Maritime festival

Dragon boat at Matsushima in Miyagi Prefecture (All photos by Nathan Hill)


Yesterday (July 21) was Martime Day (Day of the Sea) in Japan and a public holiday.

By way of celebration, Japan Today carried a piece about a portable shrine being ferried across Matsushima Bay, north of Tokyo.  It was part of the 67th Shiogama Port Festival in Shiogama City, Miyagi Prefecture.  Two local mikoshi were paraded through the streets before being loaded aboard decorative boats and transported throughout the bay, accompanied by up to 100 fishing vessels.

Historically Matsushima Bay is a noted beauty spot, celebrated as one of Japan’s three most scenic views, alongside Miyajima (Kamakura) and Amanohashidate (on the Japan Sea in northern Kyoto Prefecture).  Though the area was hit by the devastating earthquake of 2011, it suffered relatively minor damage and still retains its beauty.  There are some 260 islets in the bay, offering different views and perspectives as one travels around by boat. When Basho visited on his Journey to the Deep North, he was at a loss for words (count the syllables!)…

Matsushima, ah!
A-ah, Matsuhshima, ah!
Matsushima, ah!

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Horse archery

An archer opens the festival (this photo and those below by Angeles Marin Cabello)


Yabusame Archers of the Lonely Chugoku Mountains
BY STEVE JOHN POWELL   JUL 19, 2014   Japan Times

What are those peculiar scarecrow figures, lolling about the villages of the Chugoku Mountains?  Is that a man fishing from a bridge? A couple leaning against a railing? A whole family in a field? Some are dressed in kimono or peasant costumes, others are in jeans; they’re all so lifelike we almost stopped to ask one for directions.

My wife, Angeles, and I have driven up to these mountain villages in Hiroshima Prefecture in search of a yabusame (traditional archery on horseback) display. Yabusame originated in the sixth century, as a form of ritual prayer for warriors seeking health and good fortune. During the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) it was only performed in shrines and developed into a spiritual and physical exercise for samurai warriors who wanted to develop a Zen-like focus.

It is believed that yabusame was first performed in the Usa region of Kyushu by order of Emperor Kimmei (509-571) at the site of Usa Shrine (the earliest Hachiman shrine in Japan) to pray for peace and abundant harvests. However, the first recorded yabusame performance was in 1096, for the retired Emperor Shirakawa. Hachiman is a popular deity who protects warriors, agriculture and generally looks after the well-being of the community.

Today, this spectacular ritual is performed at famous shrines such as Tsurugaoka Hachimangu in Kamakura and Meiji Jingu in Tokyo. These contests attract thousands of spectators, who come to marvel at the sight of mounted archers in sumptuous costumes firing arrows at stationary targets while charging at full gallop.

The display we have come to see in the tiny village of Togouchi, however, is far less grand. Although the event dates back to 1439, during the Muromachi Period, it stopped being held at some point and was revived in 1991 after a long absence.  It’s now held annually on the first Sunday of October and is the only yabusame contest still held in Hiroshima Prefecture.

As we motor on through magnificent forest-clad mountains, following the majestically broad Ota River, our pulses quicken as we see the flapping flags and bright banners that confirm we’re in the right place. The event is billed as “A rare opportunity to see yabusame in Hiroshima Prefecture,” so we’ve arrived nice and early to make sure we get a good place.

We needn’t have worried: The riverside track is empty except for a long line of tripods, left by their owners to secure the best viewing spots.  One of the few people there is an old-timer with a weather-beaten face under a big, straw hat. It turns out he’s something of a yabusame veteran. He’s been to “the big one” in Kyushu, and recommends going to another popular contest, “around cherry blossom time,” down in Tsuwano, Yamaguchi-ken,

“Where is everybody today?” Angeles asks him.  “Up at the shrine, for the ceremony,” he answers, nodding toward the hill over the road. Not wanting to miss out, we trot up to the shrine.

Togouchi’s Hori Hachiman shrine dates from 1715 and is one of roughly 25,000 Hachiman shrines in Japan. It’s shaded by several towering cedars, each looking like they’ve been there since Amaterasu Omikami — the Shinto Sun Goddess — left her cave and brought light to the world.

Inside the shrine, elders chant and bang drums for what seems like an eternity. The chanting, the doleful drumbeats and the creaking of the bamboo flagpoles are the only sounds to ruffle this sun-dappled morning.

We hang around with the ranks of photographers waiting patiently outside; the atmosphere is relaxed and friendly. This must be exactly what it’s not like at the big yabusame events in Tokyo and Kamakura. Here, the small-scale makes the ceremony’s ancient roots palpable — among the ancient trees, the Shinto kami (gods) loom closer.

A lady from the shrine comes and hands Angeles and I a happi coat each, a straight-sleeved cotton coat worn at festivals, which is the matsuri (Japanese festival) equivalent of a backstage pass.  A white horse appears, led by a young boy holding a plastic bag and shovel to keep the path clean. Immediately, a new sound: the rapid chatter of dozens of cameras set on continuous-shooting mode.

A rider — tall, strong and resplendent in his silken robes — emerges from the shrine and mounts the steed. He’s Okazaki Susumu, the reigning champion. A priest comes out, blesses him and his horse by waving a haraegushi (sacred zigzag-shaped papers tied to a wand) over them, and ties a white prayer-paper to the horse’s mane.

Another rider joins the group: Toshie Aoshiba, a female of archetypal jockey build, no more than half the size of Susumu. Now comes a pivotal yabusame moment, as the rider places an arrow in his bow and pulls the bowstring taut. With a folded prayer-paper clenched between his teeth, he ceremoniously aims his arrow — first at the ground and then at the sky, to symbolize harmony between heaven and Earth — before firing the arrow off into the distant forest canopy. Enthusiastic applause ensues.

Finally the elders come down the steps from the shrine in their splendid gold robes and black, pointy hats or tortoise-shell-shaped helmets. The leader wears a red tengu mask, half-man, half-bird, with tufts of gray hair, a huge red nose and grotesque expression. A group of strong-armed firemen carry the mikoshi (a portable Shinto shrine) down the steep steps leading to the main road and off they all go. This sparks a veritable charge of the camera brigade.

We make quite a spectacle, parading down the side of the busy highway: The champ on the horse, the taiko drummer playing from the back of an open truck, the priests (and everyone else) following on foot, including the flute player, playing while he walks, and little kids in turquoise happi who pull the mikoshi on a trolley. The photographers trot backwards trying to keep a few steps in front of the procession to get good shots.

Finally we all arrive at the banks of the river, where mountains — the domain of bears and boar — reach right down to the 140-meter riding track. A sweet, smoky tang wafts up from a stall where mochi (soft rice cakes) are roasting over an open flame. Near the starting line, another ceremony is taking place at a small altar inside a roped-off square. A priest makes offerings of sake and mochi, then blesses the archers again. The weather is a perfect mix of sun and cloud — “not hot and not cold,” as the emcee observes in his preamble.

At last, the contest begins. The champ’s first shot shatters a wooden target with a resounding thwack. The small crowd erupts in a huge round of applause. The female rider fails to hit the target on her first run but is warmly applauded for the speed of her horse’s gallop. After each round the targets are presented to the judges for inspection.

Warrior skills, here celebrated at a Tohoku festival, were an important part of medieval life in Japan

Both riders take turns shooting at three square targets 60 cm wide, spaced about 63 meters apart, positioned 2 meters to the left of the track where they will gallop. Statistics aside, I’m in awe of how they manage to charge full-tilt while their arms are raised shoulder-high to fire the arrow.

The actual yabusame lasts just 30 minutes, after which it’s time to go back up to the shrine for goodbyes. We congratulate the archers on their amazing riding skills and with typical Japanese modesty, Aoshiba laughs it off. “I’ve been doing yabusame for four years, but I get so few opportunities to practice from one year to the next that I never get much better!”

Just as we’re leaving, I hear a voice calling out to me. It turns out that as all the firemen are taking down the banners and dismantling the targets, the elders need help carrying the mikoshi (and the deity inside) back up to the shrine. I never imagined that such a small object could be so heavy. Still, we were given a bag of okashi (snacks) for our efforts. They are meant for the kids really, but it was a nice gesture.

With the deity safely put away, Angeles asks one of the women about those scarecrow figures we’d been seeing all day.  It turns out they have nothing to do with birds at all.  With the depopulation of the countryside, the lady explains, mountain villages are becoming emptier and these humanlike dolls help make the place seem less lonely.

Life in these mountain villages is still all about that human connection. Even a symbolic population is preferable to the loneliness of empty spaces.


Getting there: Togouchi is a 2.5-hour bus ride from Hiroshima City. Shinkansen and flights leave daily from Osaka and Tokyo for Hiroshima Prefecture.

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Kojiki musical version


Izanagi and Izanami, creators of Japan according to the Kojiki mythology


Bamboo flute musician Tosha borrows from the modern to teach traditional tranquility
BY SEI DICKINSON Japan Times JUL 15, 2014

Music changes from generation to generation, which is as true in Japan as it is everywhere else.  But how can traditional music manage to keep itself from being forgotten?  Shinobue (bamboo flute) musician Kisho Tosha is trying to find an answer to this question.  “It’s sad that kids don’t know about, or have much interest in, the culture of their own country,” he says.

Tosha is trying to connect with younger music fans by mixing traditional and modern sounds via collaborations with more modern musicians — and he’s getting positive results. He says that after collaborating with DJ Kentaro at a show, he was surprised by the audience’s response. People told him they had no idea the shinobue could sound so “intense” or “rock.”

Tosha says he achieves such intensity by using classical techniques as a base for his performances. Not solely focusing on the music, though, he also emphasizes visual presentation through dancing and dialogue. The result produces energetic moments that can just as easily slip into a moment of calm.

This is likely what he’ll bring to the upcoming “Sakimitama-Kushimitama: From Kojiki” event, which consists of a Japanese oratorio featuring text from the ancient Kojiki (712) rewritten to make it understandable to younger listeners.  “Japanese youth are likely to get bored if they don’t understand the lyrics,” Tosha admits.

The Kojiki (“Records of Ancient Matters”) is a manuscript from the early eighth century that details the creation myths of Japan and its gods. “Kojiki is an origin story for the Japanese people,” Tosha says. “Even when arranging it in a modern way, the themes are still old ones.”

The musician hopes that in making the Kojiki more accessible, Japanese people will get a sense of their heritage and tap into its tranquillity.

The Sakimitama-Kushimitama event will also feature a dance performance by Kikunojo Onoe, the fourth headmaster of the Onoe School of Dance, as well as other dancers and musicians. The lyrics to the contemporary Kojiki have been written by Takashi Matsumoto, a former member of the popular 1970s band Happy End, who now writes lyrics for pop groups such as Kinki Kids.


For an exciting nine-minute video of the performance, with taiko, full orchestra and vocals, see this youtube video.  The production reminds me of a Kabuki version of Amaterasu I saw last year starring Bando Tamasaburo.

“Sakimitama-Kushimitama: From Kojiki” takes place at Kioi Hall in Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo, on July 23 (3 p.m. and 7 p.m. starts; ¥6,000 for S rank seats, ¥5,000 for A rank seats and ¥2,000 for students). For more information, visit

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Gion’s historic year

Kyoto Shimbun 2014.6.30 News

Map showing the direction of the two parades, with the second reversing the processional route of the first. (Kyoto Shinbun)

Turning Point Year for Gion Festival

The Gion Festival, one of Japan’s three major festivals, kicked off on July 1. This year, the “Ato-matsuri,” or the latter festival, is being revived on July 24 for the first time in 49 years, so the “Yamahoko Junko” float procession will parade through central Kyoto City for two days, on both that day and on July 17 for the “Saki-matsuri,” or the former festival. Another hot topic is that the Ofune-hoko float has been revived after 150 years and will hold the last position in the Ato-matsuri Junko procession. This year is a very special in the Gion Festival’s long history.

Formerly, the Yamahoko float procession was divided into two parts, parading on both July 17 for the “Shinko-sai” ritual (Saki-matsuri) and on July 24 for the “Kanko-sai” ritual (Ato-matsuri), as “heralds” for the portable shrines of Yasaka Shrine in Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto. However, after the Second World War, there was a great discussion over which issue was the priority, “Religious faith or tourism.” As a result, it was decided to integrate the Ato-matsuri Junko procession into the Saki-matsuri’s procession for the 48 years from 1966 to 2013, with all Yamahoko floats parading through the city only on July 17.

While this “joint procession” gained a good turnout, the prolonged procession and visitors’ congestion became issues for the festival. As the festival will “return to its original style” this year, the floats will be split with 23 floats in the Saki-matsuri and 10 floats in the Ato-matsuri.

The Ofune-hoko float, which was destroyed in the great fire of the Hamaguri Gomon Incident in 1864, has been reproduced in its original style and will rejoin the festival for the first time in 150 years. It participated in the festival through a “Karabitsu,” a kind of legged, covered chest, in which was placed a divine mask that was saved from the fire, for two years from 2012.

Due to the revival of the Ato-Matsuri Junko procession, there will be traffic restrictions, mainly in Nakagyo and Shimogyo Wards, from July 18 to July 24 as well.   (translated by Galileo, Inc)

The 'chigo' with a peacock feather headdress performs a dance to initiate the proceedings of the Naginata float on July 5 (for a report, see the Kyoto Shinbun link at the top of the article)

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Gion Festival Parade

The parade begins with the chigo getting into position at the front of the leading Naginata float


It’s a historic year for the Gion parade, with two processions being held for the first time after 49 years.  This follows the inscription in 2009 of the festival as an ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’ by Unesco.  “The floats come in two varieties,” states the registration, “yama floats with platforms decorated to resemble mountains and hoko floats dominated by tall wooden poles originally intended to summon the Plague God so that he could be transformed into a protective spirit through music, dance and worship.”

Today was the major procession, with 23 floats taking part.  A week later will be the second procession, containing 10 different floats.  There are various preliminary rituals and events, but the grand parade kicks off at 9.00 on July 17th with the tall Naginata float.

There were more foreigners than usual amongst the crowd, according to the tv commentators, leading to greater vocal appreciation of the manoeuvres involved.  On the other hand there were fewer foreign participants (just 9 of them) because of a stipulation by the International Exchange Center that volunteers should take part in both today and next week’s procession.


For a report on Yoiyama (the eve of the parade), see here or here or here.  For the removal of the kami into the mikoshi (portable shrine), see here.  For a talk about the festival by Catherine Pawsarat, click here.  For the Western input, see here, and more about chigo here.  The washing ritual of the mikoshi, here, more about the floats here, and the return of the mikoshi to Yasaka Jinja here.

One of the many pre-parade rituals is the purification of participants, such as these 'chigo' from the Ayagasa float


The Naginata float is a teeming mass of humanity reaching up to the skies, with men perched on the roof eight meters off the ground


The order of the procession is different every year, and this year the float with Jingu Kogo was second in the parade. There's a pine tree with which the shamaness caught 'ayu' fish, which she used for divination.


As each float passes the presiding official, a representative has to show the official certificate detailing their position in the parade


During the procession there are dance and musical events for the entertainment of the kami, as here with a demon masked partipant holding a drum for his companion to beat


Each community turns out in its best livery to support their neighbourhood float


Getting the cumbersome wooden floats to turn round corners is quite an operation, since the wheels are fixed and cannot change direction. Turning involves slipping bamboo strips beneath the wheels.


Today's procession in full flow, with two different types of float evident 'yama' and 'hoko'

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Gion Parade (Eve)

Float lanterns light up the Kyoto night in a happy throng, catching the attention of the milling crowds


The month long Gion Festival is reaching a climax tonight and tomorrow morning.  This evening is the so-called Yoiyama, the night before the big parade when floats are dressed in all their finery with last minute entertainment as people flock around them to get as close as they can.  For a few blissful hours the roads are closed to traffic and the streets are packed with happy revellers….

Of Kyoto’s Big Three Festivals, Gion is truly the people’s festival!  Aoi Matsuri centres around imperial messengers.  Jidai Matsuri was an ideological construct for the Meiji government.  But once a year over a million people dress up and reclaim the streets of Kyoto in carnival atmosphere.  Sticky, humid and crowded it may be – but in the display of convivial celebration, the city’s residents show how good spirits can overcome the demons that once spread misfortune and the plague.  And tomorrow morning at 9.00 the grand parade kicks off to welcome the mikoshi from Yasaka Jinja.  (For the removal of the spirit-body (goshintai) into the mikoshi, see here. For a report of last year’s event, see here; for the parade itself, see here.)


Musicians high up in the naginata float play for the assembled crowd

As always in Japan, traditional craftsmanship is both awesome and aesthetic


The sales staff at one of the stalls, dressed for the evening's work


Suzuka Gongen, a syncretic goddess whom legend says expelled a demon on the Tokaido pathway between Kyoto and Edo (now Tokyo). The deity, also known as Seoritsu-him no kami, has her own float and is protectress of the Suzuka checkpoint near Ise.


Each float has treasures and tapestries to display, some with foreign provenance and intriguing histories


Folk heroes Benkei and Yoshitsune are displayed on the Hashi-benkei float


Some of the displays are exquisitie


Some of the displays are startling!


And the great thing about this premier people's festival is that you can wander around and see all this for free

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Bowing to trains

Cleaners bowing to a train as it arrives (courtesy Rocket News)


Japanese have exquisite manners, and respect is extended not just to people but to objects.  Swords for example are particularly revered, for they are thought to contain spirits, but there are many other occasions where objects are treated with a reverential bow (the tea ceremony for example).  One thing that strikes visitors to the country are the way cleaners bow towards the train for which they are responsible, giving rise to a recent news item.


Why do Japanese cleaning crews bow at trains?
By Krista Roger    Rocket News JUL. 14, 2014

The cleaning crews who maintain Japan’s high-speed bullet trains have a mere seven minutes to make the interior of the train spotlessly clean for its next journey. Those seven minutes are carefully divided into different tasks to make sure everything gets done in the allotted time.

Another curious detail people often notice about these cleaners is the way they bow as trains are entering and exiting the station. While this act is generally thought to be a respectful gesture, the intended recipient of the bowing seems to be a matter of great debate, with plenty of conflicting opinions out there, even among the Japanese.


Bowing to a train – even when it's empty

Some of the reactions from different countries were revealing…  “It’s the same as Pavlov’s dogs, or the deer in Nara,” commented one person.

China: “I’m Chinese, and I honestly don’t feel comfortable with all the bowing in Japan. It’s because in China, people mostly bow to honor those who have passed away.”

United Kingdom:  “Japanese traditions are the best in the world!  We’ve lost courtesy and grace in the West.”

United States:  “If people in the West were more respectful to each other, America wouldn’t have become the police state it now is.”

Japan: “Isn’t it just a regular greeting to the train driver and the train that conveys something like, ‘Work hard today!’ and, ‘We appreciate your efforts!’  And wasn’t the idea that inanimate objects have a spirit (tsukumogami) born out of the custom of showing respect?”


Now that last idea is intriguing, and it’s one taken up by a reader of Japan Today who gives a similar take on the matter.  The idea appeals to Green Shinto, which is dedicated to the notion that Shinto thinking lies at the base of Japanese culture as a whole….

CGB Spender  Japan Today JUL. 16, 2014
“It pays respect and appreciation to something or somebody. As that, it’s a very important, fundamental custom so there is a lot of meaningful purpose to it. It’s also anchored in Shintoism in which every being and object has a spirit, even a rock. A person who sees value in even a simple rock is a better person than one who sees no value.”

Don’t you love that last sentence?!

"A person who sees value in even a simple rock is a better person than one who sees no value."


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Gion ‘spirit body’

The West Gate (Nishi Romon) of Yasaka Jinja, the host shrine of Kyoto's Gion Matsuri, is filled with people coming and going


Two nights before the big Gion Matsuri parade, and the streets of Kyoto are packed with excited visitors.  Most are wandering around visiting the floats, viewing the treasures on display, watching the entertainment, looking at the attractive yukata, and eating the snacks on offer from a myriad stores.

Inside the entrance gate, stalls line the way into the shrine compound

Meanwhile, at Yasaka Jinja this evening took place the spiritual essence of the festival.  It consists of the removal of the ‘spirit-bodies’ (goshintai) of the three kami from the sanctuary and into portable shrines.  The kami in question are Susanoo no mikoto, the storm god, together with his wife and their children. For a whole week, from the 17th to the 24th, they will be in downtown Kyoto in their ‘resting place’ (otabisho) in Shijo Street.

The removal ceremony began at 8.00 in the evening, with a large crowd gathered around three sides of the inner compound.  The three mikoshi were placed in the Dance Stage that dominates the centre.  For twenty minutes nothing seemed to happen, as piped gagaku music was played from speakers and placards circulated stating that photography was not allowed.

At 8.20 all the lights in the compound went off, and the shrine was plunged into darkness.  ‘It’s been a while since I saw the stars,’ a Japanese man whispered to his wife.  Then from out of the Worship Hall came some eight or nine priests dressed in white, barely visible in the dark except for a torch shining downwards to ensure they could see the way.  As they proceeded towards the mikoshi one of the priests made an eerie noise to signify the presence of the spirits (a shamanic legacy).

At the head of the small procession a priest waved a haraigushi to purify the way.  Behind him others held up a white protective sheet to shield from view the boxes containing the ‘spirit-bodies’.  The small procession then mounted into the Dance Hall to place the spirit-bodies within the mikoshi.  The priests then returned into the Worship Hall and disappeared from view.

At 8.30 the lights went back on again and the ceremony was over.  To my surprise, given the spiritual nature of the occasion, there were a lot of foreigners present, especially Chinese.  Reactions of the Japanese were quite mixed; a middle-aged man near me stood very devoutly with hands together throughout the ceremony.  Others chatted and used their phones quite unconcerned.  One young girl near me asked her boyfriend, ‘Is it Buddhist?’, to which he replied, ‘I don’t know.  I’ll ask my grandmother, she’ll know.’  I guess you could call that an interesting case of the transmission of tradition!


For a talk about the history of the Festival and the significance of the 2014 Matsuri, see here.  For the first of nine articles about the Gion Matsuri, click here.  For more about the floats, click here.  For a list of events and the order of floats, click here.

Three mikoshi (portable shrines) stand within the Dance Stage (buden), lined with a triple row of paper lanterns which were turned off during the removal ceremony.


After the ceremony festival-goers stream back out through the West Gate and into Gion


Right in front of the shrine there was shamisen entertainment...


... and maiko were serving beer, a reminder how the spiritual and the secular have always gone hand-in-hand in Japan

Posted in Festivals, Kyoto shrines, Rites and celebrations | 1 Comment

Kunisaki Peninsula

Known at the 'Land that Time Forgot', Kunisaki is home to a large number of syncretic shrines and temples connected to the local Shugendo branch (japanvisitor blog)


One place I’ve always wanted to visit but have never managed is the Kunisaki Peninsula in Kyushu.  It seems to have all the mysterious atmosphere and religious lore of Kumano and Shimane, with some stunning scenery too.  Now one of my favourite writers, Stephen Mansfield, has written a revealing piece about the area in the Japan Times which has stimulated my determination even more to spend time in the area on my next trip south.


Kunisaki: into a world of moss and stone

The sense of antiquity on the Kunisaki Peninsula is immediate. There are those that believe the region — whose name is said to mean “land’s end” — was created by demons in the service of powerful gods. You have to take these accounts with a pinch of salt, of course, as each explanation confidently contradicts the others, but there is a palpable atmosphere of mystery here, upon which the imagination thrives.

Between A.D. 700 and 800 the region gave birth to a syncretic cult — a mix of Tendai School Buddhism, Shinto and mountain worship — known as Rokugomanzan. A holy man called Ninmon is credited with founding 28 of the cult’s temples on the peninsula, which became a training ground for devout worshipers.

Futagoji Temple is an important space for this worship and sits in the very center of the peninsula, at its highest point, surrounded by spokes of metamorphic rock in the form of volcanic ridges and valleys. Futago means twins, and the temple receives visits from the families of such children, which may explain the lack of visitors: such offspring are relatively rare.

The entrance steps to Futago-ji (courtesy walkjapan)

The temple’s two stone Nio-sama statues (guardians of the Buddha) stand menacingly beneath a canopy of giant ceders at the foot of an ancient stone path. Rustic figures, such as these two statues, are difficult to date by sight. One rare case is a pair of Nio-sama at nearby Iwatoji Temple, where an inscription on one of the figures reads “1478.”  It is the closest we get to precise dating in a peninsula where time itself seems to have been put on hold.

The region is best known for its massive bas-reliefs carved into rock faces. One of the most monumental is the Kumano magaibutsu, where there are two large Buddhist cliff carvings said to date from the eighth century. A defile in a gorge leads to Taizoji Temple, from where a steep stone path must be ascended to reach the figures. The going is rough but rewarding, with enough moss remaining on the stone path to suggest the absence of large numbers of visitors.

So old and seasoned are these stairs and implausibly large, stone figures that the natural and man-made are almost indistinguishable. A thousand years is a long time. Can things have changed that much here? If anything, the ageless carvings, timber structures and stone staircases look even more timeworn by the effect of weathering.

One of the many ageless stone carvings dotted around the region (tabisuke)

A local lord by the name of Atomo Sori, a Christian, did his best to deface the area’s Buddhist heritage but, mercifully, most of it has survived the vandalism that accompanied Sori’s religious zeal. The relative inaccessibility of many of the sites no doubt helped to keep them preserved.

Today the roads are well-surfaced, their condition maintained by the absence of traffic. With an infrequent bus schedule, it is best to have your own transportation. I had hoped to rent a motorbike, but ended up contacting Kunisaki Rental Car, a relatively new operation, based just outside the town of Kitsuki. At 8 a.m. sharp, a vehicle was delivered to my guesthouse, by, unexpectedly, a young Lithuanian. He was a trained engineer who worked for a company importing mechanical vehicles that had started renting its cars out.

Business was not brisk. Like others in the area who are connected to tourism, they were awaiting a surge in visitors that has yet to materialize. On the way to the office to complete the rental forms, he spoke garrulously, the torrent of words was a great relief, he said — he hadn’t met another foreigner for almost a year.

Once on the road, you discover that Kunisaki is good driving country, with plenty of twists and turns to keep you alert. The road cuts across open plains that funnel into narrow gorges, one particular landscape at the center of the peninsula reminded me of the limestone peaks of Laos, on a diminished scale. From the car window I could see the entrances to man-made caves, visible along shallow terraces that were somehow accessible via perilously steep escarpments. Beyond and above the neatly cultivated fields was wild country — the sort of landscape a person could vanish into.

Kumano magaibutsu on Kunisaki Peninsula. This eight-meter image of Fudo Myo-o, carved into the face of a rock cliff, is one of Japan's largest Buddhist stone images. (courtesy nipponia)

Why the deeper recesses of the peninsula are not more developed is puzzling given the cultural magnitude of the area. Kunisaki is a veritable Japanese holy land, said to contain more than half of Japan’s stone Buddhist statuary (and some of its oldest).

Like all sacred sites, life and death coexist in the physical structure of Kunisaki’s religious spaces. Many of the tombstones in the area’s smaller graveyards are engraved with the same family name, inferring a degree of custom and continuity — which still lives on — rarely seen in Japanese cities.

Perhaps the physical exertion required to reach the more remote sights and the proximity of leisure-oriented hot springs at nearby Beppu and Yufuin, explains the relative neglect of the area. You need the kind of fitness and muscularity possessed by pilgrims to negotiate the steep stone steps to the sacred sites deep in the Kunisaki peninsula. These ancient staircases, like hallways passing through dark green forests, have been buckled and distorted by time; their irregularity and the effort required to ascend them, reminds us of both the pace of the past and it’s material fabric.

But upon reaching these hidden sites, unanswered questions remained: Why make the carvings so difficult to access unless the effort required to reach them constituted — in the tradition of the great pilgrimages — an act of faith in itself?

Writer Donald Richie noted the almost unnatural darkness between the trees, comparing the shadows to black crepe strung between the giant cedars for a secret forest funeral. The drapes turned out to be shading nets, which created optimum conditions for growing mushrooms, but the point was made. These forests are dark, inducing a degree of fear, superstition and mystery.

Nature has been allowed to go its own way here, and the result is a richly biodiverse undergrowth, illuminated when filtered sunlight reaches the forest floor, lighting the funereal gloom like a stained-glass window in a chapel.

Richie’s travel essay on the region, “Kunisaki — Land’s End” (1991), includes a description of Fukiji, a tiny wooden temple built by the powerful Fujiwara clan, it dates back to the Heian era (794-1185). This is the oldest wooden temple in Kyushu and an incarnation of the peninsula’s antiquity. In fact, its main hall still contains the same carved image of Amida Buddha that Richie saw when he visited the temple a quarter century ago. “Behind him, festivities in the pure land he promised, painted on wood centuries ago and now spotted white — a leprous paradise,” Richie wrote. Little has changed in the intervening years.

Even the annual Kebesu Festival in October at Iwakura Hachiman Shrine in Kunisaki City, strikes the visitor as more elemental than Japan’s other, more managed, rituals. Men in grotesque, earth-stained masks attempt to dash into a sacred fire guarded by white-clad figures holding burning ferns. It is a rite that might easily have been staged in a village grove in Papua New Guinea.

(courtesy trip advisor)

I depended on my feet for the last two days in the peninsula, cohabiting with snakes, wood pigeons and wild deer. Where trainee mountain monks would once have used straw sandals, I wore a pair of clodhopper boots, no doubt making the going a lot easier.

Pilgrimages and holy journeys are often synonymous with healing, both spiritual and physical. With feet about to form suppurating blisters, I sought out temporary relief on my last afternoon at Akane-no-sato, a calcium-sulfur spring in the small town of Kunimi. It would have been pleasant to share the views of forested mountains with other bathers, but there wasn’t a soul in sight.

The tour buses will eventually materialize, of course, and the parking lots they build to accommodate them will be as large as rice paddies, but for the moment, we can partake of Kunisaki’s untroubled timelessness, even without entirely grasping its meaning and correspondences. This place is as it should be — leaving a little something unexplained, some mysteries still intact.


Getting there: Kitsuki and the other towns in Kunisaki can be reached by irregular buses and trains from Beppu or Fukuoka.  Flights to nearby Oita airport leave Tokyo and Osaka daily.

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Gion Festival talk

One of the Gion Matsuri's 33 floats – note the tapestries draped over the sides, an important part of the festival (this and other photos from Pawsarat's slide show)


Cause for celebration
July in Kyoto means one thing in Shinto terms: the Gion Matsuri. The streets are alive with the sound of Gionbayashi (the special Gion music), and downtown in the backstreets one can see the huge wooden floats being assembled. Already some of the old merchant houses are opening up their doors to display their treasures prior to the grand procession on the 17th.

Catherine Pawsarat, spiritual environmentalist, who talked at Impact Hub in Kyoto last Saturday evening

For over ten years spiritual environmentalist Catherine Pawsarat has been studying the festival and interviewing participants. Altogether she has amassed some 15000 images and made contacts at all 33 floats. On Sunday she gave a talk with slides entitled “Gion Festival: Where Spirituality meets Sustainability” which provided some fresh perspectives.

The 2014 festival is going to be a historic occasion for a couple of reasons. One is the return of the Ofuneboko (the boat float), which hasn’t appeared for 150 years since it was burnt in the late 1800s. Now thanks to public donations, it’s been carefully reconstructed.

Another cause for celebration is the restoration of the second procession a week after the first. This is the traditional pattern, but 49 years ago the city council insisted on a single procession in order to minimise disruption to traffic etc in the city centre.

Now however the original two processions have been restored in keeping with the spiritual intent of the festival – one to greet the three mikoshi (portable shrines) as they leave Yasaka Jinja for their resting place (otabisho), and one to see them off on their return to the shrine on July 24th. The first one (Sakimatsuri) consists of 23 floats; the second one (Atomatsuri) consists of only 10 floats (details here).

Jingu Kogo, the shamaness leader of Japanese mythology

Shamanic, local and syncretic
The festival originated some 1100 years ago to protect against ‘summer disease’, which was prevalent in Kyoto’s stew of heat and humidity. The purpose was to drive away the evil spirits that brought the plague, and there were strong shamanic elements. One of the floats is dedicated to Jingu Kogo, the legendary shamaness who in Japanese mythology invaded Korea. She bears a long fishing rod, because supposedly she used fish for divination.

Other shamanic features include masks which now feature as part of the treasures of the neighbourhood floats; the waving of naginata long swords; and a dance performed by music which quickened in tempo like the crescendo drumming used to induce trance. Pawsarat also suggested that the conditions of the musicians seemed designed to induce altered states of consciousness, since the floats contain up to 50 men crammed for hours at a dizzying height into a tiny sauna like space in the sweaty sweltering heat of Kyoto in July!

One other point that came over forcibly in the talk was the community aspect of the festival, with each float sustained by neighbourhood cooperation. Yet though originally a neighbourly festival, it is now swamped by over a million visitors, which has put enormous strains on hospitality. Remarkably the locals have managed to adapt.

Putting the floats together is a skilled and hazardous operation

For the males of the area the festival constitutes a rite of passage, with enormous physical effort and risk involved. (By and large, females participate in support roles.) The average age is apparently somewhere around 70, and efforts are being made to introduce youngsters. Because of the size and height of the floats, there is always the possibility of injury or worse.

Another feature of the festival is its deeply syncretic nature. There are Buddhist deities such as Kannon, and the Shugendo founder, En no Gyoja, features on one float. Daoist sages, and even a Chinese Zen monk can be seen on others. One prominent protective deity is Gozu Tenno, an imported god with an ox-head similar in aspect to the Tibetan Lord of Death. Pawsarat suggested that the deity may have been imported after an outbreak of smallpox, a ‘foreign’ disease.

(The Ox-Head God falls into the Tenbu group, gods of Hindu origin that have been absorbed into Buddhism and act as protectors.  Before its conversion to a ‘purely’ Shinto shrine by Meiji nationalists, Yasaka Shrine was a miyadera (shrine run by a temple) and its main deity was Gozu Tenno.  More information here.)

Part of a tapestry showing Daoist sages

A people’s festival
Though she’s been researching for over ten years and made some good friends among the festival participants, Pawsarat pointed out that such is the rich legacy of the festival there remains much that still isn’t known about this wonderful cultural event. Some of the textiles for instance are unique to Gion and their provenance cannot be determined. One example contains several different kinds of animal hair, and the suggestion has been made that it was borne by the arms-bearers of Kublai Khan as a form of protection.

Tapestries are just one of the wonders of the marvellous Gion Festival, but as Pawsarat pointed out it’s the local people who make the festival what it is. For the next three nights over a million visitors will be wandering the streets of downtown Kyoto to enjoy this historic event.  It started as protection against disease; it became a medieval merchant’s festival to display wealth and overseas connections; now it is the city’s premier ‘people’s festival’.  This is a historic year, and it promises to be special.  Why not join us and celebrate in the streets of the ancient capital?


Green Shinto has previously run a series of nine articles about the festival.  For the first one, please click here.  For the Hindu links of the festival, click here.  To learn more about chigo, click here.  For the evening before the parade (Yoiyama) click here, and for the parade itself click here.

For a full schedule of events, see the Wikipedia page here.  See Pawsarat’s Gion Festival Facebook page here.  For articles about the festival by Kyoto Visitors Guide and Japanese Religions website, click here or here.

Catherine Pawsarat notes the cramped conditions of the musicians in one of the floats that bears a doll representing the boy 'chigo', into whom the shamanic spirit would once descend


Musicians have to endure hours of heat and humidity while packed together in a high space, during which they are exposed to the repetitive hypnotic strains of the Gionbayashi music


Masks now displayed as treasures would once have been worn by actors representing spirits


Music and dance – once part of a shamanic rite?

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