The Circle of Life – Rituals, Celebrations and Festivals in Japan

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Living in Japan, I’ve been flabbergasted a number of times when asked, in all seriousness, if my home country of England has the same cycle of four seasons as Japan – something they hold as unique and prized.

While politely pointing out that Japan is not alone in recognising the passage of four distinct seasons, you have to admit the seasonal changes here have a more dramatic flair. As I write from my home in Kyoto, the mercury has hit 39°C making it hard to recall the thick blanket of snow that comes with winter. The spring and autumn seasons, with their famous cherry blossoms and autumn leaves respectively, bring their own concrete distinctions. The ensuing appreciation, sometimes even verging on fetishization, of the seasons in Japan has had a wide-ranging effect on literature, art, and the cycle of annual observances in Japan.

Life in Japan places a unique emphasis on cycles; whether it be on the journey from birth to death, the annual round of the seasons, or the monthly and even daily observances at Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples across the country.

New Year is perhaps the most important family occasion in Japan, when people travel back to their hometowns to be with their families. The mass exodus from Tokyo by air, rail, and road makes the news every year, with hours of backed up traffic congestion on the way out of the capital, and then the reverse a few days later. The festivities begin on New Year’s Eve, when families will often visit a Buddhist temple to listen to the huge bell being rung 108 times, one toll to cleanse each of the defilements that we have according to Buddhist teachings. At some point over the next three days the family will likely visit a Shinto shrine for ‘hatsumode’, the first shrine visit of the new year. Over the first three days of the new year, over 3 million people visit the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo! Visitors will pray for health and happiness in the year to come, and will most likely pay to receive an ‘omikuji’, a randomly drawn slip of paper which tells your fortune.

Hatsumode at Shimogamo Shrine, Kyoto

Almost all shrines and temples in Japan sell ‘omamori’, a kind of lucky amulet contained in a small fabric pouch. In a rather business-savvy move, the religious establishments in Japan insist that these charms ‘expire’ after a year, so it’s traditional to take your old ones back to where you bought them at New Year, where they are ritually burned, and to purchase new ‘fresh’ ones. You can buy omamori tailored to life’s hurdles like passing examinations, safe childbirth or job hunting!

Good health for the year ahead is always a prime concern, and many temples and shrines hold special festivals during the first weeks of the New Year with this in mind. The Hoju-ji and Rokuharamitsu-ji temples in Kyoto both draw huge crowds in early January as people visit to partake of the magical radish soup and pickled plum tea, both believed to protect the body from illness in the year ahead.

Japanese Lucky Charms, insideJapan
Omamori

Even your dreams on the night of New Year’s Day are said to have a predictive effect on the year ahead. Known as ‘hatsuyume’, meaning ‘first dream’, it’s considered to be particularly auspicious to dream of Mt. Fuji, eagles, and aubergines! Decorative hanging scrolls hung in households at New Year often contain one or all of these motifs, perhaps in an effort to influence your dream state.

The next major seasonal festival in Japan is Setsubun on February 3rd, which traditionally marked the beginning of spring according to the lunar calendar, although according to the modern calendar, it still feels decidedly wintery. The most famous Setsubun tradition is called ‘mamemaki’, or ‘bean scattering’, in which the male head of the household dresses up as a demon while other members of his family throw dried soybeans at him while shouting ‘Demons Out, Good Luck In!’. Many temples and shrines in Japan stage large scale performances of this ritual where people try to catch the beans to take home for good luck.

The mid-august ‘Obon’ festival of the ancestors is perhaps second only to New Years in importance in Japan, and is the only other time of year that sees a mass exodus out of the major cities as people return to their hometowns and villages. At Obon, the spirits of the deceased are thought to return to this world for a short time and are greeted and hosted by their descendants. Families will go together to their parish temple to clean and decorate their ancestral grave, and larger households that have a Buddhist altar in their homes will invite a priest to come to their house to perform a memorial service. Many of Japan’s major festivals take place at this time of year in mid-summer, and will often incorporate a ‘Bon-Odori’ where the whole town comes dressed in their yukata, a light cotton kimono, to perform a rhythmic dance around a central stage accompanied by traditional music.

Fire ritual at Tanukidanisan Fudoin

In Kyoto, August 16th is the ‘Daimonji’ festival, which marks the end of Obon, during which five huge bonfires are lit on the mountainside surrounding the city, guiding the spirits of the ancestors home.

Although related to neither Buddhism or Shinto, Christmas in Japan also sees its fair share of festivity in contemporary Japan, although mainly of a secular and commercialised nature. Christmas Eve has become something of a second Valentine’s Day, and anyone hoping to secure a table at a nice restaurant at the last minute will likely be disappointed! Due to very clever marketing, KFC has also managed to convince the entire nation that tradition dictates ordering a large bucket of fried chicken on Christmas Day – it’s so popular you need to make a pick-up reservation weeks in advance!

Major members of the Buddhist and Shinto pantheons of deities each have an ‘ennichi’, a day in which their influence is thought to be most powerful. For me personally, the 28th of each month holds a special place in my heart, as it’s the ennichi of my favourite Buddhist deity, Fudo Myoo. He’s a rather wrathful looking chap, but deep down he’s a big softy! At Tanukidani Fudo-in, my favourite temple in Kyoto, which enshrines Fudo Myoo as the main deity, each month on the 28th there is a special service. Of these, by far the most impressive one takes places annually on July 28th, when mountain ascetic priests perform a fire ceremony in the central courtyard, which involves the practice of ‘fire walking’ across burning embers. After the embers have died down to an appropriate level, even members of the public are invited to traverse the flames. Not for the faint of heart!

Richard Farmer at Fudo Myoo

For many in Japan, ritual cycles also take place on a daily basis. Many of the older generation, who tend to be more devout, begin each day in front of their household Buddhist altar. Lighting a candle and some incense, they spend a few minutes praying, with deceased family members being the main focus of contemplation. Outside of the home, at large temples such as Zenko-ji in Nagano, it’s not uncommon to see worshippers who attend the main service every day, which is held at an ungodly hour of the morning! Even in large cities such as Tokyo or Osaka, one will often see a suited office worker with their briefcase make their regular 60-second stop at a Shinto shrine along the route to their office; likely praying that their next business deal will be a success!

As a tour leader in a country with no tourists, I’ve found the time to attend to something that’s long been on my bucket list: the Shikoku Henro. Also known as the 88 Temple Pilgrimage, it’s one of the oldest in the world. Forget going from A to B though – even this is cyclical in nature. There is no “goal”, instead one circumambulates 1,200km around the whole of Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands, to each of its 88 temples. It takes at least 6 weeks to complete on foot, these days it’s pretty acceptable to complete the pilgrimage by bicycle, car, or even coach tour! I’ve been visiting each of the four prefectures of Shikoku one-by-one (and yes, I’ll admit to doing it by car rather than on foot!).

Shikoku pilgrim

At one of the temples, I met Takahashi-san, a man in his late seventies who was completing the pilgrimage (on foot!) for the 15th time. It’s traditional for walking pilgrims to use a wooden hiking stick with a bell on the end; talking with Takahashi-san, I noticed that he was carrying two, something I’d never seen before. The second had belonged to his wife, now deceased, with whom he had completed the pilgrimage a number of times in the past. I was incredibly moved by the fact that for Takahashi-san’s wife, the cyclical nature of life in Japan hadn’t ceased with the passing of her body, but that she continued to travel around and around Shikoku accompanying her husband on the route that they once traversed together.

Along with Takahashi-san’s wife, the spirits of the ancestors in Japan who continue to be worshipped each August during the Obon festival, or even daily at household Buddhist altars, continue to be a part of a never ending cycle of reverence and remembrance; a cycle that their decedents will also join in time, and therefore one that never truly ends.

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