AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Shogatsu 2009: Lighting up traditional Japan

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, January 4, 2009

AT LEAST ONCE IN THEIR LIVES, usually in early adolescence, Americans make a point to stay up to midnight on New Year’s Eve to watch the ball of light slide down the tower above Times Square in New York City to herald the start of the new year. My niece even went there to see it in person a couple of years ago and still lived to tell the tale.

Never ones to be shy about borrowing an idea that strikes their fancy, the Japanese turn the night sky’s darkness into daylight throughout the country on 31 December. Many venues offer a special countdown coupled with entertainment and charge an admission fee. One of them is Mitsui Greenland, an amusement park a couple of hours down the road here in Kyushu.

More interesting than the ersatz events at amusement parks, however, is the way in which the Japanese have adapted the concept and retrofitted it to more traditional settings, such as Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples.

new-year-chochin

For example, the Shinto priests in charge of the Himeji Gokoku shrine in Kobe, Hyogo, don’t light up a single ball—they light up 2,000 chochin, or traditional lanterns, on the shrine grounds. The first photo shows the chochin lit up earlier this week during a trial to see if any of the bulbs had burned out. Inspecting the fixtures seems to be another part of the miko‘s job description. If you were lucky enough to be there at midnight on 31 December, you would have gotten to see the real thing.

The event is called the Mantosai, which literally means The Festival of 10,000 Lights. Before you start wondering about truth in advertising, keep in mind that it’s not supposed to be taken literally. In China and Korea as well as Japan, the number 10,000 has long been used to mean “a very large amount” rather than 10,000 in round numbers.

The shrine says they offer the ceremony in the hope of a “bright” new year. Explained the chief priest, “This year has been filled with “dark” events, including the financial crisis, but we want to raise a light at the New Year in the hope that people will be reminded of the beautiful Japanese virtue of treasuring a richness of spirit.”

new-year-torii

Another Shinto shrine took the opportunity to use the lighting to promote one of its most recognizable assets. The Kumano Hongu shrine in Tanabe, Wakayama, light up their immense torii on the former shrine grounds at Oyu-no-hara from 31 December to 7 January. The second photo shows the dress rehearsal on 27 December, in which 13 spotlights placed around the torii were turned on at 5:00 p.m., just when it starts to get dark in these midwinter days.

The torii is 34 meters (111.55 feet) high and 42 meters wide at the maximum point, so it must surely be an impressive sight bathed in floodlights in the middle of a pitch black field. They purposely used a red light for the yatagarasu crest in the middle of the torii to set it off from the overall blue hue. That’s a mythical sacred magpie with three legs that was reputed to lead people to the proper path in life. Lit up like that, it’s almost as if there’s a neon arrow pointing to the Promised Land and flashing the message, Step Right This Way!

On New Year’s Eve, or o-misoka as they say in Japan, it was lit from 6:00 p.m. to 5 a.m., but for the rest of the week visitors will have to make do with just three hours from 6-9 p.m. (By the way, try this link for a previous post about the Yata Fire Festival at the same location. They use a nice lighting scheme for that event, too.)

new-year-temple-lighting

Even more spiritually distant from the Times Square fleshpots is the ecumenical spirit of a group in Setochi, Okayama, which provides illlumination to more than one religious institution on Mt. Kamitera. The group was organized to preserve the joint Buddhist and Shinto culture that survives on the mountain, so they made sure to shine a light on both the main building of the Yokei-ji Buddhist temple and pagoda as well as the Toyohara Kitashima shrine. They used 150 lights for the temple, which is a nationally designated important cultural treasure, as well as the shrine and torii. The group gave visitors a taste of the brightness to come when they switched on the lights from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m. on the 30th, but then they went the whole Hogmanay on the 31st by letting them burn from 6:00 p.m. until 2:00 a.m. the next morning. For an extra decorative touch, they also placed candles and lanterns along the pathways.

And while you’re still recovering from having stuffed yourself with o-sechi ryori, pickled herring, black-eyed peas, or whatever other special foods custom dictates be scarfed down during the season, you can get clicky with some blasts from the past presenting other aspects of the Japanese New Year.

Here’s a look at the Big Shimenawa in Hiroshima.

What else is there to eat? Well, there’s mochi. And soba. And even whale and shark, for the more discriminating palates.

The Japanese also deck the halls with boughs of pine trees, and all sorts of other things.

And to conclude, the New Year’s firsts shall come last!

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