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Posts Tagged ‘Nara’

Japan’s Okina-mai: The old man’s dance

Posted by ampontan on Monday, March 10, 2008

THERE MUST BE SOMETHING IN THE WATER in Nara. Dancing isn’t usually an old man’s pastime, unless it’s a sedate fox trot at a senior citizen’s home or on board a cruise ship. But the performance of the Okina-mai—literally, the Old Man’s Dance—is almost as old as the hills in that city and is still performed today. It dates from the Nara period in the early 8th century.

fan dancing

As the name of the era suggests, Nara was where the action was in Japan in those days. Could the period have been so vibrant that even the old guys were inspired to trip the light fantastic?

It might have been, but it would be difficult to tell from watching the Okina-mai itself. The dance is thought to be the origin of Noh, the performance of which is rather stately and formalized. Now an important intangible folk and cultural treasure of the nation, the Okina-mai is performed annually every fall at the Narazuhiko Shinto shrine.

The story goes that the song-and-dance was first presented to cheer up the convalescing Kasuga’o, the son of the Imperial prince Shiki-no-miko, who himself was either the seventh or the third son of the Tenji tenno (emperor), depending on whose story you believe.

As you can see from the photo, the dancers wear masks, but that development didn’t occur until about 500 years later on during the Muromachi period. The Japanese have never been shy about playing around with their traditions–even ones that are 500 years old.

Today the Okina-mai is performed outdoors at night on the shrine grounds, with the site illuminated by small bonfires. That might well be another relatively recent development; if the story of the origin is true, it doesn’t seem likely that a convalescent would have been carried outdoors to watch an 8th century musical in the chilly autumn weather.

Then again, Okayama Zen’ichiro of Tenri University published an article in 2004 titled “On (the) Okina-mai Dance of Narazuhiko Jinja Shrine and Dongdong Koryo”. Unfortunately, the text of the article is not on line, but the latter seems to have been a Korean court dance. Is Prof. Okayama suggesting there are similarities? It might not be out of the question—there was a significant migration from the Korean Peninsula to the Nara area in the 8th century.

Be that as it may, you’ll find a brief explanation of the masks used in the dance with a photo here. (“Gigaku” in the text refers to an ancient mask show that was brought to Japan from China by a Korean musician, and let that be a lesson to you about East Asia!) And here’s a YouTube video showing the Okina-mai performed at a different location. (Note: It’s nine minutes long and the narration is in Japanese.)

Kasuga’o eventually recovered, but his brother was the one who went on to make a name for himself—he became the Konin tenno. And their father Prince Shiki made another contribution to Japanese history by composing six of the poems collected in the Man’yoshu, the oldest existing anthology of Japanese poetry. (The most recent datable poem was written in 759.)

Last year’s performance of the Okina-mai attracted about 600 people. That’s a pretty good turnout to watch a 1,300-year-old-dance for old men!

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Shogatsu: Miko make the New Year wheels go round at Shinto shrines

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, January 1, 2008

POPULAR CHRISTMAS MYTH has it that Santa’s little helpers work hard all year long at the North Pole making Christmas presents for good little girls and boys. New Year’s Day in Japan is an analog for Christmas, and so presents are given to good little Japanese girls and boys in celebration of that holiday too. They receive only one gift, however, and that is an o-toshidama, or cold hard cash, and the printing and stamping work for that is handled by the elves employed at the National Mint, headquartered in Osaka.


If there is a match for Santa’s elves, it would be the miko, or young female assistants at Shinto shrines. A lot of the work associated with the activities related to New Year’s Day shrine visits—especially the production and sale of good luck talismans–falls on their shoulders. Here’s a sample of what they’ve been doing behind the scenes leading up to the three-day New Year’s period that began today.

O-mikuji, literally the sacred lottery, are slips of paper with printed fortunes sold at Shinto shrines, often from a sort of vending machine. The Keta Taisha in Hakui, Ishikawa Prefecture, makes about 200,000 individual fortunes for the first Shrine visit of the new year, but there are only 50 different predictions. To ensure the random distribution of the fortunes, the miko hold a ceremony every year called the Mikujiawase. One look at the picture above tells you exactly what’s involved. This year a total of 21 miko participated.


Here the budding shrine maidens clap their hands together before the divinity as they take part in training to become a yearend miko. About 70 high school and college students from Taga-cho and Hikone got schooled in the ABCs of the costume and the proper work attitude at the Taga Taisha in Taga-cho, Shiga Prefecture.

The miko will have their hands full dealing with the throngs of people who visit shrines starting on the night of 31 December and continuing for the next three days. Knowing how to deal with the public is a critical task for any company employee, but it’s all the more important at a Shinto shrine overseeing a tradition more than a millenium old.

Some of the job requirements during their employment include prohibitions on dyed hair, smoking, and cell phone use, as well as the polite reception of the shrine goers and a clean, wholesome appearance. 
The seasonal shrine help are shown wearing their traditional outfits consisting of white tops called hakui and red pantaloons called hibakama.


Meanwhile, the Kashihara Shingu shrine in Kume-cho, Kashihara, Nara Prefecture replaced its large ema, or votive picture, with a new version bearing the symbol of the Oriental zodiac sign for the coming year—the year of the rat.

The ema is where shrine goers hang their written requests for the divinity. It is characteristic of Shinto that shrine visitors tend to skip the unctuous flattery during their prayers and get straight to the point of asking for whatever it is they want.

This year’s ema is 4.5 meters high and 5.4 meters wide. Atsushi Uemura is responsible for the artwork every year, and this year he designed a picture of two rats with ears of rice. Uemura is a member of the Japan Art Academy, a special institute affiliated with the Agency for Cultural Affairs.

The large ema were first placed here in 1960 to commemorate the birth of the Crown Prince.


One of the tasks of the miko and the Shinto priests are to make hama-ya. Here they are beavering away at the Tsuruoka Hachimangu in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture.
These hama arrows are sold at shrines during the holidays. The crew at this shrine made 200,000 60-centimeter types, which will sell for 1,000 yen ($US 8.92), and 45,000 90-centimeter types, which will sell for 2,000 yen.

The word hama is written with the characters that mean “to repel evil spirits”, though it originally meant target. Some still uphold the tradition of the mother’s family sending the arrow with the hama-yumi, or bow, to her male children on New Year’s. In some places, boys once held archery competitions on New Year’s to predict the fall harvest.

The arrows are made of bamboo, wrapped in washi (Japanese paper), and attached with a special head and a bell. The practice itself originates from the bow and arrow Minamoto-no-Yoriyoshi presented to this shine in the 11th century. Yoriyoshi was the head of the Minamoto clan and led Imperial forces in a successful campaign against the northern rebels. He also founded this particular shrine in 1073, which became the primary shrine of the Minamoto clan when they began the Kamakura Shogunate about a century later.


They’re also decorating auspicious objects for shrine visits at the Shirayamahime shrine in Shirayama, Ishihara Prefecture. This photo shows the work involved in decorating these hama-ya, which are said to repel disaster and attract good fortune. Other decorations include pictures of a rat (as in The Year Of The–) and earthen bells.

The shrine makes eighty different auspicious objects and keeps adding to their product lineup all the time. Last year, for example, they added a kite. They will make about 100,000 individual items for sale in all.

Work was recently completed at this shrine on the major repairs in advance of the ceremonies for its 2,100th anniversary this year. They expect from 180,000 to 200,000 visitors over New Year’s. The auspicious items will be sold for prices ranging from 500 yen ($US 4.46) to 10,000 yen ($US 89.28).


The seven miko and Shinto priests at the Takase Shinto shrine in Nanto, Toyama Prefecture, are also preparing auspicious objects. They churned out about 200,000 hama-ya, rat figurines, and, as a new item this year, lucky charms for success on exams or in sporting competitions. They also sell charms for a good harvest or family safety.

The shrine expects from 220,000 to 230,000 visitors during the New Year’s holidays.

The Shirahige Shinto shrine in Tokyo’s Kuroda Ward dates from 951. It is one of five shrines in the area associated with the Seven Deities of Good Fortune, and about 50,000 people make the rounds to all five during the first week of the year.


The miko at this shrine are making treasure ships for the munificent seven to sail on the Sumida River. This originates in the old custom of slipping a picture of the seven on board a treasure ship under the pillow on the night of 1 January to make the first dream of the year a lucky one.

These ceramic boats are 19 centimeters long and 7 centimeters wide with chopsticks for masts. Those who put figurines of the seven on board and place them in the home are said to have good fortune sail their way. They cost 1,000 yen each, with the figurines going for an additional 300 yen each–a small price to pay for a year’s worth of good luck.

May a treasure ship sail your way in 2008, or Heisei 20, whichever counting method you prefer!

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Matsuri da! (15): Sex as sacrament at a Japanese festival

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, April 17, 2007

YESTERDAY, reader Shingen discovered an older post of mine on another site about a Japanese festival in which the participants pantomime the sex act. He liked it so much it gave me the idea to offer it as an encore presentation. And so, here it is.

Herodotus once observed that “All is custom.” As an example of what he meant, it is explained that it is as contrary to custom in Paupua to bury one’s dead as it is in California to eat them.

There is no better illustration than religious ceremonies. We’ve pointed out here before that more than a few local Shinto festivals in Japan celebrate the brewing and consuming of sake, all done with the blessing of the priests at the Shinto shrine. Try to imagine that happening at the standard brand religious institutions elsewhere in the world.

But even the indulgent and broad-minded who would overlook a boozy night at a religious festival might be nonplussed if they saw some of the practices that occur at a few Shinto festivals in Japan.

One example is the Asuka Onda Festival, held the first Sunday in February every year at the Asukaniimasu Shrine in Asuka-mura, Nara Prefecture. The reason you’ll never read about this festival in a newspaper is that the central event is the simulated performance of the sex act on stage in front of an audience.

This is one of the oldest Shinto festivals in Japan. There are written records mentioning the festival during the reign of the Emperor Temmu, which lasted from 673 to 686, and it likely predated that.

Three masked mythological characters appear in the performance. The first is the Tengu (first photo), half-man and half-bird, with a large, phallic nose. The Tengu have represented both harmful and helpful characters over the years, some kidnapping children or tormenting Buddhist priests, while others helped people. Legend has it they taught swordsmanship to the samurai.

The second is the female Otafuku (second photo). In ancient mythology, Otafuku’s dance brought out the sun and brightened dark skies. The character suggests health and good humor. Finally, the Okina (third photo) is an old man who has risen above life’s struggles to attain lasting fulfillment.

In this particular performance, Tengu and Otafuku are husband and wife. This festival was originally performed on the lunar New Year, which in Japan was considered the first day of spring. The connections with fertility and new growth are apparent, and the ancient Japanese believed that sexual energy has the power to disperse evil spirits and bad influences.

The performance begins early in the morning with the appearance of the Tengu and Okina in the road. They begin chasing people, whacking some on the butt at random with bamboo sticks. No one gets upset; the act symbolizes the driving away of evil spirits and arousing the spirit of life after a long winter. It is a harbinger of spring, and legend has it that the greater the commotion they cause, the better that year’s harvest will be.

After the Tengu and Okina withdraw, the sound of taiko drums signals the start of a more solemn part of the ceremony, as the Shinto priests offer food to the deities. When the ceremony is concluded, the Tengu and the Okina return, leading a man dressed in a cow costume walking on all fours. They mime the plowing of a rice paddy on a platform in front of one of the shrine buildings. Their performance at this point combines shrieks of fright and laughter, as they purposely slip and fall from the platform and then begin to dance with the onlookers, hamming it up through their part of the show.

The three characters depart again, and a second taiko drum signal announces the return of the priests, who perform a service representing the planting of the rice paddies. They place pine branches upright into the earth on the platform. When this ceremony is completed, they throw the branches at the audience members below, who scramble to grab them. (And when I say scramble, I mean it–no one who has seen Japanese behavior at events such as these would still think they were the world’s politest people. You either go for the branch or get out of the way fast.) The lucky one who come away with branches place them in their own rice paddies because they are said to drive away harmful insects.

A third taiko drum signal announces the return of Tengu and Okina with the Otafuku character (played by a young man). Otafuku is wearing a red cloth around her hips, which she flicks suggestively as she shakes her body in the throes of passion. The excitement is contagious and is soon conveyed to the crowd, who encourage her to greater heights. The Tengu grabs her by the shoulders and they simulate sex standing up; he still has a bamboo stick in one hand, and he swings it at anyone in the audience impertinent enough to laugh.

The Okina then presides at their mock wedding ceremony. (It seems that preserving virginity for marriage was not an important tradition in Japan.) After offering large bowls of rice to the Shinto priests, the Tengu quietly takes out a bamboo tube and places it in his crotch (fourth photo). After teasing the priest with this phallic symbol by flashing it around his nose, the Tengu opens the tube and pours out sake. (They don’t miss a trick, do they?) He places the tube back in his crotch and waves it at the audience.

Otafuku then lies down on the stage and the Tengu mounts her to perform another extremely realistic simulation of sex. First-time viewers are reportedly stunned into silence at this point, but after a while start laughing and cheering on the performers. Meanwhile, Okina hovers around the couple playing the comedian and generally acting goofy.

When Tengu and Otaku finish, they take out pieces of paper from their costumes, pantomime wiping their crotches, and throw the paper at the crowd. (Bet you thought they couldn’t top themselves, eh?) They repeat this several times, and the people in the audience again scramble for the paper; legend has it that if they use the paper that night themselves, they will conceive a child.

Japanese scholars report that despite the frank behavior of the performers, the performance itself is not lewd, but rather innocent and even healthful in its own way. They note that the ancients thought sex was neither embarrassing nor something to be hidden; on the contrary they respected the tremendous energy of the sex drive and thought it led to peace and prosperity. In fact, they characterize the ceremony as being a kind of prayer.

They may have a point. Imagine what the rest of the world would be like if ceremonies such as this were held annually at churches, temples, and mosques. I’d almost consider converting to Shintoism, if such a thing were possible!

YouTube notes: Here is a clip with a brief section showing the crucial part in the second half, albeit poorly filmed from a blocked perspective. The people who put it together unfortunately botched it. For some silly reason, they call it part of a Gaijin Guide. They’ve also added several unnecessary English captions, and they’ve caught the cameraman’s sniggers on the audio portion throughout. I suspect they didn’t understand a lot of what they were seeing. This has a short clip of the butt whacking, and this is a six-minute plus taiko performance at the same festival.

Posted in Festivals, Sex | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Matsuri da! (9) E pluribus Japan

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, March 8, 2007

The United States uses the Latin phrase e pluribus unum, or one out of many, on its Great Seal to express the idea that the single nation was created from 13 original colonies and to symbolize the plurality of its people. The phrase is also printed and stamped on its paper money and coins.


Though Japan is considered by some—including most Japanese—to be a small, homogenous island country, in some curious ways it too consists of a haphazard collection of customs that most people shrug off as a unity they’ve been accustomed to since birth. You won’t see a better example than a series of events that are comprised of two different festivals, in two different locations, using two different elements, at two different kinds of religious structures, but are actually a unified whole.

The two festivals are the O-Mizuokuri, or water sending, in Obama, Fukui Prefecture, and the O-Mizutori, or water receiving, in Nara City, Nara Prefecture. The story started more than 1200 years ago, in 752, when Buddhist priests from throughout the country were summoned to a meeting at the famous Todai-ji, a temple in Nara City, during the construction of Nigatsu-do, a hall at the temple site. But one happy-go-lucky priest in Wakasa, now in Fukui Prefecture, went fishing and forgot all about it.

When he remembered where he was supposed to be, the priest became repentant and promised to send some sacred water to Todai-ji to atone for his negligence forever. He struck a rock to bring forth water and poured that water into a nearby river. When rocks near the temple in Nara were struck, about 175 kilometers away, the holy water gushed out. The two festivals recreate this entire sequence of events every year. Even as you read this now, the water is flowing in mysterious ways from Fukui to Nara.

The ceremonies in Fukui begin every year on March 2 at Hachiman-gu, a Shinto shrine, in Shimonegori in Obama. It isn’t clear why a Buddhist ceremony should start at a Shinto shrine—they’re two different traditions—but this is yet another combination the Japanese are blase about. For centuries, some religious institutions combined both Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, until the practice was stopped during the Meiji period. It’s just one of many reasons that it’s hard to find dogmatism of any kind in this country.

At 11:00 a.m. sharp at Hachiman-gu, participants mix red clay with sacred sake. No Japanese festival is complete without some booze, especially at a religious institution. This is drunk as an offering and the leftover clay is used to daub on columns the characters for the words “mountain” and “eight” in what is described as a magic ritual.

I’ve read several accounts of this festival in Japanese, and nary a one has explained what any of this has to do with a monk gone fishing and sending magic water to Nara. This is Japan; things like this happen all the time.

Later that day, everyone moves over to Jingu-ji, a Buddhist temple, and they hold an archery ceremony, again for reasons no one explains. But the real action gets started after it gets dark when they start lighting the torches. Fire is as much a part of Japanese festivals as water and liquor. Now you know why young people enjoy them as much as the old folks.

After the priests garbed in white robes blow conch shells as a signal to start, they walk two kilometers to the river carrying the torches and bamboo tubes containing the water they’re going to send to Nara. Anyone can come along for the hike, and the participants pass the torches to each other, hand to hand. When they reach the river, the priests build a huge bonfire, read a ceremonial scroll, and send the water it on its way.

Meanwhile, the folks at Nara haven’t been idle. A group of 11 priests of Todai-ji are in the midst of a 14-day marathon prayer meeting at Nigatsu-do—you remember, the place where the monk was supposed to go 1200 years ago, but went fishing instead. They’re praying for world peace and a good harvest, after confessing their sins at an eleven-headed statue of Kannon in a ceremony called Shuni-e. No one except the priests has ever seen this statue.


The prayers started on March 1 this year as the priests lit torches of their own and ran around the outside veranda of the hall in a dancing frenzy. Unusual physical exertions are yet another common element of Japanese festivals. This is no easy task, by the way, as the torches are 6.5 meters long and burning like crazy. Crowds of several thousand gathered below the hall to encourage them with shouts. They came in the hope that sparks from the torches will fall on them, which they believe will protect them from harm for the coming year.

Then, on March 12, the entire festival comes to a close when the priests go down to the rocks below Todai-ji to receive the water that was sent from Fukui bubbling up from a spring. It took 10 days for the water to make the 175-kilometer trip. The priests collect the water—said to cure disease—and pour it into a pot on the 13th, to which they add water taken from a different pot which has been continuously replenished for the past 1,200 years.

Of course, we’re all more sophisticated about these things in the modern world, and know that water sent from one temple can’t possibly reach another temple in another part of the country magically underground on a strict schedule every year.

Except no one has gotten sophisticated enough to explain why the water bubbles up from the spring at Todai-ji only one day a year, every year, on the same day in March.

Fire, water, sake, Shinto, archery, Buddhism, two temples in two different cities, and two ceremonies performed as one for more than 1200 years—all these elements hang together rather nicely, and no one in Japan gives it a second thought.

The photo at the top is of the priests sending the water in Fukui Prefecture, and the photo at the bottom is of the priests running around Nigatsu-do with the torches. But to get a really good look at the spectacle, do not miss the photos at these two sites, here, and here. The first 10 photos at the first site are of the torch ceremony in Nara, and after that they switch to the priests sending the water from Fukui. The second site has photos only of the water sending ceremony at Fukui.

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Posted in Festivals, Religion, Shrines and Temples | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

Matsuri da! (5): Mountain burning

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Most Japanese festivals incorporate one of the basic elements of nature or life, such as water, fire, contests of strength or agility, or sex. We’ve already had a report on one of the three major fire festivals this year (see here), and here’s a post I wrote a while ago for another site about Daimonji, the well-known Kyoto festival in which the kanji meaning big is burned into a mountainside.


The folks in Nara, one of the most historical areas in Japan, don’t waste any time on subtlety when they conduct their own fire festival—they just set the entire 342-meter-high Wakakusa Hill ablaze every January in an event appropriately called the Yamayake (mountain burning). This year, the hills were alive with the sound of burning on the 13th, last Saturday.

Just around the time it gets dark, about 5:30 this time of year, the priests start by conducting purification rituals and offering prayers for safety. These are followed by a fireworks display, as if burning all the foliage on a hill isn’t enough incandescence already. It’s enough to make you wonder if the ancient city fathers of Nara suffered from pyrolagnia.

At 6:00 p.m., the priest signal for the hill to be put to the torch by blowing on conch shells. Other priests, helped out by local firefighters, light the winter grass at the bottom of the hill using fire from the sacred flame of the Kasuga Shrine.

The resulting scene is quite spectacular, as you can imagine, and huge crowds turn out to marvel at the sight every year. An estimated 110,000 came for the show this year. People who have witnessed the hill burning in person say the best views are of Todai-ji and Kofuku-ji, famous Buddhist temples, backlit by the flames.

No one’s quite sure how the festival, which dates back to the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), got started. The commonly accepted explanation is that it was once part of the field burning that Japanese farmers still do every year, usually in the fall, to promote growth for the following planting season. Some people think that the Nara city fathers of a bygone age wanted to keep these fires under control, so concentrated them in a single day.

Japanese media reports of this year’s Yamayake provided a glimpse into the difficulties involved in conducting elaborate and potentially dangerous festivals in modern times. The national government cut back on the tax money it distributes to local governments, so it’s getting difficult to pay for these events. The bill this year was about 10 million yen (roughly US$ 83,000), counting the outlays for operations, security, and the fireworks display. Nara Prefecture foots 80% of the bill, but they’re having trouble coming up with the money.

Their typically Japanese solution is to form an Executive Committee next year comprised of the local government and corporate sponsors who want to throw their money into the pot for the PR benefits. The prefectural tourism department expects this will make it a lot easier to pay for the extravaganza.

If you click on either the 56 or the 300 in the center of the screen here, you can see a Japanese news report on the event.

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