The lively rhythm of Hana-matsuri (“the Festival of the Flowers”) that delights the spectators in Ashikome, Tōei-chō, Aichi prefecture, on 26th November, makes them react as though they were in a trance. Here the folk observance was always considered such precious local entertainment that it was not discontinued even during World War II. In order to be safe during bombing, the organizers covered the windows with straw mats and minded but their matsuri.
The central part in Hana-matsuri (also called Okumikawa-kagura) is represented by religious rituals and sacred dances kagura, art and entertainment interweaving genuinely.
The masked and unmasked dances performed for over twenty hours are meant to purify the land and to ward off evil spirits. They can also be considered prayers for bountiful crops, for the peace and security of the village, and the good health of its inhabitants. Kami and people enter into close communion, carried away by the soft sound of the flute and the vigorous drumbeats.
The presence of the kami is shown here through the canopies. Besides the big colourful canopy, many little canopies are given as offerings by the parishioners who had that year a new house built or a newly born baby. In order to transmit the prayers addressed to kami, people use rituals and dances.
One of the most important features of Hana-matsuri is the entertainment of both deities and spectators through demon’s dances. Some specialists consider the demons here to be scapegoats meant to take over all the impurities, whilst others believe them to be both mountain gods evolving from local ancestral spirits and earthly gods with divine names. Irrespective of their origin and manifestation, Hana-matsuri as a ritual meant to renew the life forces of the community during the cold winters is of a paramount importance.
The original form of Hana-matsuri is Yudate-kagura, pointing out the belief in two of the five essential elements of the universe: water and fire. It is a special purifying ritual in which water is boiled in a large cauldron inside the place where yudate (“purification through hot water”) takes place. The purifying role of the boiling water is increased by having been fetched from the waterfall, a place that had been previously made sacred through ritual.
The full repertoire of Hana-matsuri contains as many as forty dances, but I will focus upon only some of the most representative, as it would take tens of pages to describe them all, even though summarily.
The standing people make up a tight circle around the cauldron, often encroaching upon dancers. The atmosphere becomes really exciting and the community gives the impression of breaking the rules and violating the taboos. At least, it was what I felt, knowing the Japanese did not amuse themselves so wildly in public.
Little by little I came to judge the whole festival as a way of unfettering the energies accumulated throughout the year, my opinion being supported by the fact that the ritual violations showed up only at night – the most favourable time for nonconformist and even licentious behaviour.
When the huge red demon called Sakaki-oni (“the Demon with a sacred Sakaki Branch”) appears, any noise dies down. He is regarded as an important deity who brings about rich harvest, health and prosperity for the villagers. He also purifies the place with his huge magic-like strides and by brandishing his axe in all directions.
Letter to Japan
UMC Bucharest 2020
Photos: Angela Hondru©