Monthly Archives: April 2012

The Great Spring Festival, part 2

Opening rituals done, and now begins the fun.

(Part 1 of this post can be found here.)

These five lit up goma precede the main fire of saito goma. The number of five represents a variety things in Esoteric Buddhism: five types of wisdom, five buddhas, or five luminous kings (明王). In this ritual, these deities are called down.

As the deities descend, the circle of practitioners chant and form hand mudra, both of which are meant to guard the deities against the scorching flames.

Now the main "saito goma" lights up. Characteristic of Shugendo, the saito goma is done outdoors with long spruce branches that billow out smoke. Formerly, it was conducted in the mountains. The name of this one - Ontake-san hon goma 御岳山本護摩 - suggests that it was traditionally held on Mt. Ontake itself.

Note the bare feet, soon to be treading through the glowing coals of the goma.

Here is one of the first gyoja 行者 (practitioners) to walk across the coals in what is called hi-watari 火渡り, literally "fire crossing." The white salt you rub your feet in before the coals may lessen some of the heat, but not by much! This type of event was formerly practiced by shugen specialists after sustained periods of ascetic practice in the mountains. It was believed that these austerities in the mountains awarded them supernatural powers. They could then showcase these powers at events such as this one in order to attract lay followers (an important source of income).

Now anyone can cross the coals. Laity undergo it in order to gain this-worldly benefits (現世利益).

A young girl carried across by a specialist. Shortly after, others in line were discouraged from following suit, given the danger of falling.

Ha-watari 刃渡り, or "sword crossing," is less commonly practiced than the hi-watari. Sharp sword blades make up the rungs of the ladder, which leans against a wooden tower in the picture. Luckily, a regular ladder takes you down the other side.

Done properly, one comes out unscathed. That said, this woman's face shows the pain her feet are feeling.

One of several prayer men attempting to insure safe passage.


The Great Spring Festival (春季大会), Honjo, Saitama Ken, part 1

Last week, I took the two hour local train from Shinagawa up to Honjo, Saitama to check out an annual festival at the Fukan Reijo (literally, the “numinous site of Fukan”).  Fukan was an eighteenth century ascetic who is said to have “opened up the mountain” (開闢) of Ontake.  Before this, the mountain had guarded by local ascetics who only climbed it after long periods of seclusion.  Through a sudden possession by the Great Avatar Zao (大権現座王) while on Ontake, Fukan was able to climb to the summit, thereby opening it to ordinary people afterwards.

Today, various confraternities (講) based mainly in the prefectures of Saitama and Gunma continue to gather at the Great Spring Festival and other smaller events to pray to Fukan for immediate benefits (現世利益) like the prevention or healing of disease, financial concerns, etc.

Numerous confraternities participate in the festival and each has a specific role to fulfill for the larger program of events.  The rituals are largely based on shugen practices dating back to at least the Edo period (1600-1868).  They comprise a mix of divination rituals, invitations to deities to enter the ritual space, and ‘extreme’ (in X Games parlance) events traditionally intended to showcase special powers acquired by the ascetics involved.

The festival will be divided into two blog posts:  this one will cover the preparations and rituals leading up to the shugen event of saito goma 採燈護摩;  and the next will cover the saito goma and events after.  Also, special thanks to my advisor, Suzuki Masataka (Professor of Social Sciences at Keio Daigaku) for painstakingly answering questions I had regarding these pictures.

As the name suggests, the Great Spring Festival takes place on April 10th, just as the sakura are in full bloom. In the background is the Fukan Hall.

One of many altars set up for the festival. It consists of mochi (rice cakes), sake, flowers, fresh vegetables and fruit, prepared as offerings.

The events begin with a procession of all specialists to Fukan Hall. Leading the procession is the resident priest of Fukan Reijo.

The procession is announced by the horagai 法螺貝, an instrument made mainly of a single large conch shell, typically used by practitioners of Shugendo.

Within the procession, a tengu wards off evil spirits with his sword.

Young children, dressed up in costume, are seen as occupying a liminal space between humans and the spirit world. Thus, their presence plays an important role as the practitioners will soon be hoping to engage with this realm.

A confraternity prepares one of many goma 護摩, which will later be lit in succession.

A confraternity boils water for the yudate 湯立て ritual, where water, once brought to a boil, is flung throughout the area.

The resident priest performs chants and mudra (hand gestures) before the saito goma, a major outdoor goma ritual specific to Shugendo.

Preparing a goma with incense on top. This goma will be the first to ignite, with its flame then carried to other gomas. Designated as the most powerful specialist here, he wields a shakujo 錫杖 staff in one hand and a vajra dagger in the other.

A shrine priest slices a sword through the air, ridding the space of evil spirits before the saito goma is lit.


Spring snow

While the crowds were rushing to view the cherry blossoms in Tokyo a few weekends back, I spent a few days tromping about in the still-winter scape of Togakushi.  The chest-high snow blanketed most sounds, save for a few audible hints of spring:  birds rustling about, river currents carving out paths beneath the snow pack, and the steady drum beat of avalanches ripping off the cliffs of Nishi-dake 西岳.