On the second Sunday of every year a famous festival is held at the foot of Mount Takao in Tokyo’s Hachioji City, the Hiwatari Matsuri (火渡り祭, hiwatari meaning fire walking). It is one of these rare buddhist/shugendo festivals that I am so fond of. The original purpose of the festival was to train and test the shugenja or the warrior monks of the old days. A shugenja is a follower of the shugendo, an ascetic mountain religion focusing on endurance and spiritual awareness. Shugendo is easily the most interesting of the religions of Japan, and I have blogged a little about it before, should you wish to learn more.
A place is prepared for the festival at a small temple usually used to consecrate and bless cars and vehicles. A huge mound of ceda boughs are lined with votive planks donated by lay members of the temple in order to have their prayers part of the ceremony. The area is fenced of and a procession of shugenja of both sexes take up positions around it. As the temple officials enter they perform a short ceremony where individual shugenja leads the officials into the “dojo” (training ground). There are several different groups taking part, all wearing different costumes and religious objects. Both men and women, children and old people take part. Some of the women are nuns in training who shave their heads just like male monks, others are lay members and keep their hair.
The symbols and the meanings of the many hundreds of individual aspects of the ceremony is incredibly complicated and I won’t even try to get into anything other than superficial description of what is going on, but it is an amazing ceremony to see, incredibly rich in tradition, culture and mysticism. That these ceremonies have survived into the 21st century is fantastic and we should be grateful for people who dedicate their lives to preserving these fragile links to our past.
More photos, more flames and more mountain monks to come in the post tomorrow! I took most of these photos with my 50-500mm Sigma lens, the “Widow Maker”. It gets to be about half a meter long when fully extended and I am afraid that the poor foreign student standing next to me managed to smack into it a few times as she turned her head. The crowds were immense and the only reason I could get these photos was because I had travelled there at dawn and spent several hours in the cold keeping my spot!
At Yushima Tenjin’s Umematsuri (Plum blossom festival) I got totally carried away with the fun and energy of the crowd carrying the omikoshi around the shrine and took loads of pictures. During summer I typically go to see one or two festivals every week but in the winter there are so few opportunities to see them. The festival was in honor of the plum blossoms, which indeed made a brave appearance in the cold rain, white and bright pink ones. Come summer there will probably be hundreds of kilos of plums ready for the harvest here, hopefully turned into pickled sour plums or umeshu, the super sweet plum liquor.
After having completed its rounds around the shrine, the omikoshi is carried towards the main torii, or gate. The torii of Yushima Tenjin is very special, as it is made in bronze rather than the more common wood (or even concrete). It is also the oldest bronze torii in Tokyo, dating back to 1667. How it survived World War 2 fundraising campaigns and firebombing raids I have no idea. The shrine is also popular with students hoping for admission to the university of their choice. I found one ema, or votive plaque, where some talented person had offered a prayer to get into Yokohama national university. Good luck!
Having been presented to the priests and gods at the main shrine, the omikoshi is then carried around the shrine to the stage at the back where it is hoisted one last time for the people. I was lucky and got a good spot to take photos from. As many people as possible are crammed around the omikoshi to help it get to where it is supposed to go, but as you can see all those people doesn’t make for very much accuracy in movement! The omikoshi almost rammed the director of the group but he was kept up by other supporters with a firm grip on his belt. The omikoshi which can weigh as much as a ton, is much easier to handle with fewer people, as you can see in the last few photos when the ceremony is over and the omikoshi is taken back to its resting place at the side of the shrine.
I can hardly wait for the summer festivals to start up again!
Sometimes you are just lucky here in Tokyo. On Sunday I was walking through the neighborhood of Yushima right on the edge of Bunkyo ward, next to Ueno. I wasn’t expecting to walk into a festival complete with omikoshi and men and women dressed in white hatten coats. These festivals are very rare in the winter, especially in February and March but it seems that the flowering of the plum trees are a big deal here at the famous Yushima Tenjin shrine. The weather was quite bad, with a cold rain and a massive overcast sky. It was colder than usual even for the season but the locals did a good job in carrying their omikoshi around the streets bordering the shrine.
The area of Yushima is one of the oldest in Tokyo. In the old days you could see the sea from the high ground of Yushima, and arriving on boats it looked like a small island which explains part of its name, shima (island). Today the area is part of Bunkyo Ward but between 1887 and 1947 it was the center of the old Hongo Ward, when Tokyo was still known as Tokyo City (東京市) unlike today’s official designation as Tokyo Metropolis (東京都) and consisted of 35 wards compared to today’s 23 special wards.
I’ll post more photos of this rare early March festival, so stay tuned!
I took this photo of a shrine maiden on duty in Shibuya’s grand shrine, the Konouhachimangu (金王八幡宮) at the annual festival last year. Some of these shrine maidens, or mike (巫女) are full time employees of the shrine but the vast majority are temporarily employed part time workers. Most of them are high school students or university students doing it for the experience and for pocket money. Although most people are impressed by young women with miko work experience there are also other bonuses, such as learning about customer service and Japanese culture and traditions. I have also heard ex-miko who mention that their math skills improved as they learned to calculate quickly in the heads when working over the main holidays selling votive plates, charmes, etc. I also think it is impossible to find any service job in the world where the staff are treated with more respect than this! On the negative side, in the winters the thin uniform and the hours spent outside can make it an almost unbearable experience for many. Some miko are also quite tired of the often very repetitive work as well as tired of constantly being photographed. This last complaint hits hard with myself, especially!
For their stoic service and hard work in the cold of winter or heat of summer a typical part-time miko can expect to earn between 8000 and 12 000 yen per day, depending on age, experience and length of work. This is a typical part time salary here in Tokyo and higher than many full time positions out in the prefectures. Good work, if you are unmarried and reasonably stoic!