The Lotus Sutra (or 妙法蓮華経 in Japanese, full name being Sutra on the White Lotus of the Sublime Dharma) is one of the most popular sutras of the largest branch of buddhism, Mahayana. A Sutra is basically a canonical text on the teachings of buddhism and in Mahayana buddhism there are about one hundred of them written in Sanskrit, Chinese or Tibetan. The Lotus Sutra is the main sutra of the Nichiren school of buddhism to which the famous Taishakuten in Tokyo’s Katsushika Ward belongs. It was written within a hundred years before or after Year 1 A.D.
One of the great carved panels in the Taishakuten contains a scene taken from the Lotus Sutra’s third chapter, the Parable of the Burning House. It is the story of a wealthy man who is blessed with many children. One days on his way home he finds his children completely concentrated on playing games inside the house even though it has caught fire and threatens to burn down with the children stuck inside. Despite all his cries the children ignore him until he comes up with a clever idea: he calls out to the children that they should come out and have a look at the fun new cars he has brought them; pulled by a deer, a goat, and a bullock! The promise of these novel and unusual draught animals lure the children out of the house and to the safety of their fathers arms. But instead of giving him the novel carts to play with he has prepared on much better cart, gilded, draped in jewelry and pulled by two great white bullocks.
The parable is of course an illustration of the world (a house on fire), the clueless children being humanity and the three carts being examples of how the Buddha offers many neat and clever ways to reach enlightenment but that in the end they all lead to one big common, and much better path, the path to Nirvana. Buddha is like a kind father offering his children shinier toys to make them leave their old fun, but useless toys behind.
Of all the ten different boards of carvings, this one was my favorite. Both the details like the animals and the children, but also how the flames and smoke is rendered in carved wood! The carver who made this was one Master Kijima Koun.
A few weeks ago I visited the city of Mishima in eastern Shizuoka Prefecture to the west of Tokyo just to enjoy their big summer festival. It was a three day event full of performances and culture but this time I could only take part in the first two days of events. This festival too has as one of its main features the giant dash, huge festival platforms pulled about by towns people. In Mishima City most of the townspeople seems to take turns being on top of the floats, with lots of flutes and drums to try and outperform each other! It is great fun to watch and enthusiasm and energy is really heart warming. The dashi are also unusually decorated with masses of lanterns hanging up front, making it a bright and colorful festival.
If you are in the area or feel like getting out of Tokyo for a couple of days I can really recommend Mishima, with maybe a day tour to Numazu City nearby or even as far as Kakegawa City or Atami City. They are good even when there are no festivals!
Fireworks started being produced in Japan in the 16th century, soon after the introduction of gunpowder. Naturally they were used like we use them today, but it is said that in 1613, at a fireworks performance inside Edo Castle, the handheld fireworks had the Tokugawa shogun especially impressed and they spread in popularity from that point. Usually fireworks in Japan were made only by specially licensed masters but these handheld fireworks were made by hand by groups of young men who would together go out to gather bamboo, hollow them out into tubes and stuff them with gunpowder before taking them to the local shrine to show of their courage and skills. After lighting the tube, they start pouring a fountain of sparks that depending on the size of the fireworks can reach over ten meters in height. Between 10 and 60 seconds after the fountain of sparks (the roar) comes the bottom explosion, where the sparks fly out underneath to symbolize the wings of the beast, along with a loud bang and plenty of smoke.
These Tetzutsu Hanabi can be found here and there across Japan but are most common in the Mikawa-Enshu area (Aichi and Shizuoka prefectures) where there are several famous festivals featuring this tradition. I visited the summer festival in Shizuoka Prefecture’s Mishima City, at the Mishima Taisha grand shrine where a group of local young men fired hundreds of these hand held fireworks during a 30 minute inferno. The men will walk around a set perimeter holding tubes up. There are a few different sizes of tubes as well as color fireworks and they get progressively bigger as the performance advances.
Few festivals are such an assault on the senses as this one. The noise is spectacular, with explosions every few seconds, the constant roar of the tubes, the flashes of light and fountains of lighted sparks and smoke. But most lasting is the smell! I was lucky not to be standing in the direction of the wind and still my hair, my skin, my camera and my clothes were covered in a light film of greasy gunpowder residue. I don’t think I have ever smelled so bad in my life! Still it was absolutely worth seeing it.
This Saturday sees one of Tokyo’s three Grand Festivals, the Fukagawa Hachiman Matsuri, most famous for being a mizukakematsuri, a water throwing festival. This year looks like it will be massive with over 300 000 people attending. It is one of my favorite festivals a lot of fun to watch or participate in. I took these photos last year during one of the minor days. Each year 54 omikoshi representing the different neighborhoods participate and the parade is quite fun to watch, especially when the firefighters and locals open up with hoses, buckets and bottles of water! If you are a fan of festivals and in Tokyo this weekend, don’t miss this!