One of the most heartwarming traditions in Japan that I know of is the official Nakizumo (泣き相撲) – the crying baby competition. It takes place both in temples and in shrines, and I visited the biggest ceremony in Tokyo at Asakusa’s Sensoji temple. The ceremony was overseen by buddhist monks and a real life sumo referee. 120 babies were divided into two teams, the East and the West and three sumo wrestlers took turns taking the babies into the ring. In Tokyo the competition is very simple: each match is 60 seconds long and the baby that cries that hardest is declared the winner (in other areas of Japan the rules vary quite a lot). The sumo wrestlers are supposed to be big and scary for the babies and the judge and referees do their best by crying “nake nake nake” (泣け 泣け 泣け cry cry cry!) to the kids as the match begins. More often than not, neither of the kids starts crying in the 60 seconds of them match though, and the referees would have to don masks and funny faces to scare the babies. This usually didn’t work either and many of the 60 matches ended in draws.
The day was fantastic with lots of sun meaning that many babies had promptly fallen asleep by the time the matches started. The first little boy taken out into the ring slept all through it. The audience are encouraged to take part in cheering the kids but for most of the time we were too busy laughing to the hilarious kids and the funny referees and their running commentary on the matches. Many kids were too busy laughing or much more interested in the opponent babies to cry but the ones who eventually really started bawling were greeted with applause and cheers.
The ceremony in this temple is meant celebrate both the children and their parents as well as wishing them strength and good health.
Funnily enough the scariest looking sumo wrestler was the most popular with the kids, very few of the babies handed to him started crying and he was eventually disqualified for being to popular (by a joking referee). There are always a few people who are amazed at a ceremony like this, and for them I recommend reading a few thousand entries on this rather funny blog: “Reasons My Son Is Crying”. Warning, don’t click this link at work – you are not likely to get any more work done today if you do!
Shi-go-san is one of my favorite Japanese rituals. It the a ritual that takes place when boys turning 3 or 5, and girls turning 3 or 7. It is traditionally celebrations to mark a childs advancement in age. Children are dressed up in special clothes and the whole family usually visits a shrine to take part in a special ceremony. Traditionally it takes place on November 15th every year and it has been going on since sometime in the Heian period (794-1185 A.D.) when it was reserved for court nobles. Later it became common even with the samurai class and in the recent period (starting in 1868 with emperor Meiji) it started being common in all classes of people. Although November 15th is the traditional date people do it more or less sometime around that time, sometimes months late or early: it is more important to be able to gather the entire family than to hit the correct date and in our modern times people really are too busy.
Back in the old days all children had shaved heads before the age of three so in the ceremony marked the day when the children could start growing their hair. At five boys would start wearing the hakama (a sort of kimono like trouser) and the girls would start wearing proper kimono with obi (the belt) at seven.
I took the first three of these photos at Tokyo’s famous Meiji Shrine in Shibuya Ward, and the last two at the Yushima Tenjin in Bunkyo Ward. The first girl with the absolutely adorable smile was very shy when she saw me with my camera.
Most of the branches of Kagura dance (the ritualistic dances and performances you see performed at native Japanese shrines and festivals as well as the imperial court) are ancient, many have been performed so long that their roots disappear well into mythological times. One branch however, the Urayasu dance (浦安の舞) of the Mikokagura (Kagura performed by shrine maidens, miko), is an absolute newcomer, having only started in 1940. In order to celebrate the 2600 year anniversary of the imperial lineage (this number is controversial among historians since many of the earlier emperors are considered semi-mythological) it was decided that shrine maidens all over the country (including the ones in Taiwan and Korea) should perform a ceremonial dance to be known as Urayasu. “Ura” is the ancient Japanese word for heart, and “Yasu” is one of the ancient terms used to name the country (I think). On November 10th at 10:00 all shrines performed this ceremony simultaneously. The tradition of the dance has lived on since then, but it is now performed during regular festivals at any time during the year. The costumes are some of the most complicated and it is only in recent years that shrines have been able to raise the money to make enough costumes so that even very young dancers can wear them. I saw these young girls (maybe 11 years old?) perform the Urayasu at the Nezu shrine festival a couple of weeks ago, and the costumes looked a bit too large for them! There are some items associated to the dance, the bough, the bells and the blade, all purely ceremonial of course.
Some of the larger shrines sometimes have Mikokagura performances during wedding ceremonies, and some miko usually dress up in these costumes for parades, but if you have the chance to see a properly performed Urayasu dance, take it! They are not all that common!
Naturally I just had visit Yasukuni Shrine for the second day of the Shunkireitaisai, the main day. In the old days (any year during the more than 1000 year history of this ceremony) it was often attended by the emperor or one of his chosen representatives. Since 1978 however, the emperors of Japan has stopped visiting this shrine personally so the ceremony has to be performed without royal presence until their differences can be worked out. I am sure they will, some day in the future. The nicely dressed people are there to greet the ceremony as it makes its way to the heart of the shrine. The last day of the ceremony is on the 23rd of April, but I won’t be able to see that, unfortunately. It is a rare chance to be allowed to photograph these shinto ceremonies and I am happy I got to be there during these two days!