Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (83): The shrine gates are burning!

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, May 6, 2008

TORII ARE STYLIZED GATES standing on the path that leads to the main hall of a Shinto shrine. They both mark the sacred space and serve as symbols of the shrine itself. Where there’s a torii, there’s always a shrine nearby.

The reverse of that axiom is not always true, however. There are a few shrines that don’t have torii, and two are in Matsumoto, Nagano. The parishioners don’t mind, however—there’s a good reason for their absence, and they make up for it in a big way once every year.

About 60 of these parishioners conducted the traditional Toriibi, or torii fire, in Matsumoto for three nights starting on 16 April. They placed pine torches on the side of a mountain in the eastern edge of the Shimauchi district to create the outlines of the shrine gate.

The event is held by those two shrines without torii in supplication for a bountiful harvest and household safety. Both shrines have major festivals starting on the 19th, so the Toriibi also includes the symbolism of welcoming the divinity.

The group members have their work cut out for them. The mountain rises at a 40º angle, so navigating the slope to create the roughly 60-meter-square pattern can be tricky. At 8:00 in the evening, the group of men spread out on the mountainside. After a seashell is blown to signal the start of the event, the men lift their torches and let out a loud “Oooh” to summon the divinities. They also set fires in the pattern of the kanji for 大 (large) and 一 (the number one).

The origin of this custom dates back more than 500 years, to the Warring States period that began in 1467 and lasted for about a century. Sometime in that period, members of the Ogasawara family built and defended a castle immediately to the south. This era is called the Warring States period because of the internal conflict that occurred throughout the country between local feudal lords and the military governors appointed by the Muromachi shoguns.

During one of the battles, an insurgent army attacked the castle from the northeast. As part of their attack, they set fires to besiege the castle walls and used a wind out of the north to accelerate it. The castle caught on fire and threatened the defenders. This fire eventually spread to the nearby torii, consuming one part of it in flame. When the torii fell, the wind suddenly shifted to the opposite direction, whipping up the fire and sending it toward the invading army. The castle defenders employed this stroke of luck to their advantage and routed the invaders. They believed that divine intervention caused the wind to shift and chose not to rebuild the torii. Since then, the residents’ creation of a torii out of burning pine torches is considered an act of reverence toward the divinities.

Well, that’s one explanation. Another is that some people will seize on any excuse to make huge bonfires at night and have a party!

One Response to “Matsuri da! (83): The shrine gates are burning!”

  1. I believe the second reason more. Japanese people like to create events and festivals like this in order to have a party.

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