyoto. Otsu, for a short period in the 7th century the capital of Japan, is still home to the largest harbour on Lake Biwa, which itself is the largest freshwater lake in Japan. However, the city is rather stretched out along the shore, and thus has the feeling of a little town despite its 350.000 inhabitants. There are a number of famous sites there, but I did not do any sightseeing this time.

Instead I went to enjoy Otsu matsuri with some friends of mine. Otsu matsuri has its origins at the beginning of the Edo period at the turn of the 17th century; the first time it was officially recorded was 1624. It is similar to Gion matsuri in that there are large floats that are paraded through the city, but there are also differences. All floats of Otsu MatsuriThe hikiyama of Otsu matsuri are about two storeys high, that’s somewhere between the size of the yama and hoko floats of Gion, and they are similarly decorated with beautiful tapestries on the outside. They only have three large wheels, which makes them more easy to manoeuvre by the people who are pulling them – yes, I have seen some women doing that as well!

A hikiyamaOn the second floor of the hikiyama, which can be reached by a staircase at the inside, only men are allowed though. Traditionally, only the first sons of families that lived around the storage house of each hikiyama were allowed to take part in the matsuri, but this has changed recently, and other young men may now participate too. When the floats are moving, they play a tune with flutes and drums that is similar to the one at Gion matsuri – to my ears, at least.Young men playing flutesThe most interesting part of the 13 hikiyama however, are the wooden displays on the second floor. Those are karakuri ningyō, mechanical dolls, and they depict, or rather, act out, a scene from a well-known fairytale or story, mostl of them originating in China.Saikyo Sakura Tanuki Yama One of the exceptions is a float with a doll representing Murasaki Shikibu, the authoress of the famous Tale of Genji. It is said that it was in Otsu – more precisely in Ishiyama Temple – where she began writing on her novel some time in the beginning of the 11th century. Murasaki ShikibuWe were invited to one of the houses that “own” one of the floats, and we could go to a second floor balcony and watch the parade from there, meaning that we were eye-to-eye with the dolls and the men playing the instruments. From such an elevated postion you can see that the dolls were operated manually as the men crouched down, but that did not take away the beauty of the performance. I especially liked the one depicting how to catch a Tai (a lucky fish of golden colour), and because each performance was repeated twice in front of our balcony, I could even catch the decisive moment on camera. Catching a fish

Deja vu

Today was the Aoi matsuri, the hollyhock festival that takes place at the Imperial Palace, Shimogamo Shrine and Kamigamo Shrine. When I came to Japan two years ago, this was the first festival I went to, and I have written about it then at length. Today, I had the opportunity – thanks to a friend – to see the parade again, this time from the special seats in Shimogamo Shrine.

It was just as I remembered, almost a deja-vu, but now the beautifully dressed men and gorgeous women on foot or on horses were passing underneath the large trees of Shimogamo Shrine instead of the open space of the Palace, which gave the parade a whole different feeling. I also think that it was a bit more compact than the first time I saw it – whether this was due to the different location or because of different timing, I cannot tell. The weather was nice and warm, but not really sunny, so I still have to wait for my first sunburn this year.

After the parade had passed the long sandy road up to the main buildings of Shimogamo Shrine, my friend and I had lunch at the few food stalls that were permitted at the shrine. We had yakisoba – grilled noodles with bacon and cabbage – and as dessert kasutera – a sort of small sweet buns made of pancake batter – and ichigo daifuku – sweet rice cakes with a strawberry on top.

This year, I did not stay for the horse race as I had promised another friend to see her, but it was nice to go to the Aoi festival again. There is still a part I have not seen yet, the one from Shimogamo to Kamogamo Shrine, so there is something left to explore for next year. I am already looking forward to it!

Seijin no hi

Ah, it’s Coming-of-Age Day again, one of Japan’s Happy Monday holidays. Today is the day where all over Japan youngsters who have turned 20 in the last year visit shrines to celebrate being an adult. Most young people do so dressed in expensive kimono, with elaborate hairstyles, and just the right attitude…

I went to Heian shrine again today in the hope of taking some pictures, but either I arrived too late, or the place to be this year was somewhere else than last year.couple in kimono at heian shrine

Girl and dragon fountainIn any case, there was a large group of young people in front of Kyoto Exhibition Hall, where some group had organised a meeting with speeches and photographers… so I did get some photos after all. Two things surprised me: First, the number of young people who were smoking. It is quite rare to see a Japanese person of any age smoking in public or on the streets. Especially in Kyoto, many tourist areas are strict non smoking zones, probably because so much of these parts of Kyoto are still made of wood, or maybe just because smoking in crowded places is not a very brilliant idea. There were even non smoking signs where the crowd gathered, but the brand new adults defied the signs as well as the guards and the police, who did not bother to say anything to begin with. I guess that they did not want to spoil the fun the youngsters had on their great day.

Second, the guys surprised me again, just like last year. The normal, traditional formal wear for a man has two colours: black and white, and maybe some gray in between. On seijin no hi, however, their kimono and hakama are often more colourful than the girls, and the young men don’t even shy away from dyeing their hair. I guess it’s the one and only and last day when they can be as reckless and irresponsible as possible in public. Obviously they had great fun doing so! Young man in flowery haoriHaori with tiger motifLeopard prints and flower punk


Japanese New Year’s Traditions

I have written a little about Japanese New Year’s Traditions last year, and I bet I will be writing on this subject more often 😉 Again, I will focus on the things I have done myself this year.

Just like last year, but this time alone, I went to the other side of Yoshida hill to the joyo-no-kane, the ringing of the bells. I went to Kurodani temple and listened to the bell being rung over and over again. Instead of waiting in line to do my own ringing, I went inside the temple, where monks where holding a ceremony. It was a Buddhist ceremony, and while the bell was ringing outside, four or five monks were banging sticks, sounded a sounding bowl, and recited the name of the Buddha over and over again: Namu Amida Butsu, Namu Amida Butsu

There are many Buddhist sects, but there is that one tradition for everybody, which teaches that anyone can be saved and go to heaven after death who is sincerely calling upon the name of the Buddha. Namu Amida Butsu literally means Homage to Infinite Light, but it can have other ideas behind it depending on the sect. In Japan, Butsu is the Japanese version of Buddha and Amida means as much as merciful.

While they were having the ceremony, people wandered in and out, praying together with the monks or alone, while all through the bell kept ringing outside. As I had no idea how long the ceremony would take, and it was cold in the temple (although it was a bit warmer than last year), I left after a while and went down to Okazaki shrine for my Hatsumode.

Japanese Lucky CharmHatsumode is the very first shrine visit in the year, and people pray there and buy Omikuji fortune-telling slips or Omamori charms. There are many different charms for all sort of things available, and this year I bought one myself: a general happiness-increasing charm in bright yellow.

It already made me very happy: Yesterday evening and all through the night fell Hatsuyuki, the first snow of the year. In fact, Japanese people are very aware of everything that happens or they do for the first time in a new year. I guess many people stay up to see the Hatsuhinode – the first sunrise of the new year. New snow of course invites Hatsusuberi, the first skiing (not for this odd Austrian though), and there is Hatsubasho – the first sumo event – some time in mid January. Hatsuyume – the first dream – is of course very important, and if you can’t sleep, there is always the Hatsuuri or first sale of the year, often with lucky bags that contain surprise items at very decreased prices and may require people to line up in front of the shops. By the way, I have invented my own New Year’s tradition, which I intend to keep up for a long time to come: Hatsuchoco, the first chocolate of the year…

It does not really count towards Hatsudayori – the first exchange of letters – because those cards are prepared well in advance in December; but quite early in the morning on January 1st you will receive New Year’s cards, nengajo. Many people of an artistic bent spend lots of time in making their own, just as my friend has: Hand made New Year's Card 2015