Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (43): Grab those fans while it’s hot!

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, August 8, 2007

THERE’S NO LIMIT to the Japanese imagination when it comes to creating motifs on which to base a festival. For verification, one need look no further than the Uchiwatori, which is part of the Gion Festival held on the first of this month by the Hirai Shinto shrine in Iga, Mie Prefecture.

Uchiwatori literally means grabbing uchiwa, or the non-folding variety of hand fans. Four five-meter-high bamboo poles are erected on the shrine grounds. About 100 uchiwa and paper flowers are attached to the top of the poles. At 6:00 p.m., 10 parishioners remove the stays keeping the poles erect, and they tumble earthward. The participants then engage in a mad scramble to grab the fans and the flowers.

As I’ve mentioned before, it’s not a good idea to get involved in one of these scrambles unless you’re serious about getting a piece of the action. Grandmothers will literally elbow you or shove you out of the way to grab their reward and not stop to apologize about it later.

The festival also features traditional dancing by miko, or shrine maidens, which is not without its charms, but the scrum to come away with one the fans is the big deal.

This is actually part of the festival of the Tsushima shrine, another Shinto shrine, which is located on the grounds of the Hirai shrine. Dating back to the Edo period, which ended in 1868, the Uchiwatori is held in supplication for relief from the summer heat and for avoiding illness.

As with any other aspect of life in Japan, when you pick up one thread, several others become apparent, and that’s true for this festival, too. The enshrined deity of the Tsushima shrine is none other than Susano’o-no-Mikoto, the younger brother of the sun goddess Amaterasu, the principal female deity in Shinto mythology and the supposed ancestor of the Japanese Imperial family. (The siblings didn’t get along well.)

Legend has it that he was walking along one day and encountered an elderly couple weeping. The couple had eight daughters, seven of whom had been eaten by the monster Yamata-no-Orochi. This creature is described as having eight heads and tails, bright red eyes, a bloody belly, and a back covered with moss and trees. It was so big that its body covered eight valleys and mountains.

That sounds like it might have been a hallucination from an ancient Japanese bout with the DTs.

Well, the couple were crying because Y-n-O was about to come for their eighth and last daughter. Susano’o obtained permission from the parents for her hand in marriage if he managed to save her, and that was an offer they couldn’t refuse.

Susano’o brewed some sake, refined it eight times, and built an enclosure with eight gates, each of which had a platform and a sake vat. They filled the vats and waited. Susano’o was no dope. Very few living creatures in Japan can resist eight free vats of sake.

Sure enough, Y-n-O showed up and saw his opportunity. The eighth daughter could wait—he wanted the grog. The monster sank each of his heads into a separate vat and got monstrously sloshed, falling asleep. In turn, Susano’o saw his opportunity and proceeded to chop him up. In so doing, he found the sword Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi in one of the tails.

This sword became one of the three objects that are the Imperial Regalia, symbols of the Japanese Emperor’s authority and legitimacy. A replica of the sword is kept in the Imperial Palace; the original is said to be kept at the Atsuta Shrine in Nagoya.

Now how’s that for pedigree? This legend, by the way, is told in the Kojiki, a sacred text of Shinto.

Nothing happens during the Uchiwatori as thrilling as slaying an eight-headed drunken monster to win the hand of a fair maid, but reports suggest it can get rough, in keeping with the spirit of the legend.

There is one thing I don’t understand, though–if the object is to keep cool, why get all hot and sweaty scrambling for a fan?

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