One of the many ceremonies held around New Year in Japanese shinto shrines is the jouka (浄火), the holy fire. It is a ritual burning of holy items, such as the prayer slips, the votive plates, any old material related to the gods or statues, votive arrows, decorations that have been blessed etc. The ritual is called Otakiage (お焚きあげ). The basic rule is that since everything you buy at a shrine is blessed it needs to be ritually burned and never thrown away with common garbage. There is also a time limit to most of the things you buy, it should be burned within a year or so, before the holy charm is used up and ceases to be effective. This is one of the reasons you see so many Japanese shop at shrines but you never see the stuff piling up in homes and very little of it ever reaches the antique markets. At New Year’s Eve, many people bring their old charms and decorations to the shrine and leave it with the attendants who man the holy fires. I took these photos of an attendant at the Shitaya Shrine in Tokyo’s Ueno district. A young handsome man and a big roaring fire, very photogenic!
So if you ever need to throw something from a shrine away and you are too far from the shrine to go there yourself, you might consider just mailing them the thing and asking them to burn it for you! I think a lot of tourists get home with some holy trinkets in their pockets after a trip to Japan. Or you could just keep it because it is beautiful, like I do!
During a lull in the festivities around the Shitaya Matsuri in Tokyo’s Ueno district I saw this group of children playing with the traditional Mizu Fusen (water balloons) in the street while wearing lovely summer festival clothes. I have seen these water balloons in every festival I have ever visited but I had no idea what they were actually for, a fact for which I blame my “academic” style of Japanese education! When a foreigner comes to Japan to learn Japanese all schools can be fitted into two basic ways of teaching: the “kintaroo style” or the “academic style” (this is just my observations though). The kintaroo style is when students are taught from a purely cultural perspective, with an emphasis on starting with the childhood classics and childhood experiences shared by all Japanese. This way of emphasizing cultural awareness by teaching old folk tales and symbols. and through them grammar and vocabulary, is a very important method I think, although hardly the most effective. The academic method on the other hand dives right into tables of grammar and lists of kanji to memorize. Learning to speak good Japanese however, is impossible without understanding the culture of Japan and how Japanese people think. Just because you can read a comic or even the morning papers in Japanese doesn’t necessarily mean that you understand Japan or the people here. For that, you have to start at the very beginning, with the toys and the stories and the childhood manner lessons that form the basics of Japanese culture. And for me, not having ever seen these mizu fusen in use was a gap in my understanding of the Japanese. But now, thanks to observing these kids, I now know a little bit more than before.