Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (127) The Japanese mind-spirit

Posted by ampontan on Monday, June 25, 2012

MATSURI, or traditional festivals, are the mind-spirit of the Japanese, they say. If that is true — and I think it is — what does the Kinefuri Festival held every April by the Abirumi Shinto shrine in Nakatsugawa, Gifu, say about the Japanese mind-spirit?

As is standard with most festivals, the Kinefuri has two parts: one consists of Shinto ceremonies, prayers, and the invocation of the deities, and the other features the performance/entertainment. Last year only the ceremonies were held because the Nakatsugawans refrained from the glorious goofiness out of consideration for the people who suffered in the Tohoku disaster. They resumed the goofiness this year. The event as a whole is an intangible cultural treasure of the prefecture.

That performance consists of a procession with three different elements. The first is a procession of four mikoshi, or portable Shinto shrines for transporting the deity. Children carry one, women carry the second (an innovation that started about six years ago), young men carry the third, and men of a traditionally critical age (yakudoshi) carry the fourth and most important one.

As the mikoshi are promenaded through neighborhoods on the two-kilometer course to the shrine (Japanese-language, with good photos), the people who live along the route douse them with water. An out-of-town Japanese visitor describing the festival on his blog asked the locals if there was a particular reason for throwing the water (such as purification). The answer was no, they just did it because it was hot. April in Gifu isn’t hot at all, but then the visitor discovered the third element of the procession — the divine horse and the flower horse — was originally held in July.

Everyone is drenched by the time they reach the shrine.

The second element is the kinefuri dance, performed this year by 50 young men, none of whom are older than 24. A kine is a pestle, and kinefuri means waving the pestle. That’s just what they do with their black and red pestles as they dance down the street, yelling “So-I”, wearing red, yellow, and blue head coverings that represent mortars. The dance is in supplication for a good harvest.

Festival or not, you can’t have a bunch of guys waltzing on public thoroughfares in funky chapeaux randomly swinging big sticks. Their way has to be cleared first, and for that the festival employs red demons wielding whackers of their own. Demons were chosen because they make darn sure everybody gets out of their way. In other words, they’re something like proactive bouncers. Tradition has it that being struck by their stick will prevent illness for a year.

In addition to the demons and the dance troupe, there are traditional comic figures to cheer up the kids freaked out by the demons, a female flute band, and a shishi, or lion figure, performing the shishi mai, or lion dance. That got started in ancient China when the gods told a monk in a dream that a lion would protect them from evil. The ancient Japanese liked the idea so much they started doing it themselves all over the country, with many regional variations.

The third element is the divine horse and the flower horse, the latter of which is covered with garlands of floral decorations. This is the last part of the procession, and the climax occurs when a group of energetic young bucks lead the broncs up the steep stairway to the shrine at a gallop. Along the way, the floral decorations fall off — or are snatched off — and those who find them in their possession will find they have good fortune in the upcoming year.

Possessing an object representing good fortune at a Japanese festival is not for pink tea mollycoddles, by the way. A year’s worth of action is at stake, so anyone casually bending down to pick up one of the decorations might well get elbowed in the ribs by a little old lady more interested in putting some flower power in her life rather than yours.

As you can see from the video clips, no one marches or dances in a straight line, so they take their good old time to get to the shrine. There’s one heck of a lot of stick waving, not only by the dancers and the demons, but also by other figures leading the mikoshi and the shishi mai. When the dancers return to the small square at the foot of the stairway leading to the shrine, they smash each other’s mortars with their pestles.

No one knows exactly how or when this festival got started. The people in Nakatsugawa don’t know for sure when the Abirumi shrine was founded.

If matsuri are the mind-spirit of the Japanese, what does the Kinefuri Festival say about that mind-spirit?

You’ll have to tell me.


Here’s an unrelated bit of news that’s too good to pass up and too brief to present on its own:

A 5mm diameter piece of glass jewellery believed to have been made by Roman craftsmen was found in an ancient tomb at Nagaokakyo near Kyoto, in western Japan. The glass beads, one of the oldest multilayered glass products, were believed to be made in the Roman Empire and sent to Japan, a researcher said…

Tests have revealed three glass beads discovered in the Fifth Century “Utsukushi” burial mound in Nagaoka, near Kyoto, were probably made some time between the first and the fourth century, the Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties said.

Now to figure out how they got there.

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