Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (135): Hammer in the sickles

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, November 11, 2012

IN some parts of the world, in less sophisticated times, people conducted magical ceremonies to bring rain to parched lands. Japan usually doesn’t have that problem — there’s a rainy season every summer that paints the world an intense green, and the end of summer is the start of typhoon season.

That’s why the folks in Ishikawa developed a Shinto ceremony for calming typhoons, and, seeing as how they’re already asking the divinities for a favor, a good harvest and good health in the bargain. Now an intangible folk cultural treasure of the prefecture, it’s conducted jointly by the Sumiyoshi shrine in Nakanoto-machi and the Suwa shrine in Nanao.

The method they discovered for keeping the storms at bay is to drive sickles — both forwards and backwards — into a sacred machilus tree. In fact, they use two kinds of sickles, which one report refers to as male and female. I don’t know how they make that distinction either, but one possible explanation comes from another report that mentions the sickles have blades sharpened differently for the use of left-handed and right-handed people.

It originated in an ancient legend that the divinities who created the country and transferred the land to the people used two sickles to drive out the birds and insects harmful to the crops. Years later, when the Ishikawans found themselves in a serious bind, they hit on the idea of driving the sickles into a sacred tree instead. They use the same tree on the shrine grounds, which is more than 300 years old. The tree now has quite a bit of moss growing on it, a sign that its vital essence is being sapped. The locals are concerned that they might have driven too many sickles into it over the years.

Now here’s the beauty of the ceremony: It’s also used to end droughts. They just hammer the sickles into a different part of the tree!

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