Japan from the inside out

December means spring cleaning in Japan

Posted by ampontan on Monday, December 15, 2008

IT’S DECEMBER, and that means the Japanese are getting started on their spring cleaning chores. Families throughout the country will soon be freezing their fannies off as they clean their houses inside and out. It’ll make a lot more sense when you realize that one expression in Japanese for New Year’s is shinshun, which is literally “new spring”. New Year’s in Japan is considered a time of renewal, so it’s a spring cleaning in more ways than one.


And in Japan, where cleanliness is closer to godliness than anywhere else, the cleaning has become an annual religious ritual at Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. The first photo shows the Spring/New Year’s cleaning of the shinkyo, or sacred bridge (literally divine bridge) at the Nikko Futarasan Shinto shrine in Nikko, Tochigi, on the 12th. The activity is called a susuharai, which is a combination of the words susu, or soot, and harai, or cleaning, with the added nuance of purification.

About 20 people were involved, including priests, shrine maidens, and members of the local committee for preserving cultural treasures. They used three-meter-long sticks with sasa, or bamboo grass, on the end, to wipe off the posts. More conventional methods work best for the steps however, so they used old-fashioned mops and cloths to clean those. It took only 30 minutes to do the whole bridge, but susuharai goes a lot faster when a crew of 20 works together to apply the elbow grease.

Nikko Futarasan is a cultural landmark, incidentally—UNESCO combined it with the nearby Nikko Tosho-gu shrine and the Rinno-ji Buddhist temple to make it a World Heritage Site, but it was famous long before UNESCO came along. The shrine also has two swords that are national treasures of Japan and more buildings and cultural artifacts registered as important cultural assets than you can shake either a stick or a susu broom at.

The bridge itself, which crosses the Daiya River, is also famous, and you’ve undoubtedly seen other pictures from different perspectives. In fact, the shrine has a website with photos taken throughout the year that it offers to the news media. And for those who want to see what the bridge looks like this very minute, the shrine also provides a live camera view, which you can see here. A truck was driving by the last time I looked.

Getting clean at yearend in Japan is not just a Shinto custom—the Buddhists do it too. The second photo shows priests at Kashozan Miroku-ji, a temple in Numata, Gunma, cleaning their famous tengu masks on the 12th.


No, it is not out of the question for a Buddhist temple in Japan to have as a prime attraction three large masks of a mythological creature whose Pinocchio-like nose is surely a phallic symbol. Those noses, by the way, are from 5.5 to 6.5 meters long.

It is not possible to briefly explain what tengu are, so here’s a link that will provide more information on the checkered but fascinating background of these characters. One intriguing legend is that they were said to punish Buddhist monks who used for their own ends the supernormal powers gained through religious practices. Having three big reminders staring at the priests every day as they go about their business makes it a lot less likely they’ll misuse their magic with female parishioners, despite the ideas those noses must put into their heads.

Look at that photo of the brooms wiping off the tengu noses long enough and you’ll be convinced there are jokes just waiting to be found about sneezing and all sorts of other activities. There’s probably a particularly rich vein to be discovered by exploring the phallic symbolism, and wouldn’t you know, the phrase “coming clean at New Year’s” floated into the ether all of a sudden. Perhaps there’s a Buddhist sutra I can chant for keeping my mind from drifiting too far off course.

There’s been a temple on the site since 848, incidentally, so the local wise guys have probably had that territory well covered for more than a millennium.

At midnight on New Year’s Eve, the temple bells in Japan toll the joya no kane, which are 108 strokes to cleanse away the 108 delusions of mankind. It’s an old Buddhist ritual, so don’t start thinking about 108 strokes, tengu noses, and coming clean at New Year’s.

The chief priest played it straight, however. He said, “This has been a year of uncertainty both in politics and in the economy. We hope to wash away that uncertainty along with the dirt, and move on to the next year with the firm tread of the ox.” (Next year is the year of the ox.)

When you’re a priest taking care of tengu with noses that long, playing it straight and hiding your supernormal powers is the safest option. I wouldn’t turn my back on them either!

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One Response to “December means spring cleaning in Japan”

  1. That’s interesting about the bridge. When I visited in 2004, it was covered by a building because it was being renovated. In 2006, when I returned, it was open and it looked great. I did not pay to walk across it though.

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