Watch the deity SUSANOO NO MIKOTO (borne in a portable shrine) battle the Yamata no Orochi (in the form of a giant SHISHI, 獅子) at the Unique Gion Sai Festival in Oda, Tsukuba (Saturday- July 21)– 小田の祇園際
By Avi Landau
The month of July is a very busy one indeed on the calendar of traditional events in Japan. Within and around the city limits of Tsukuba, there will be DOZENS of neighborhood festivals held over this weekend alone ( the 3rd weekend of July), while there are still many more to come next Saturday and Sunday ( just as there were many over the first two weekends of the month.
As I have already written in several previous articles, these festivals are almost exclusively GION FESTIVALS, which are held at Shrines called YASAKA JINJA shrines (of which there is one in almost every village in the Tsukuba area).
Since the 9th century, such festivals have been held during the Japanese summer, a time which was always conducive to the spread of disease. The original concept of these events was to prevent epidemics and other disasters by parading through town with a portable shrine bearing the deity SUSANOO no MIKOTO ( who is enshrines at Yasaka Jinja Shrines and is closely related to disease prevention) to absorb evil, sickness causing energies- which are then washed away with water.
Most of these festivals consist of just this sequence of rituals- and are almost exactly the same no matter where you go.
A few neighborhoods in the Tsukuba area HAVE, however, come up with some interesting twists for their local GION MATSURIs.
For example,there is the NINNIKU MATSURI (Garlic Festival) which was held this past Thursday and promotes the sale of garlic talismans to keep sickeness and bad luck away.
Then there are the festivals in Hojo and Oda which blend SHISHI dances ( a shishi is an imaginary beast which in some ways resembles a lion) dances to the theme of SUSANOO no MIKOTO and the prevention of disease.
WATCH THE FESTIVAL HERE:
WHAT ARE SHISHI AND SHISHI DANCES?
One of the most important concepts of traditional Japanese thinking is to surround oneself and ones family with symbolically auspicious items (ENGIMONO)- especially at New year`s time and on other special seasonal or festive days. There are dozens of these which are still familiar to most Japanese today- and in fact still play an important part in Japanese culture.
One of the more famous ENGIMONO, popular for more than a thousand years in Japan and especially associated (in Japan in general) with the New Year`s season (though in the Tsukuba area it is probably more familiar in summer and autumn) is the SHISHI (獅子)- an imaginary, lion-like beast, first conceived of in China and then introduced to Japan. The SHISHIs are often represented by a red wooden mask- or should I say helmet?- which has a moveable jaw and a long flowing mane of hair.
SInce the time they were first introduced to Japan these masks (or other images of SHISHI) were believed to have the power to drive evil and bad luck away (MA YOKEH, 魔除け). SHISHI dances (SHISHI MAI) were also believed to be effective as a prayer for family safety- especially around New Year`s time.
Decorating your home or workplace with a SHISHI head was believed to prevent disaster and invite good fortune.
Putting one of the masks over your head and blowing out a flame through its jaws was considered a good way of preventing fire-
in fact, the pair of guardian beasts you see protecting pathways to just about every Shinto shrine in Japan- are also a derivative of the SHISHI.
In many festivals (such as the great autumn festival in Ishioka, near Tsukuba)- large SHISHI- with not only wooden heads but also long bodies made of cloth and filled with dancers- move ahead in the lead, dancing vigorously to clear the path of impurities.
Actually putting on one of the masks and dancing (something you can do in Ishioka) is believed to be extremely auspicious- and also to stop headaches!
Sticking children in the jaws for a mock chewing and a good scare was also long believed to innoculate children from sickness ( I would not depend upon this if I were you!).
Some people even put paper SHISHI`s under their pillows to prevent headaches or to improve intelligence
Oda`s Gion Festival
The interesting thing about the Gion Festival in Oda, Tsukuba, is that the locals decided to give their large SHISHI a connection to the main deity associated with Yasaka Shrines and Gion Festivals in general- SUSANOO no MIKOTO who is known in Japanese mythology to have helped in disease prevention.
But what this deity is MOST famous for is killing the eight-headed beat YAMATA NO OROCHI!
The gimick of the Oda Festival is that the SHI SHI represents the beast who battles with SUSANOO no MIKOTO who is taken out of his shrine (the YASAKA JINJA in Oda) and brought to battle in his OMIKOSHI (portable Shrine).
The SHISHI is taken out of a nearby Buddhist temple- not surprisingly, a YAKUSHI DO (薬師堂)- which is also known for its efficacy in curing disease! (In Japanese every little detail has a meaning!)
It all a lot of fun- and very rustic!
Now a quiet backwater, the Oda area was long the political, religious, cultural and military center of the this region. In fact, Oda Castle which at its peak had over forty satellite castles (DEJIRO) to protect it, was the only castle in all of Japan to have been rules continuously by ONE FAMILY (over 15 generations!) from the beginning of the Kamakura Period almost right up to the Edo Period (1185-1569).
After the Oda`s had been defeated, the warlord who had vanquished them the SATAKE`s, moved into the castle and stayed until 1602 when they were order by the new Tokugawa governement to move to what is now Akita Prefecture.
The castle was them completely dismantled.
It was in Oda Castle that Kitabatake Chikafusa (1239-1354) wrote his important treatise on the Japanese Emperor System- the JINNO-SHO-TO-KI (神皇正統記)
You can get to Oda by Tsukubus (the Oda Shuttle) for 300 yen- there are two departures every hour which take about 40 minutes, and explore the area`s old houses, numerous temples and distinctive sacred stones for a few hours before the festival begins at around 5pm this Saturday. You could also hike up Mt Hokyo-Zan( 471 m high), which has become quite a popular excursion in recent years- on top you will find an interesting Kamakura period stone monument. It might be a bit to hot for that,however!
I will try to write a more detailed outline of the sights in Oda in a future porst- and plan to lead a cycling tour there this coming autumn.