Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (120): What goes down must come up

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, November 5, 2011

PARTICIPATING in the activities of most of the world’s standard-brand religions doesn’t require much physical exertion, other than getting yourself to the church/temple/mosque on time. (The less said about the exceptions of self-flagellation and self-immolation the better.)

Those who keep the Shinto tradition alive in Japan would rather enjoy than beat or burn the heck out of themselves, but heavy and difficult manual labor is part of the package at some shrines. One example is the autumn festival held at the Oyama Afuri shrine in Isehara, Kanagawa. A Shinto shrine is said to have been first established on that site, the summit of a 1,251-meter-high mountain (Oyama means “big mountain”), more than 2,200 years ago. Those skeptical of legends should know that shards of earthen vessels have been excavated at the mountain top that are thought to have been used in Shinto festivals and have been dated from the Jomon Period. That ended around 300 BC.

The shrine itself consists of two separate buildings: An upper shrine and a lower shrine, named for their position relative to each other. Their autumn festival is held for three days at the end of August, and it starts with a ceremony called the okudari. During that ceremony, the parishioners carry a portable shrine called a mikoshi that transports the tutelary diety from the lower shrine to the town below. As you can see from the photo here and the photos on the shrine’s Japanese-language website, that requires much more than rolling up one’s sleeves and spitting into one’s palms. The transportation of the divinity requires two separate groups of people — one to carry the mikoshi and another to keep it stable with ropes. Then there’s another group of taiko drummers to keep the spirits bright and to lighten the load. The trip downhill takes about 40 minutes.

When they reach bottom, they stash the mikoshi at the shrine office to watch over the proceedings for the next three days and to protect the town and its people. Those proceedings consist of a performance of yamato-mai, a dance often performed at Shinto rites and the ceremony during the Emperor’s accession to the throne. There are also other dances by maiko (shrine maidens), performances of noh and kyogen, and a procession of mikoshi from other local shrines.

Here’s a brief glimpse of that procession two years ago:

On the third day they rise again and carry the mikoshi back to the lower shrine, now that summer has been officially declared over. I couldn’t find a report on how long it takes go back up the mountain, but if my walk down and back up the Grand Canyon some years ago can be used as a yardstick, they’d have to multiply the descent time by at least three.

Any mundane thoughts of hazardous duty pay or restrictions on the amount of weight that can be lifted are left behind as they head for Higher Ground. Everyone’s probably thankful that they don’t have to climb to the upper shrine, but they’d surely find a way to do that too if it were part of the tradition.

There are no videos available of the mikoshi being hauled down and up the mountain, but there is a video of a six-minute cable car ride to a station at the top filmed from the interior. It’s worth the virtual trip.

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