Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Fire Festival

On Monday, I went with Ana and Dam-o to Odawara City for a fire festival at a Buddhist-Shinto temple/shrine. We got there just before dark (which happens about 4:30 in this country, something I've never quite understood), and the place was lit up with traditional red paper lanterns, with crowds wandering around buying okonomiyaki and mochi. Up at the temple, people would come to drop some coins in the prayer box, make a little prayer, and shake this giant rope connected to a large rattle. This I guess is so their wish comes true.

We found a couple of other foreigners seated in the temple. One was a religious studies doctoral student who is doing his dissertation on this type of deity. The other was an American teaching English in a suburb north of Tokyo. The deity is part of an old-style blend of Buddhism and Shinto religion, which was the standard religion up until the Meiji restoration when a separation of the two and purification of Shintoism as a state religion came about. He explained that the deity they were there to worship was a half-man, half-bird monster that was supposed to inhabit the mountains of Japan. The ritual was supposed to bring good fortune during the winter months. But nowadays, it's just an excuse for a party, it seemed.

The ritual kicked off with a procession of monks chanting and blowing gourd horns as they approached the temple. They entered and lit a sacred fire, and then proceeded to chant for over an hour, with one guy playing the drums the entire time. It was amazing to behold. The rhythm was so soothing that I wanted to fall asleep. Eventually it ended and two torch-bearers brought the flame from the temple to a bonfire constructed on the flat grounds below. They lit the fire and all the monks came to sit around it. They did some purification (?) rituals where they'd move around the fire in a square as the fire burned and collapsed on itself, making a nice bed of coals. Then the person I guess was the highest since he had a hood-type hat on, got up and blessed the fire, and then walked on the coals. The monks got up and and took turns walking across the hot coals. Then it was the bystanders' turn.

I knew I'd have lots of strange experiences here, but I never thought I'd participate in a mad rush to walk across hot coals. But nearly everyone, old women, children, gai-jin, everyone wanted in on it. By the time we got up there, so many people had gone through that there weren't many coals to walk on, mostly a dirt path cleared out. But it was still a little hot, though by that time our feet had been numbed by the cold.

It was so exciting to experience a ritual like that. If someone were to look at the pictures and see the movies I took, with the chanting and fire-waving, it might seem to be something more satanic than anything else. But everyone there seemed to have a good time, and after it was over, the monks stood on the balcony of their dorms nearby and threw packets of mochi and bags of prawn chips to the crowds. The Japanese, known for their politeness and respect, showed none of that there. Two middle-aged ladies were scuffling on the ground for a packet of mochi that couldn't have cost more than 100 yen, and everyone was trying to get something. Afterwards, we went out with Sheila to an izakaya for sushi and beer. On the whole, a satisfying experience.

It makes me want to learn more about the different festivals and the Shinto religion. Most Japanese are pretty areligious. They get married in a chapel or a church, not very often at a shrine or temple anymore, because it's considered popular to get married in the Western fashion, with a white wedding gown and a priest to officiate. No matter the Christian implications. Just like how everyone has Christmas lights up now and displays are all over the place, but most Japanese have no clue what it's about. At least, I can't figure that out from my students.

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