Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (56): Walk through the magic ring…

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, October 25, 2007

THAT OLD-TIME RELIGION is still good enough for many in Japan, as some have observed, and the chinowa festivals shown in the photos are as old as any religious ceremonies in the country. They’re still being held throughout the archipelago today.

Chinowa, or more properly chi-no-wa, literally means “ring of the chi plant”. This is a eulalia grass found throughout East Asia and goes by several names in Japan, including kaya (which might be the most common).

The Bingo Fuduoki contains the first mention of chinowa. The fudoki were records kept over a 20-year period starting in 713 for each of Japan’s provinces at the time. They include agricultural, geographical, historical, and mythological information. The Bingo region corresponds to what is now the eastern half of Hiroshima Prefecture.

According to the Bingo Fudoki, the divinity Susano’o-no-Mikoto gave a chinowa to a local hero named Somin Shōrai, who escaped the effects of an epidemic by wearing it around his waist. (We’ve discussed this particular divinity before, here.) As a result, chinowa festivals are held throughout Japan in midsummer, when people were most concerned about the spread of contagion.

The first photo shows priests passing through a two-meter wide chinowa at the Inaba Shinto Shrine in Gifu City, Gifu Prefecture. After the priests go back and forth a few times, the shrine parishioners will follow suit. This is said to protect against illness and disaster.

Not all chinowa festivals are conducted to receive the blessings of good health, however. The Susukimizu shrine in Chikuma, Nagano Prefecture, uses a three-meter- high wreath in its festival to promote growth and intelligence in children. Their festival, which is not shown here, dates from the Edo period.

An elaborate variation, shown in the second photograph, is found at the Aoiaso shrine in Hitoyoshi, Kumamoto Prefecture. They don’t use eulalia grass in the construction of this chinowa. While keeping the general shape, they employ a bamboo frame instead. Strips of paper called gohei are hung from the frame. These are used to mark sacred areas or to attract the attention of divinities.

When I said old-time religion, I was serious; this shrine was established in 806, but they didn’t get around to holding a chinowa festival until 1386, almost 600 years later. (And that itself was more than 600 years ago.) The shrine stopped holding the festival for a time–no one exactly knows why–but they resumed in 1533.

The objective of this ceremony is to remove the sins and impurities of the parishioners. That chest the priests are carrying contains hundreds of human representations, called hitogata, which are drawn on more gohei. Those local parishioners who are unable to pass through the ring themselves, for whatever reason, write their name, address, age, and sex on the paper (and pay a fee). The priests hold a ceremony in which the sins are transferred from the person to the gohei before they are put in the chest. Then they walk through the ring three times. in this ceremony too, they are followed by area residents.

As often happens at traditional Japanese events when something good is free for the taking, this festival ends in a mad melee when the parishoners try to grab one of the gohei for themselves. Heaven help you if you get in the way. Those people who succeed in getting one place it on their kamidana, a sacred Shinto shelf in Japanese homes. Meanwhile, the priests dispose of the hitogata by setting them afloat on the river in another ceremony.

Now here’s a thought: this ceremony ends where Christian baptism begins.

But I’ll leave any speculation on the shape of the chinowa in the first photo to you…

One Response to “Matsuri da! (56): Walk through the magic ring…”

  1. Overthinker said

    Considering the blatant sexualism of the Kojiki etc and ancient Shinto I don’t think we need to speculate too much. I mean, Japan was created by drops off a god’s, uh, spear? Now what could that possibly mean?

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