TsukuBlog

A Local Perspective on Life in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan.

New Year`s Decorations Go up In Smoke at the Big Dondo-Yaki (どんど焼き) Bonfire Saturday Morning January 11 (by the Sakura River at the Tsukuba-Tsuchiura Border)

A DONDO-YAKI bonfire by the Sakura River in Tsuchiura

The sun blocked out by a billow of smoke at the Tsuchiura Dondo-Yaki (January 11, 2014)

The sun blocked out by a billow of smoke at the Tsuchiura Dondo-Yaki (January 11, 2014)

In Tsukuba, when we want to get rid of anything unneeded or unwanted taking up space in or around our homes, it’s always necessary to consult the City`s GARBAGE SEPARATION MANUAL, which after much bewildered scrutinization might finally reveal when and where certain materials can be disposed of.
However, there are some items for which even that labyrinthine text gives no clue as to  how to deal with. For example, the festive decorations and other sacred objects that Japanese people, as a matter of pure common sense, would never simply throw into the garbage.
What is to be done with last year’s Daruma doll and the New Year’s shimenawa (sacred rope), kado-matsu ( a sort of Japanese Christmas tree in pairs) and other decorations?  The Japanese do not  need to have this information  printed in the Trash Disposal Manual. It is natural for them to take such items to a shrine to be disposed of respectfully, or bring them to a ritual burning ceremony usually called DONDOYAKI ( どんど焼き)in this area (though it is variously called called Sagicho- 左儀長, Dosojin-yaki, Sankuroyaki, Onpe, etc. in other parts of Japan).
The prye with a tree as its axis has been prepared for the Dondo-Yaki

The prye with a tree as its axis has been prepared for the Tsuchiura Dondo-Yaki

Preparing for the Tsuchiura dondo-Yaki on the banks of the Sakura River (with Mt. Tsukuba in the background)

Preparing for the Tsuchiura dondo-Yaki on the banks of the Sakura River (with Mt. Tsukuba in the background)

Traditionally, New Years Decorations and other sacred items have been burned at shrines ( or other set locations)  throughout Japan on January 14th or 15th. It has been ( and still is) considered VERY lucky and healthy to eat mochi rice cakes which have been roasted in these in the embers after these fires have burned out.
Since it  was believed that certain deities would descend at the beginning of the year, attracted to these sacred ropes, bamboos and paper etc., it was at the dondoyaki ceremonies these these spirits were thought to return, along with the smoke, to the heavens.
It is when watching the decorations go up in smoke, warmed by the large bon-fire on what is certainly a very cold January day, that the Japanese have the sense that the O-Shogatsu ( New Year`s) period is over.
A Dondo-Yaki ceremony in Akita Prefecture

A Dondo-Yaki ceremony in Akita Prefecture

I have also heard that practicioners of Japanese calligraphy (shodo), take their first works of the year ( kakizome), and put them into the pyres. If these works ascend high into the sky with the smoke,it is a sign that their skill will RISE this year.
If you have any  items (straw, wood or paper) that you would like to dispose of with respect, there will be a big dondoyaki bash held on the Tsukuba-Tsuchiura border, by the Gakuen O-hashi Bridge, on The Tsuchiura Gakuen Road (the same place from which the fireworks are launched at the Hanabi Festival). The event will be held on Saturday the 11th, and will begin at 11am. Mochi will be served to the first 200 people who sign up, and registration begins at 9am ( so get there early!).
Don’t put any plastic, ceramic or metal objects in the fire.
See you there! Its quite a spectacle with the huge bonfire and 200 people roasting rice cakes stuck onto the tips of long bamboo poles which bend with the weight !
A Dondo-Yaki pyre being prepared at Oda, one of Tsukuba`s old most historical neighborhoods

A Dondo-Yaki pyre being prepared at Oda, one of Tsukuba`s old most historical neighborhoods

 

As you can see from the photos I have uploaded, the pyres are built up around tall evergreen trees- which are usually quite tall. Apparently, In past ages, the direction in which the tree fell  was often considered to be an indicator of the quality of the next harvest.

Even if you don`t believe in its significance for divination, the most thrilling moment of the Dondo-Yaki is still probably the point at which the blazing tree falls over.

I came across this poem by Arakawa Yuko ( 荒川優子) which nicely captures the feeling:

SAGICHO NO SHIN MADE MOETE TAORE KERI (左義長の芯まで燃えて倒れけり)

which I try to capture the gist with:

The Dondo-Yaki pyre blazing to its core…….TIMBER !

A view from the bridge of the Sakura River and the crowd starting to gather for the DONDOYAKI- the pyre can be seen near the center

Like airport security, the city office staff sifts carefully through everything that has been brought to be burned, making sure there are no illegal materials

Any wire, plastic or fruit were sorted out and thrown into appropriate waste-bins

Any wire, plastic or fruit were sorted out and thrown into appropriate waste-bins

 

At the Dondoyaki in Tsukuba City`s Oda District, however, plastic bags and other dioxin releasing substances were freely placed onto the pyre

At the Dondoyaki in Tsukuba City`s Oda District, however, plastic bags and other dioxin releasing substances were freely placed onto the pyre

 

 

Before the actual DONDOYAKI gets underway peopel grill their KAGAMI-MOCHI and sweet potatoes as well. Lots of people gather round the grill to keep warm!

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Looking closely into the pyre you can see HAMAYA (Lucky Arrows) and SHIMENAWA ( sacred rope) etc.

Next week, there will be another Dondoyaki event held in one of Tsukuba`s most historically important areas- Oda (小田)

You can get to Oda by taking the Tsukubus Oda Shuttle, or by bicycle- as the site of the old castle (nothing of the structure now remains) lies along the RINRIN road cycling path. If you go by car, you can go straight down Nishi Odori and keep going straight even when you pass the intersection where you meet higashi Odori (where the McDonalds is). You will then go down a slope and come to a bridge which passes over the Sakura River. Soon you will see a sign (after the first light) which indicates that you c\should turn left to Oda Castle (小田城跡).

Though nothing very much remains of this castle, and the neighborhood itself is one of the quietest in all of Tsukuba (which is not very lively in anyway) this area was between the beginning of the Kamakura Shogunate (1185) to the beginning of the Edo Period (1600) the most important military, cultural and religious center in the whole region. Oda Castle was the ONLY castle in the whole of Japan which was ruled by the same family throughtout that entire period. There was not only a great castle- with about 40 satellite castles spread out over the region in ots hayday- but there were also several great temples on the low mountains to the east of the fortress. Most of these have disappeared without a trace (except for Tojoji- which is well worth a visit).

An especially notable point in Oda`s history is that in the Kamakura Period the aristocrat,  scholar, and Imperial advisor Kitabatake Chikafusa (北畠親房) took refuge at Oda Castle for three years (during the dispute between Japan`s Northern and Southern Courts (1336-1392). It was there ( yes, in what is now Oda, in Tsukuba City) that he wrote his highly influential treatise the JINNO-SHO-TO-KI  in which the writer asserted something which many later would repeat- that Japan is the Land of the Gods, since it had been ruled since time imemorial by the same imperial family.

 

Starting the blaze!

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People ready with long bamboo poles for roasting MOCHI rice cakes

Pink and white rice cakes dangling on the tips of bamboo poles

Before the Dondo-yaki fire is lit, residents of Oda, Tsukuba keep warm by a small bon-fire, munching on baked sweet potaoes and sipping pork soup

Before the Dondo-yaki fire is lit, residents of Oda, Tsukuba keep warm by a small bon-fire, munching on baked sweet potaoes and sipping pork soup

You might want to combine a trip to the Dondo-yaki with one to see the DEZOME- SHIKI fireman`s Festival which I have written about in my previous post.



4 Comments

  • Mamoru Shimizu says:

    Fire is a holy thing for the average Japanese ,even if we are not Zoroastrian, maybe even more so than for other peoples.
    Recently, it has become very difficult for Japanese who live urban areas to make fires because of new regulations. We can not make Yakiimo(焼き芋:roasted sweet potato) with Takibi (burning branches in the open air) in Tsukuba, as it is a residential area. In agricultural areas it is permitted.
    If you ask your friends in Tokyo whether they have ever made fires they say- yes at campsites in the Mountains or by rivers, But not in Tokyo. During Edo-era it was said: “Eddoko(江戸っこ:Edo born) wa Kaji to Kenka ga meshi yori mo suki: Those born in Edo are fonder of fire and fighting than of eating.”

    I am not a real Edokko because I am only the second generation born in Tokyo. But I love to make fires. I made so many fires during my mountain treks in the Hidaka-Mountains in Hokkaido, and made fires many times on around a 5 ha scale of in the National forest in Hiroshima to make grassland for cows. My wife grew up as a Kyoto city girl, but she became an excellent fire maker and keeper in our garden in Tsukuba, she has made fires more than hundreds time. Before making or during fire I used to drink a bit for the Goddess of Fire. And it increases my feeling of ecstasy! My wife does not drink because she is a driver. Thanks my Goddess! Mamaness! Kahchaness!
    I think participants of the Dontoyaki will feel this same ecstasy!!!.

  • alice says:

    I heard that nowadays some people just dispose of new year decorations (esp. the simple kadomatsu) in the trash can as they find it troublesome to take it to the shrine when Jan 7 doesn’t fall on a weekend and people are already working.

  • Avi Landau says:

    Throwing New Year`s decorations in the garbage! A sad state of affairs indeed!
    Im just about to head off the the big Dondo-Yaki event down by the Sakura River, not far from my house- much more fun- and we might get some O-Mochi to boot!

    Have a great Ko-Shogatsu!

  • Avi Landau says:

    Good evening all!
    Here is a report on todays DONDOYAKI, held by the Sakura River in Tsuchiura.
    I arrived there at about 10 and the joint was already jumping.

    The event has gotten more organized (and seems to have been promoted by the Tsuchiura City office as well.

    There were signs up on the road ( the Tsuchiura Gakuen Line) with information on where to turn to get down to the river, and there was stasff to help control traffic.

    One thing I DID notice that I hadnt before, was the fact that though lots of people come and stay for the event, many many more just come to drop off their old New Year`s decorations and then leave.
    Because of this, even one hour before the fire was lit, there was steady traffic heading out of the riverside.
    All those who left sure missed alot of excitement.

    It was surprising how thorough and serious the check is of all the stuff that was brought to be burned. It really much stricter that Narita airports security check! Every item to be put into the fire is checked to make sure no plastics or other harmful-when burned items are part of the bonfire.

    Then there was the barbecue. lots of folks were crowded around a a large grill where KAGAMI MOCHI and sweet potatoes were being roasted. Another attraction was the warmth emitted by the grill.

    Speaking to the staff I found out one important thing. Dondoyaki bonfires were traditionally held in each hamlet or neighborhhod.
    Now, however, there are regulations controlling the making of bonfires. That is why the city hold this event- and why it is so strictly controlled.
    Not only is there a severe check of all items to be burned, but there is a relatively large contingent of firemen on hand! It is in fact quite funny how safety concsious it all is.

    Speaking of firemen, tomorrow morning there will be a DEZOME (fireman event) in Yatabe.

    I will tell you all about it when I get back.