Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Dancing With Spirits: Festivals and Folklore of Japan

Book Review: Dancing With Spirits: Festivals and Folklore of Japan by Denny Sargent (Megalithica Books 2010)

This was an awesome book written in an engaging and fun style yet conveying much information and personal observation by one qualified by both vocation and lifestyle to author such a book. The spirits in Japan are called Kami and Kami are said to be everywhere and in the millions. There in “The Land of the Rising Sun” the most famous and venerated of the Kami is the sun goddess, Amaterasu OmiKami. According to Shinto scholars a Kami is defined as “any specific Power that causes awe.” Thus Kami can refer to gods, goddesses, elementals, nature spirits, devils, ghosts, souls, or ancestral spirits. Shinto is the original animistic nature religion of Japan. In the late 500’s AD Buddhism was introduced from China. These forms of Chan and Pure Land Buddhism also had mixed in elements of Chinese Taoism, especially Chan, which became Zen. Thus Shinto took on aspects of these belief systems, both Indian and Chinese forms. The numerous seasonal festivals in Japan are said to be celebrated with great vigor and delight. They are called Matsuri. One of the most famous nature Kami is Asama, the Godddess of Mt Fuji, the most prominent and picturesque mountain in Japan.

He describes Shinto as a modern shamanic religion and notes that a common aim of rites is to purify and make prosperous. One is likelt to hear chanting in Buddhist Temples. The Nichiren sect highly venerates the Lotus Sutra and the devotional chant to the lotus law:
NAM MYO HO RENGYE KO. The Jodo-Shin sect venerates Amithaba Buddha (Amida Butsu) and one is likely to hear the chant NAM AMIDA BUTSU. There is even a Tantric Buddhist Sect in Japan called Shingon which according to the Dalai Lama practices the Carya class of tantra which had not been transfered to Tibet from India but from India to China and then on to Japan. This form is said by him to involve lots of mudras and bodily movements. In contrast, Zen Temples fccus mainly on quiet sitting meditation, or zazen.

The author notes that there are few texts in Shinto but some revered texts involve histories, laws, traditions, mythology, ceremonies, and prayers. There are very few actual books written about Shinto as others have noted and this particular book would be valuable for a tourist or temporary foreign inhabitant of Japan. Apparently, very few regular Japanese folk know the details of Shinto and its history and symbolism with great depth, although the priests who take care of the shrines do.

This book is profusely illustrated with some wonderful photos taken by the author’s wife, Rebecca, that are right with the chapter content. My only regret is that they are not color plates that might reveal the rich colors associated with festivals. The pictures help to bring out the festive spirit described in the book.

First he goes through all the major Shinto festivals beginning with the New Year, or Shogatsu. Interestingly, the New Year festival in Japan, derived from the Chinese was moved to January 1st to reflect the western calendar. It actually runs from Dec 31st to Jan 7th. As in other oriental New Years traditions everything is cleaned before the festivities. There is a custom in Japan of ringing the temple bells 108 times at midnight. The New Years Eve temple pilgrimage is common. Kimono clad children play special games with special toys. Special foods and cakes are eaten. People trade in their old onamori, or charms/amulets for new ones. One important one is called the hamaya. It is an arrow-shaped charm that is hung in the house to protect the family for the year. Though it is a tradition to stay up all night on the first day of the year and greet the sunrise, it is also considered good luck to have dreams of: Mt Fuji, a flying hawk, or an eggplant.

The next festival given is the welcoming spring fest in the beginning of February called Setsubun. This is when the two Oni of winter are chased away. These oni are like little devils, with horns and tails, although they are not strictly evil, just mischievous. Interestingly the two are oni are the red oni and the blue oni. only the blue oni is actaukly green but the issue as to why this is so is quite murky. Ritually, children pelt them with roasted soybeans. Often, dad will put on an oni-mask and get bean pelted by the children while running down the street to get rid of the difficulties of winter season, so these winter demons are chased away. After this each person eats the number of beans corresponding to their age. There is even a theatrical version done where the onis attack a Shinto shrine and the god of the shrine repels them with beans.

The next fest is Shchi-Go-San. This is called 3-5-7 day and is celebrated on November 15. It is a coming of age ceremony for small children of ages , 5, and 7 much like  naming, or Christening. These are the ages where children are more likely to live in places where childhood mortality is high. Children are taken to the temple in special clothing: kimonos and boys pleated skirts. special onamori charms are given and special foods are eaten.

Next is Hina Matsuri, or ‘Girl’s Day’ celebrated on March 3rd. Special dolls and doll assemblies are brought out and displayed. This is one of the ‘Five Great Festivals’ that came from China, along with New Years, Boy’s day, Star Festival, and Harvest Festival. The dolls may represent gods of domestic happiness and the emperor and empress are at the top. They may represent the Chinese King and Queen of Heaven. Health, beauty, marriage, and prosperity are the aspirations. The doll sets are often passed to daughters as family treasures.

Next is Hana Matsuri and Ohanami. This celebrates the birth of the Buddha (April 8) and the spring blossoms. Statues of infant Buddha are bathed with dippers full of sweet hydrangea tea. Special dances, dramas, and sutra chanting are also practiced. This coincides with the flowering of the Cherry trees, called sakura. People picnic under the splendid flowering trees. I have several of these trees at home and one near the window seems to pleasantly ‘freak me out’ every year when I come down from bed on the first morning it blooms.

Boy’s Day Festival is called Tango-No-Sekku. This happens on May 5th. Giant carp banners hang everywhere. It is based on an earlier festival called the ‘Feast of the Iris’ which coincides with the blooming of the irises. Iris was an important herbal medicine and a masculine symbol. A hot bath is filled with iris leaves and a long soak is said to promote strength and stamina. Finely-chopped leaves were mixed with heated sake. This was a favorite of the samurai who thought it helped them fight better. The carp banners and figures of ferocious warriors were used to ward off insects from causing damage in the fields. The festival is really a combination of festivals later decided as a day to foster martial spirit. Swords, helmets, and armor are displayed. The symbol of the carp is used since they have the strength and stamina to swim against river currents. war games are played and children are honored.

The Star Festival, called Tanabata, is celebrated in July or August based on a shifting lunar calendar. This fest is based on the ancient Chinese myth of the ‘Princess Weaver’ and her lover the Divine Cowherd (the star Altair). Since their love interfered with both the weaving and the herding, the King of Heaven banished them to either side of the Milky Way except for the one day – that is this festival. The Japanese weaver goddess Tanabata was entwined into the festival as well. Romance and wish-fulfillment are the qualities venerated and there is also a practice writing elegant poetry. The star gods are offered fruits and sweets. This is the time to make wishes upon stars.

Next is Obon, the autumn festival associated with the dead, ghosts, and ancestors. Obon is based on Shinto festivals, but mainly on the Buddhist Festival of Ullambana.This takes place in August. In China it became the Ghost Festival. There are similarities to Halloween as the dead are invited back to visit and then sent back to their realms. There is a circle dance called the Bon Odori where the ancestors are invited to join the dance. Family graves are visited and cleaned up. Offerings are made here, one of a horse made out of an eggplant that is symbolic as a vehicle for the dead to ride in order to visit. There are many ghost stories where the ghosts did not make it back to their realms and instead decide to haunt. There are games too, even a Japanese version of a Ouija board. The author notes that most Japanese have many ghost stories and he goes through some famous ones.

The Autumnal Moon Viewing festival is called Tsukimi. It is just that – a time to get together to enjoy the full autumn moon. It is probably derived from a yearly dedication and offering to the Moon Goddess, Tsukiyomi no Kami. She is the sister of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu-Omakimi. They were born from the two eyes of the creator god. Autumnal harvest foods are offered, bathed in moonlight. Offerings of flowering grasses are also common.

One of the more peculiar festivals is the fertility festival called Kanamara Matsuri. Well made up cross-dressing men hoist a seven foot pink penis and lead it around town . Penis and vagina icons and charms are everywhere and also eaten as candy. The legend of its origin has to do with a young woman who had many suitors. After her husband was chosen he got in bed with her and found his penis bit off by her vaginal teeth. Then the clever blacksmith made an iron penis and when he put it in her teeth broke off rendering her safe for entry. Like at many of the festivals, sake and beer are reveled in. People wear styrofoam strap on penises and there are huge ones that several people can straddle. “In general, things were done that the photographic evidence of which probably discretely disappeared later on.”

Next he talks about Tenjin and Tenjin shrines. Tenjin, or ‘heavenly god’ – also called Kanko, is the Shinto deity of learning and wisdom. He is venerated especially by students and intellectuals. He was a real man from the 800’s AD that was a genius but exiled by a jealous emperor.

Next he discusses the amulets, or onamori. There are some to protect houses, like the arrow onamori, some to protect drivers, and a Tenjin onamori for students. There are white and red ones for married couples. One for the man and one for the woman. Onamori are given out at shrines, particularly on festival days. Some are passed down in families. There are also health charms and money charms and charms that represent Shinto deities.

He discusses some interesting Japanese magical creatures. First he mentions kappa, small knee-high green critters that haunt lakes which is apparently a major reason that few people swim in lakes in Japan since they are said to drag children and animals under the water and turn their bowels inside out. But there are occasional friendly kappa as well, especially if they can be tricked. Giant white spirit serpents are also said to inhabit lakes. The Serpent Goddess Amo-Ga-Ike is prayed to for rain. She dislikes any metal in the lake where she lives. She is said to transform into a maiden, to have married a human man and they have descendents with scales on their body. There are many other were-animals too: foxes, cats, badgers, racoon-dogs, storks, snakes, and frogs. Foxes are especially prone. There are said to be two kinds of fox-spirits, those that serve the rice Goddess Inari (she is usually depicted as an orange gate, called torri, and flanked by two white foxes) and mischievous or evil ones. There are millions of those Inari shrines throughout the land. Often near the shrines there will be a cave where the “spirit fox” is said to live. The fox spirit is said to carry the blessings of the goddess so offerings and prayers are made near the caves. People with psychic abilities are sometimes said to be descendents of fox spirits. There are mountain kami called Tengu. The early ones were human-like with wings and beaks. Later they were depicted with red faces and phallic noses. They are trickster-spirits said to be placated with offerings of sake. In some places tengu are revered as guardian spirits by the yamaboshi, or mountain priests who practice a Shinto-Buddhist mix. He says that pictures of Tengu and kappa can be found all over the place. I am sure that those ubiquitous renderings help to glue the traditions and beliefs together.

Daigoku-Sama is the Japanese wealth spirit and inhabits all businesses, often as a statue of a short, fat little man with a cap with a sack over his left shoulder and a hammer in his upraised right hand. Sometimes he stands on large casks of rice. Rice is associated with agricultural wealth as bundles of rice were a key item of trade and payment in history. So he is a local wealth god but also combined iconographically with gods derived from India
such as Mahakala and Ganesh, as he is often depicted with a rat at his feet. Other gods derived from China and India are the seven lucky gods. One of these is Benten, associated with learning and the arts and thought to be equivalent to the Indian Sarasvati. Daigoku is also one of these seven. With his hammer he is said to cut through obstacles much like Ganesh.

There are heavenly kami and earthly kami. Of the Celestial Kami, the sun goddess Amaterasu-OmiKami is the most venerated. She is credited with teaching people to plant rice and weave cloth. She and her brother Susano, (a god of Earth and storm) created two of the three treasures: the Mirror and the Necklace of Precious Stones. The other is the Sacred Sword. They are said to hang on masakaki trees, sacred in Shinto rites. The Sun Goddess is said to have given these things to the first emperor and the royal family claims to still have them. The royal family is said to descend from Amaterasu herself as she originally sent her grandson to take control of the earthly realm in her name. Originally rulership was said to be in a female lineage and the Shaman Queen was said to be the emperor’s wife and sister, a not too uncommon rulership motif. Priestesses were called ‘daughters of the Sun.’ The Earth Goddess of Japan is the Rice Goddess, Inari. She is depicted as orange torri gates flanked by white foxes. She has a long history as a folk goddess and old shrines to her are often excavated so he is very old and is considered now a conglomerate of many local goddesses. She has aspects as a goddess of food. She is also associated with Ame-no-Uzume, the goddess who danced the first rite, luring Amaterasu out of her cave.

Shrines are often associated with place, as in many shamanistic cultures. So where dreams and visions occur, or legends, that is where the shrines end up. Buddhists also rever the goddess Inari as a dakinisen, deriving from the Snskrit word dakini, a type of wisdom goddess of the tantric tradition. In her dakinisen form, Inari is depicted as a beautiful goddess with flowing hair, carrying sheafs of rice, and riding on a large white fox. her symbol of the orange gates is a feminine symbol and the white foxes (male on left and female on right) – the male carries a key or rod and the female hold a ball or a tear-drop shape with flames. These are likely esoteric gender/sexuality symbols associated with fertility, both physical and spiritual. The key opens the storehouse of rice (or perhaps wisdom) and the faming tear is said to symbolize life energy, or Ki. The Goddess of the ocean, Funadama, is venerated by fishermen. Her shrines are made as niches in the masts of ships.

Again, this was a wonderful book with wonderful pictures. Interestingly, I was looking for a good book on Shinto, when the author announced on a magickal e-group lodge we are both part of, that he just published one. As he notes, with the advent of Buddhism long ago in Japan, the Kami and the bodhisattvas merged and my only wish is that he would have included more of the Buddhist bodhisattvas and deities that are very popular there such as Jizo, and Kannon, and perhaps some of the Shingon Tantric protectors as well and not to forget the venerated Zen Masters such as Bodhidharma (called Damaru in Japan)  that are well depicted. 

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