Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (100): A festival at Tsushima’s oldest shrine

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, November 19, 2008

NO ONE KNOWS for sure when the Kaijin Shinto shrine in Mine-cho, Tsushima, was built, but everyone agrees that it was the first one to be established in the island group. The earliest large-scale construction of Shinto shrines on the Tsushima islands began in the 7th century, so whenever it was founded, it’s pretty dang old.

Coming down the steps

Coming down the steps

Of course the shrine (which goes by two other names) conducts a festival, and the Kaijin shrine holds theirs early every September. It starts with a performance of the Myobu-no-Mai inside the shrine itself. The Myobu-no-Mai is a kagura dance that is a national intangible folk treasure dating from the 14th century. (Myobu is written as 命婦, the characters for life and woman/wife, respectively.)

Then about 60 parishioners and shrine officials dressed in white robes and the black eboshi headwear haul three mikoshi, or portable shrines, down a steep flight of 280 steps, following an advance party bearing lances and shields. That people in an isolated, thinly populated area are willing to go to this trouble every year speaks to an impressive level of commitment on several levels.

The group carries the mikoshi to a goryosho, a designated “resting place” near the beach. After some prayers, the priests head to the seashore and ceremonially cast some zuki, small local shellfish, into the sea to pray for a bountiful catch. The festival is also held in supplication for household safety and a big harvest.

As an indication of just how long the Kaijin shrine has been around and Tsushima’s position as a waystation in the Korea Strait, they have on display in a separate hall a statue of a standing Buddha (Nyorai). Designated an important national treasure, this statue is thought to be a work from the 8th century’s Unified Silla period. Buddhist art during this period was an art of the nobility, and the style is considered to be the essence of Korean ethnic culture.

And no, there’s nothing at all unusual about a Japanese Shinto shrine having a statue of the Buddha made on the Korean Peninsula on the premises.

The shrine also has a wooden mask that’s been designated as a tangible cultural treasure of Nagasaki Prefecture. Try the shrine’s Japanese-language page here for more photos of the exterior.

Thanks to WordPress (and Google in this case), I now have the capability to post videos here without spending any money on bandwidth. To take advantage of that feature, here is a video of the Tsushima festival. It lasts about 2:52. There are Japanese subtitles, but other than noting that the dancers purposely face the four directions, they don’t say anything you don’t already know. There’s one puzzler: Why would the priest turn his back to the sea before ceremonially casting the shells?

Afterwords: Readers have mentioned in the past that the photos here were fuzzy, but that problem seems to have been solved after a WordPress upgrade. I’ve gone back and re-uploaded the photos for all the posts in the Festival section, so they should be very clear now. The next step is to do the same thing for the posts in all the other categories.

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