Praying For Good Tobacco Harvests at Mt. Kabasan`s Kiseru Matsuri (きせる祭)- The Giant Tobacco Pipe Festival Held Every September 5th !
By Avi Landau
Though it is already September and ostensibly Autumn, down here on the heavilly deforested and extensively PAVED expanses of the Kanto Plain it is still hot and steamy. That makes a trip to see the KISERU MATSURI (きせる祭), a unique ceremony carried out as a prayer for abundant tobacco crops, even more attractive. For not only is it a chance to watch and PARTICIPATE in the unusual and highly picturesque ritual proceedings which are part of the festival, but the site of the shrine itself, atop the deeply forested Mt Kabasan, provides a shady and welcome refuge high above these sweltering lowlands ( though the mountain at its loftiest point is only 709 meters high!).
Every year on September fifth, a huge KISERU ( traditional Japanese pipe), said to be the largest in Japan, is set out in front of the Mt Kaba Shrine ( Kabasan Jinja), filled with tobacco, and then lit. The finely cut leaves are then kept burning with the help of a pump which is attached to the mouth-piece.
Before the pipe is lit about ten Parishioners ( UJIKO) enter the shrine for some purification rites and prayer before the ceremony gets underway. There are of course, also some visitors present ( about 30 this year), mostly armed with cameras, who negotiate the extremely narrow and poorly paved road to get to beautifully rustic shrine. Those who have made the hair- raising journey wait out in front of the shrine brimming with anticipation while the preliminary prayers are taking place inside.
When the prayers in the shrine are finished, one of the priests then starts to get a fire going using the same traditional tool I have seen used at the Kattate Festival ( which is held not very far from the Mt Kaba Shrine), and the priest at Mt Kabasan had the same trouble getting the fire started this year as did the priest at the other festival.In fact, he almost lost his cool yesterday, and the other priests tried to calm him down by urging him to go slow and easy.
They continued to give him the same advice as he tried to use the flame he had worked so hard for to light the tobacco in the KISERU, which proved to be just as a difficult a task.
Quite comically ( and ironically) the heavy smoke which started to billow out of the freshly lit pipe had everyone, especially the priest coughing uncontrollably. A reminder of the health problems associated with the crop that the farmers come to this shrine to pray for.
You had better be on your toes at this point, because suddenly those waiting out in front of the shrine come under a barrage of rice cakes ( Omochi) and other snacks! Those who are familiar with the festival always come equipped with bags in which to store all the booty they can pick up. You Do have to be carefull , because getting hit in the face or head with flying omochi is not fun !
Even before this excitement has died down, the parishioners start to proceed with the main rituals of the matsuri- they actually lift the KISERU up, bear it on their shoulders, and walk around in a circle three times. They do tis together with some others who carry TABAKO BONTEN, sticks adorned with tobacco leaves and sacred strips of paper. While they are doing this, conch shells (hora-gai) are blown for purification.
Then suddenly, without notice, the bearers start to carry the huge smoking pipe up an impossibly treacherous path which leaves further up the mountain to the Tobacco Shrine ( TABAKO JINJA), a small structure used only for this festival.
At this point in the festival I realize how the KISERU MATSURI is a variation of the much older Kattate Matsuri held not very far away. In that festival, a typical fire festival, torches are lit with a sacred flame and then carried up the mountain to a smaller shrine as an offering. At the Mt Kabasan event the same thing actually occurs, but instead of many torches, the sacred fire is carried by one huge pipe!
When the pipe finally reaches its destination ( in about 15 minutes), it is set down once again in front of this much smaller ( TABAKO) shrine. Yesterday the bearers and priests were set off into coughing fits once again at this point and it took them a while to regain their composure.
The priest recites some prayers (NORITO) and then each of the UJIKO makes offerings of sacred SAKAKI leaves.
Sake ( rice wine), is then offered all around ( my favorite part of the event!).
The KISERU is then picked up again, and carried back down the mountain.
The sake, makes the walk down a bit more trecherous than it had been coming up.
But everyone is by now in such a good mood that we are all acting like old friends.
On the way to or from the shrine, along the ridge which runs across the mountain range, you will probably run into groups of hangliders and paragliders. Its fun to watch them take off.
And if you`d like to know more about WHY there is a ceremony for tobacco crops held at Mt Kabasan read my article about the history of Tobacco in Ibaraki and Japan: