Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (9) E pluribus Japan

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, March 8, 2007

The United States uses the Latin phrase e pluribus unum, or one out of many, on its Great Seal to express the idea that the single nation was created from 13 original colonies and to symbolize the plurality of its people. The phrase is also printed and stamped on its paper money and coins.


Though Japan is considered by some—including most Japanese—to be a small, homogenous island country, in some curious ways it too consists of a haphazard collection of customs that most people shrug off as a unity they’ve been accustomed to since birth. You won’t see a better example than a series of events that are comprised of two different festivals, in two different locations, using two different elements, at two different kinds of religious structures, but are actually a unified whole.

The two festivals are the O-Mizuokuri, or water sending, in Obama, Fukui Prefecture, and the O-Mizutori, or water receiving, in Nara City, Nara Prefecture. The story started more than 1200 years ago, in 752, when Buddhist priests from throughout the country were summoned to a meeting at the famous Todai-ji, a temple in Nara City, during the construction of Nigatsu-do, a hall at the temple site. But one happy-go-lucky priest in Wakasa, now in Fukui Prefecture, went fishing and forgot all about it.

When he remembered where he was supposed to be, the priest became repentant and promised to send some sacred water to Todai-ji to atone for his negligence forever. He struck a rock to bring forth water and poured that water into a nearby river. When rocks near the temple in Nara were struck, about 175 kilometers away, the holy water gushed out. The two festivals recreate this entire sequence of events every year. Even as you read this now, the water is flowing in mysterious ways from Fukui to Nara.

The ceremonies in Fukui begin every year on March 2 at Hachiman-gu, a Shinto shrine, in Shimonegori in Obama. It isn’t clear why a Buddhist ceremony should start at a Shinto shrine—they’re two different traditions—but this is yet another combination the Japanese are blase about. For centuries, some religious institutions combined both Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, until the practice was stopped during the Meiji period. It’s just one of many reasons that it’s hard to find dogmatism of any kind in this country.

At 11:00 a.m. sharp at Hachiman-gu, participants mix red clay with sacred sake. No Japanese festival is complete without some booze, especially at a religious institution. This is drunk as an offering and the leftover clay is used to daub on columns the characters for the words “mountain” and “eight” in what is described as a magic ritual.

I’ve read several accounts of this festival in Japanese, and nary a one has explained what any of this has to do with a monk gone fishing and sending magic water to Nara. This is Japan; things like this happen all the time.

Later that day, everyone moves over to Jingu-ji, a Buddhist temple, and they hold an archery ceremony, again for reasons no one explains. But the real action gets started after it gets dark when they start lighting the torches. Fire is as much a part of Japanese festivals as water and liquor. Now you know why young people enjoy them as much as the old folks.

After the priests garbed in white robes blow conch shells as a signal to start, they walk two kilometers to the river carrying the torches and bamboo tubes containing the water they’re going to send to Nara. Anyone can come along for the hike, and the participants pass the torches to each other, hand to hand. When they reach the river, the priests build a huge bonfire, read a ceremonial scroll, and send the water it on its way.

Meanwhile, the folks at Nara haven’t been idle. A group of 11 priests of Todai-ji are in the midst of a 14-day marathon prayer meeting at Nigatsu-do—you remember, the place where the monk was supposed to go 1200 years ago, but went fishing instead. They’re praying for world peace and a good harvest, after confessing their sins at an eleven-headed statue of Kannon in a ceremony called Shuni-e. No one except the priests has ever seen this statue.


The prayers started on March 1 this year as the priests lit torches of their own and ran around the outside veranda of the hall in a dancing frenzy. Unusual physical exertions are yet another common element of Japanese festivals. This is no easy task, by the way, as the torches are 6.5 meters long and burning like crazy. Crowds of several thousand gathered below the hall to encourage them with shouts. They came in the hope that sparks from the torches will fall on them, which they believe will protect them from harm for the coming year.

Then, on March 12, the entire festival comes to a close when the priests go down to the rocks below Todai-ji to receive the water that was sent from Fukui bubbling up from a spring. It took 10 days for the water to make the 175-kilometer trip. The priests collect the water—said to cure disease—and pour it into a pot on the 13th, to which they add water taken from a different pot which has been continuously replenished for the past 1,200 years.

Of course, we’re all more sophisticated about these things in the modern world, and know that water sent from one temple can’t possibly reach another temple in another part of the country magically underground on a strict schedule every year.

Except no one has gotten sophisticated enough to explain why the water bubbles up from the spring at Todai-ji only one day a year, every year, on the same day in March.

Fire, water, sake, Shinto, archery, Buddhism, two temples in two different cities, and two ceremonies performed as one for more than 1200 years—all these elements hang together rather nicely, and no one in Japan gives it a second thought.

The photo at the top is of the priests sending the water in Fukui Prefecture, and the photo at the bottom is of the priests running around Nigatsu-do with the torches. But to get a really good look at the spectacle, do not miss the photos at these two sites, here, and here. The first 10 photos at the first site are of the torch ceremony in Nara, and after that they switch to the priests sending the water from Fukui. The second site has photos only of the water sending ceremony at Fukui.

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3 Responses to “Matsuri da! (9) E pluribus Japan”

  1. Nancy said

    Really interesting festivals! Thanks! Last year I went to the Gion Matsuri and found that very fun indeed. Didn’t realise some of these festivals really really old.

  2. ampontan said

    Nancy: Thanks for your comment. I try to write about festivals frequently. I’m glad to know that people read things other than politics, too!

  3. Quality articles or reviews is the key to attract the viewers to pay a
    quick visit the website, that’s what this web site is providing.

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