Tag Archives: ritual

The Dance of Princely Divinities: Scenes from the Ōji Shrine Dengaku Festival

To members of my dissertation committee, the recent influx of matsuri entries on my blog might raise eyebrows (i.e., that I’ve gotten a bit sidetracked from my main research).  Nevertheless, here’s another.

The shots below are taken from the Ōji Jinja Dengaku Mai 王子神社田楽舞, an annual festival in a northern section of Tokyo that centers on the dengaku dance.   Dengaku is a performance with roots in Kyoto.  As a form of kagura, it was historically intended to engage the deities, who descended into the bodies of the dancers through kamigakari 神懸かり (literally, “divine possession”).  The performance thus encompassed the movements of the deities, whose presence brought blessings to both dancers and spectators. (For an excellent, in-depth study, see Irit Averbuch’s book, The Gods Come Dancing.)

Ōji literally means “prince,” and accordingly, the performers of the Ōji dengaku are boys and girls around the ages of 8-10.  Children often occupied a liminal role in East Asian ritual (examples include Song period Daoism and Shugendo in Japan), in which they provided an interface between the spirit world and the human world.  As a comparative, children in North American/European cultures have also often been imagined to dwell close to the spirit realm (just think of The Shining, The Exorcist, or The Sixth Sense).

In Shugendo especially, young gods known as dōji 童子 acted as divine messengers, attendants of powerful deities like Fudō myōō 不動明王, occupants of mandalized mountains, and protectors of practitioners during their time in the mountains.  Ōji are in fact, a class of dōji originally from Kumano, thus suggesting a historical link between Kumano and the Ōji Shrine as well as the implied, divine nature of the dancers.

Dengaku and kagura 神楽 in general, nowadays, are no longer equated with acts of possession.  However, the specific step sequences of the dances still reflect the original choreography.  Moreover, the performances demonstrate how children continue to occupy a central role in many festivals throughout Japan.

(Click photos to enlarge.)

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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.