Oeshiki – Ikegami Honmonji
Religion in Japan is very complicated, my friends often jokingly state that the best way to describe Japanese religion is Shinto-Christianity-Buddhist: meaning that you are born and grow up in shinto, marry and work in Christianity, and finally grow old and die a buddhist. It is very simplistic but not an altogether mistaken rule of thumb, one needs only to look at all the shinto festivals where young people revel and have fun, all the wedding chapels in the Western style and all the old ladies and men tending the graves of the many buddhist cemeteries. There are many exceptions though, and one of the most colorful ones is something as rare as a proper buddhist festival, the uniquely Japanese Oeshiki (お会式), a loud, colorful, boisterous death mass by the Buddhist sect following the teachings of Nichiren, one of the most revered Japanese buddhist scholars and priest who died on October 13th 1282. Nichiren teaches that all people have the buddha inside them and can reach enlightenment already in this life, and that both the past and the future is imbedded in the present. Nichiren taught that believers should focus on the now and always live in the present: even dead, the past and future buddha is forever with us in the now, and therefore the death mass to honor Nichiren on the 13th of October every year should be as lively and as happy as possible. At the Oeshiki, groups of devoted followers form a procession to the place where Nichiren held his last sermon five days before dying, at the site that is now the Ikegami Honmonji in Tokyo’s southern Ota Ward. Each group is represented by dancers carrying poles with decorated heads that are so heavy few dancers can keep it up for more than a few minutes before changing out for a rested dancer. They also have portable shrines decorated with lit paper flowers to represent the lotus flowers that according to the tale bloomed on Nichiren’s death. The group’s (often the followers of a local temple) many lay members also join in on drumming, chanting, flute dancing or generally just making noise. Often the priests of the temples lead these groups and the Oeshiki is one of the few chances you’ll have of seeing genuine monks in full on party mode, with whistles and dancing and chanting while drumming. Here’s just a few of the hundreds of photos I took at this years great Oeshiki event at the Ikegami Honmonji. I don’t know what percentage of Japan’s buddhists are followers of Nichiren, but there must be millions, as similar, but smaller, Oeshiki are held all over Japan. This is one of the often overlooked but most enjoyable festivals in Tokyo, and regularly attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors. More photos to come!