Summer Purification

Yesterday was June 30th – the last day of the first half of the year. In Japan, this is the day of Nagoshi no Harae – an ancient Shinto purification rite. At the shrines where this ritual is performed, a very large wreath made of miscanthus reed and paper strips is set up at a gate or torii. The idea is that people walk through it and thus purify themselves of the sins of the first half year. Additionally, small paper dolls can be handed out, something is written on them (not sure what, either the name of the person or the defilement they want to get rid of) and then they are thrown into a pond or a river to wash away and with it the sins of the person. Some people pick out strands of the reed from the large wreath, make a smaller one from it and hang it over their entrance door in order to protect the house from misfortune. a chinowa wreath from miscanthus reed

Well, nothing better than to have a fresh start every now and then I thought and made my way to Heian shrine where the ceremony started at 4 pm. The wreath was set up at the entrance, and there were many people walking through it, essentially in an “eight” shaped pattern. It’s a pity I couldn’t read the instructions next to the wreath, so only when it was too late I found out I did only half of the pattern. If that took care of half of my sins only, it’s a start 😉

Anyway, there was a spot set apart with curtains for people to take part in the larger ceremony. They were given some small paper dolls to write upon and handed them back to the shrine maidens, together with an envelope containing money. Then they could enter the enclosure and waited patiently. At 4 pm sharp, a group of Shinto priests started from one of the buildings, left the shrine through a side exit and entered it again through the wreath. When they arrived at the fenced off area, the ceremony began with individual bowing  – strictly by order of rank, of course – to a small altar, then the main priest began chanting. The other participants were invited to step forward to the altar, and they seemed to be throwing small pieces of paper over their shoulders (or possibly at the altar, I was too far away to know for sure). When all the participants were finished, the chanting stopped. The main priest stepped forward, also threw some paper over his shoulder, then tore up several large, long pieces of white paper in swift movements. After that, he swung a branch with green leaves over his head once for each cardinal direction. And that was the main public ceremony. After that, all the priests went to the main shrine building, followed by the other paying participants. I did not want to follow, so I cannot say what they did there, but it seemed that the further ceremony was private anyway. I do know however, that behind the main shrine building there is a garden with a large pond, so maybe the paper dolls were drowned there?

priests walking through the chinowaOnce again, I found it an interesting experience, but unfortunately I could not understand exactly what was going on. It would be interesting to participate in such a ceremony, but I will have to wait for my Japanese to drastically improve, because I wouldn’t want to make a fool of myself. I don’t think being a foreigner would be much of an issue in that case, as I mentioned before the Japanese are quite inclusive when it comes to religion. Maybe in a few years…