Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (92): Making the chariots of the gods doubly pure

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, July 15, 2008

FIVE SHINTO PRIESTS from Kumano Nachi Taisha, a Shinto shrine in Nachikatsu’ura-cho, Wakayama, risked their necks last week to hang a shimenawa, or sacred rope, across the Nachi Falls as a prelude to the shrine’s annual fire festival. The post immediately below this one describes that ceremony.

Yesterday was the day of the fire festival, known as the Nachi no Hi Matsuri, which was held in front of an estimated 7,500 spectators this year. The festival consists of several different events, but the crowd comes out to see the ceremony for purifying 12 mikoshi, or portable Shinto shrines. The mikoshi for this festival are elaborate constructions six meters high built with gold and mirrors, and according to legend, 12 local divinities use them to hitch a ride back to the main shrine for their annual return.

Readers familiar with Japanese customs will spot the similarity with the Bon Festival, a Buddhist observance honoring the spirits of the ancestors who return once a year in mid-summer. Nowadays Bon usually is observed in mid-August, but traditionally it was a mid-July event, the same time the gods go back to Kumano.

Mikoshi are purified with either with fire or water in other Shinto festivals (see here), but down in Nachikatsu’ura-cho they make doubly sure of the purity—they use fire and water both to drive the badness out.

The festivities begin in the morning with Shinto rituals, music, and dance. Then the 12 mikoshi are carried to the Hiryu Shinto Shrine, a branch of the main shrine located near the 133-meter-high Nachi Falls. Accompanying the procession are parishioners carrying 12 pine torches, each weighing roughly 50 kilograms, or about 110 pounds.

After another ritual inside the Hiryu shrine, the mikoshi are lugged down a stone stairway just underneath the waterfall. The procession is met en route by the group carrying the torches, which have now been lit. The torch bearers march up and down the stairs, parading around the mikoshi and chanting Harya! Harya!.

Neither the flames nor water from the falls actually touch the mikoshi themselves—the agents of purification are the smoke from the torches and the spray from the falls. .

Here’s an interesting side story: The Japanese developed the northernmost island of Hokkaido during the 19th century in much the same way Americans developed the old West. Some hardy pioneers from the area near the Nachi Falls were part of that development when they trekked northward to help carve out a settlement in Hokkaido near today’s Biei-cho. That municipality began conducting its own fire festival 20 years ago to commemorate its founders, and this year Kumano sent along six of the torches to enliven the festivities.

Here’s another: The Kumano Nachi Taisha holds an autumn festival that is more artistic and elegant than the summer event. Take another look at that report for a fascinating contrast.

And here’s one more: Festival folk should not pass up the chance to see last year’s report on the Oiyama, the grand finale to the Gion Yamakasa Festival in Fukuoka City. It’s held every year on 15 July, which means the scene in the photo is what you missed by being asleep in bed this morning!

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