By Avi Landau
It is easy for us to understand now, with our knowledge of bacteria and its relation to disease, why historically, epidemics were a frequent feature of Japanese summers, especially in the towns and cities. First, there were, as there still are, the rains of June, which often resulted in flooding ( which has now become rare as a result of extensive public-works projects). This spread all kinds of muck and filth, which then started to fester when the rains subsided and Japan`s stifflingly hot and humid summers shifted into full gear- perfect conditions for the proliferation of germs!. The situation in places with higher concentrations of people, and more garbage, and animal and human waste, was obviously even more dangerous than in less sparsely populated areas.
Traditional modes of Japanese thinking gave rise to a different explanation for the frequent occurence of flooding , sickness and death during the summer months- namely, the presence of evil energies or spirits ( aku no rei, or onryo). Naturally, based on this concept, traditional diviners and priests devised certain techniques to get rid of these dangerous forces and keep the populace safe- and these are still applied today ( even though most people are not conscious of their original meanings) during Japan`s summer festivals ( Natsu Matsuri).
The most famous of these, and in fact the Mother-Of-All summer festivals, is Kyoto`s Gion Matsuri, which was first held in its original form in the year 869 in order to quell an epidemic which had been raging in the city. The ceremonies on that day were carried out under the auspices of the Gion Shrine ( now Yasaka Jinja), because the divinities enshrined there were Gozu Tenno ( Gavragriva in Sanskrit) and the native Japanese God Susanoo-No-Mikoto, both of whom are associated with disease prevention.
In that first Gion Festival ( originally called the Gion Goryo-e), 66 long, spear-like poles called hoko, representing the 66 provinces of Japan at that time, were stood upright. The idea behind this, was first to attract the Gods to that place, and then to suck up the bad energies. In subsequent years, these poles were placed on giant floats, which were wheeled around the town. These floats ( also called hoko) later came to be elaborately decorated and also carried musician and dancers as well.
The rites held then, more than 1,000 years ago, certainly made a huge impression, and they have been held almost every summer since. And not only in Kyoto. Similar festivals are held at the nearly 3,000 Gion Shrines ( now Yasaka Jinja) which have sprung up all throughout Japan over the centuries, as well as at the thousands of other shrines called Tsushima Jinja or Hikawa Jinja, at which the same Gods are enshrined.
One important difference between this areas Gion Festivals and Kyoto`s is that instead of wheeled floats, however, most of these shrines employ what are called O-Mikoshi (portable shrines born on the shoulders of bearers, like a palanquin) for their festivals. The music and dancing , however, are still quite the same. ( This might be because in Kyoto, wheeled Ox-carts were used to transport the Emperor and the aristocracy, while here, in Eastern Japan, especially in during the Edo Period, palanquins were used to transport the upper classes- thus the God bearing vehicles might reflect these regional differences).
The original thinking behind all of this was that after the Gods had been called down and attracted into the vehicles, the bad energies or spirits would be attracted by all the music , dancing, and attractive floats and/or mikoshi themselves as they passed by. In this way, just as the Pied-Piper of Hamelin rid the town of rats by luring them away with his music, the floats/mikoshi attracted and absorbed bad energies, like spiritual vaccuum cleaners, if you will, and thus cleansing the neighborhood
What then should be done, according to traditional thinking, with all these bad energies/spirits which have been absorbed by the mikoshi or floats?-They have to be RINSED AWAY, of course!
That is why, at rest stops during these summer festivals you can often see water being splashed ( even if the original purpose has been lost to those who do this!). Sometimes, however, this rinsing is even more flagrant, and the portable shrines are actually carried into a river or the sea!
That is the reason why early tomorrow morning ( July 29, 2010), the great, old, one-ton O-Mikoshi of the Haguro Shrine (called the Meiji Mikoshi- built in 1895 to celebrate Japan`s victory in the Sino-Japanese War), one of the centerpieces of Shimodate`s exuberant Gion Matsuri Festival ( along with the newer, 2-ton Heisei Mikoshi- said to be the biggest in all Japan!),was lowered into the Gogyo River ( after its decorations had been removed and a sash wrapped around it) and then shaken about by its dozens of bearers. This ritually rinsed away all the bad energies which had been absorbed by the mikoshi as it was shaken, often in a frenzy, during the first two days of the festival. After being lifted from the river, the mikoshi was carried back to the shrine for more ceremonies before it was put away.
And with the closing of this, great Gion Festival, we have pretty much come to the end of this areas Gion Festival Season, (though there still are a few of them coming up!) . Once again it has been extremely fruitful time of yeasr for me, if not because disease causing energies or spirits have been cast away, then by providing me with many special memories and plenty of fresh aquaintance.
The those of you, who like me, love traditional Matsuri, this might sound like all the fun is over. But have no fear! Its time to head up to Tohoku ( the North-Eastern Region of Honshu Island) for some really huge, NOT-TO-BE-MISSED events- the Nebuta and Neputa Festivals in Aomori and the Kanto Festival in Akita!
And if you are interested, long ago I wrote a song with Tom Debor and Ascelin Gordon called- Shimodate (下館), since Tom, now a diplomat, was living there. It was recorded by that legendary Tsukuba-based band- Xenophonia. You can have a listen here: