On-matsuri - The quintessence of the Japanese rituals and culture

Posted: 14/12/2020
Category: Japanese Festivals

Nara, another cradle of traditional culture, Japan’s capital before Kyōto, offered to me in December 2000 moments of spiritual elation I can hardly express in words. I really felt like having been transposed to the realm of the kami and I tried to fancy what it meant for the Japanese participating in the festival. In order to disclose such feelings, I would first summarily go through some of the events that make up On-matsuri at Kasuga-taisha. Professor Shunsuke Okunishi, my distinguished adviser during the two stages of research, had told me it was the quintessence of the rituals and of the Japanese traditional culture. And he was absolutely right.

According to documents from the 12th century, devastating downpour brought about severe damage. When finding out they had no choice but use the precious supplies laid aside for force majeure, the main councillor of Emperor Toba decided to beg for the help of Wakamiya deity within Kasuga-taisha. On 17th September 1136 he ordered that a temporary abode be built and a gorgeous festival be carried on in honour of Wakamiya. The date of On-matsuri has changed along the time, but it has been performed uninterruptedly since then. It is a unique festive event not only because it preserves all the rituals typical of such an observance, but it also exhibits, in front of the spectators, songs and dances that were most representative of the epochs they covered, namely, from the 9th century through the 19th century.

On-matsuri starts on 15th December at Ōshukusho (“the great temporary abode”) in the centre of Nara, especially laid out for the purification of the priests and of the participants in the festival one day before the descent of the Kami amongst the parishioners. The ritual is carried out here by a miko, who uses a bunch of bamboo grass dipped into boiling water in order to sprinkle them. By shaking the suzu bells and the sleeves of her attire, she performs a shaman-type of a dance through which she calls the Kami down.

The ritual of food offerings reveals genuine mastery of gestures, seemingly meant to lure the onlooker to heartily step onto the sacred realm enveloped in the flavour of special dishes. After another kagura, evidence of the communion between the deity and the participants, priests and representatives of the parishioners advance in strict order, after being purified by a high rank priest, and display branches of sakaki in front of the food offerings. People who attend the ritual are then each provided with a bowl of soup in which some of the vegetables like those offered to the deity have been boiled. Naorai, the mysterious communion meal, is going on by the light of the fairy-like outdoor fire. People have dinner together, looking forward to the rituals on the following day: Wakamiya’s transfer from his shrine to the temporary abode called otabisho, in the precincts of Kasuga-taisha, and the entertainment offerings – a touching proof of the community’s gratitude for the everlasting protection of the deity.

Wakamiya's permanent abode
Wakamiya's permanent abode
©Angela Hondru

On 16th December I stood still from morning till evening in front of the permanent abode of the Wakamiya deity to watch other rituals and to enjoy kagura. At 10:30 p.m. a high rank priest addressed the first invitation to the Kami to descend; after half an hour there was a second invitation and, after the third, at 11:30 p.m., the priest opened the doors of the sanctuary, the lights went out, and he closed the doors. The goshintai (“the object of worship”) was transferred by a procession of priests donned in pure white robes, with sakaki branches in their hands, accompanied by a crowd of people longing to directly participate in the secret ceremony full of mystery. The priests tightly surrounded the goshintai, shuffling their feet by the light of a big torch that low rank priests dragged amongst the trees. The white smoke rising from the huge torch toward the sky increased even more the magic of the ritual, making me think it could not be an earthly one. I do not remember having experienced in my life moments of greater elation, to make me get the goose flesh. The procession of the priests and participants advanced slowly amidst the priests’ murmuring sounds, leaving the impression that the whole hill was moving. I felt as if the priests’ steps were the very steps of the deity. The unreal seemed to be everywhere around. The Moon on that cloudless night came to add to the whole mysterious atmosphere. After more than ten years my heart still thrills with joy when I think of that magnificent night, sometimes wondering whether it was not only a dream. Anyway, the rituals within On-matsuri make me easily fancy what the land of the gods looks like – the land that mirrors the Japanese soul better than any other religion could have done it.

The transfer of the Kami to his temporary abode is immediately followed by thrusting a pair of pine trees in two sand cones at its entrance. They indicate the border between sacred and profane, being dedicated from the very beginning a special kagura performed by a single miko. The fan she handles narrates the story of the pine trees and the deity’s high glee when watching the sacred dance. There follows another ritual of food offerings and prayers, and a kagura dance that precedes the removal of offerings. Then the deity is allowed to have a good rest until noon in order to cope with the storm of cultural events.

Kofuku-ji, Nara, Japan
Kōfuku-ji, Nara, Japan
©Cristi Diaconu

The impressive Procession of the Eras starts at Kōfuku-ji and it takes three hours up to the temporary abode. The main entertainment takes place under the pine near the first torii of Kasuga-taisha. It is here that the five hundred people in the procession display customs and manners of each historical era, showing their talent and specific costumes and instruments. After a couple of rituals of food offerings traditional dances are performed atOtabisho. I am not going to introduce the dances, but I would like to mention that they have been handed down through centuries, since the very beginning of On-matsuri, and they show different facets of Japanese culture – a result of the assimilating spirit of the people who absorbed them dynamically and fashioned them so that they might come up with their spiritual existence. Some of them may have disappeared from their originating country on the Continent, but they keep their ancient charm within the Japanese observances, whilst Kasuga-taisha has changed them into real Shinto offerings to delight the deities who have come to abide here. Such dances, as well as all the rituals that make up On-matsuri, which is so representative of the Japanese thought, have become genuine symbols of Japan’s soul – a soul revealing itself through them and not through shallow but noisy spectacles which, due to their global character, aim at effacing the borders marked by cultural identities.

After the extremely busy programme, Ame-no-Oshikumone (i.e. Wakamiya) enjoys a good rest before his return to the permanent abode on 17th December at midnight, in the same mysterious atmosphere like on the first night when he was transferred to the temporary abode.

Fragment collected from „Letter to Japan” by Angela Hondru, UMC 2020.

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