Jichinsai (地鎮祭) – a closer look at Japan`s traditional GROUNDBREAKING CEREMONY held before construction of any sort
By Avi Landau
The home-construction business is booming. Well, at least that`s what it looks like here in Tsukuba City, despite the pandemic and long-term stagnation in other parts of the country. With the opening of the TX (Tsukuba Express) Train Line, which has made a daily commute to Tokyo easily do-able, builders and their equipment can be seen at work nearly everywhere (even during the corona-virus lockdown), putting our unique city on the fast track to becoming just another generic bed-town. For those of us who like to savor this area’s nature and traditions, this is a grim state of affairs… and I can offer no consolation.
It is interesting to note, however, that in Japan, busy carpenters (which is what home-buiders are called in Japan) means busy Shinto priests (kanushi)! This is because their services (and much less frequently those of a Buddhist priest) are required for performing the Land Purification Ceremony (Jichinsai 地鎮祭) which is carried out as a matter of course before any type of building or construction project begins. And, because most want such a ceremony to be carried out on an appropriately auspicious day according to the Japanese calendar (and there are only a few such days , about 8 each month), in boon times like these it is getting to the point where Kannushi have to be brought in from out town, with local priests being fully booked up on these lucky days for weeks in advance.
It would be hard to miss a Jichinsai if you happened to chance upon one, with the colorfully garbed priest being an eye-catching sight in any neighborhood. Even if you never did have such good luck, you are still very likely to see the remnants of these ceremonies, which are also SURE signs that construction will very soon begin on that particular spot. What I am referring to is the small, square, 3-dimensional sacred space demarcated by four bamboo poles (IMI-TAKEH, 忌竹) set upright in the center of a proposed building site connected at the tops by lengths of rope which are adorned with strips of paper. This was the space to which the kami (god/gods) was/were called down to for the Jichinsai ceremony, in order to ask permission to manipulate the land.
Seeing such open-air sanctuaries is a glimpse at Japanese religion in its earliest and purest form, as it was before the introduction of Buddhism and its grand temples, which inspired the natives to house their Kami in equally impressive wooden houses which are now called jinja , or shrines.
Recently, many friends have been building or rebuilding houses and I’ve had several chances to observe the details of the Jichinsai Ceremony. Of course, each particular ceremony is slightly different and customs vary according to the type of shrine the priest is associated with. There are also regional variations. Still, the ceremonies have become surprisingly standardized, especially when it comes to those held for the construction of private homes.
I have decided to focus on one particular ceremony, that of my friends Tatsuya and Mariko Nomura, to give readers some idea of how they are planned and carried out.
The Nomuras are born and bred Tsukubans, who have lived most of their lives near the deep shadows created by Ichinoya Shrine’s giant zelkova trees (the largest in Ibaraki). Mariko is a serious afficcionado of the Japanese Tea Ceremony and has been wanting an authentic tea room for some time. Since their house was getting on in years, they finally decided to have it knocked down and have a new one built. This would not have just one, but two tea rooms.
After selecting an appropriate builder and deciding on a design, the company brought up the question of the Jichinsai. They said that they could make the arrangements, unless Tatsuya and Mariko wanted to do it themselves. Since The Nomuras lived near the Ichinoya Shrine and have had a long family connection to it, Tatsuya said that they would take care of it themselves.
As it is with most Japanese, it is only natural to have such a ceremony performed and Mariko told me that she would have felt uncomfortable if they did not have one done. In fact, from what I have learned from many discussions, if clients refuse to have the ceremony, the builders insist upon it, as the carpenters and other workers would feel uneasy without having it.
It was then necessary to coordinate a date with the construction company. This is because the ceremony should be attended by at least three representatives of those involved in the construction. Usually this means the salesman, the architect, and one of the carpenters. The company suggested a date, a Saturday in July, which would fall between the scheduled demolition of the old house and the beginning of construction. Importantly, the proposed date was a Tomobiki（友引） day, the second luckiest of lucky days on the Japanese calendar after Tai-An (大安).
Tatsuya quickly set about reserving the priest for that day, and hurried over to the shrine office. The priest said that he was completely booked up for that day, but would somehow fit the Nomuras in, early in the morning. When Tatsuya asked about the fee, he was told that he could make a donation in any amount he pleased (later he would ask around the neighborhood and find that 20-30,000 yen was the norm). Tatsuya was then given a printed list of things to prepare, and these represent the standard objects used in the Jichinsai as practiced throughout the archipelago and wherever Japanese have settled abroad.
First, for marking off the sacred space, Tatsuya would need to get four bamboo poles, 3-4 meters in length, which are available at most home improvement centers (the Kannushi would provide the rope and paper strips). Next they would need offerings to the Kami which should consist of Yama-No-Mono (mountain products), for which Tatsuya prepared grapes, nashi-pears, pumpkin, corn, eggplant and green pepper, as well as Umi-No-Mono (sea products) for which he prepared dried squid and dried kelp (sea bream was recommended, but would spoil quickly in the summer heat). Also as offerings, they had to prepare a bowl of rice. For ritual ground-breaking, a bucket-load of sand or soil would be needed. And then, for purification of the land and its four corners, they would need salt. After re-checking the list to make sure that they had everything required of them, they waited for the designated day to arrive.
On the morning of July 28th, the Kannushi arrived with a car-full of gear, already dressed in his full regalia. He immediately set about putting up the sacred space, and the altar (kami-dana) within it upon which were placed the sea and mountain offerings. This took about 20 minutes. The representatives of the construction company arrived and the Kannushi greeted everyone:
“Now, Nomura Tatsuya and Mariko’s Jichinsai shall begin!”
The priest then called the kami down to the sacred space with a chilling cry of OOOooooh, reminiscent of the chanting in a Noh drama. Then began the ritual purification (oharai) which is such an important feature of Japanese religion. With his wand, the Kannushi first purified the Kami altar, then the four-corners of the lot, and finally, the Nomuras themselves.
The priest then beckoned to the Nomuras to follow him as he walked to each of the four corners, for purification with water and tiny paper squares. Tatsuya and Mariko also sprinkled water, under the direction of the priest. Then came the offering of the sacred sakaki branches to the Kami. One by one, all those present were handed a sprig which was placed on the altar. Just after doing so each person bowed twice, clapped twice, and then bowed once, which is the typical way to grab the attention and pay respects to Japanese Kami. For this part of the ceremony, Tatsuya’s 90 year old father, came out of the shade and into the early morning summer heat to make his offerings.
Next was the ritual ground-breaking. In a pile of soil just outside the sacred space, the Kannushi placed an amulet. Tatsuya and Mariko then, together, took hold of a ritual hoe, and pretended to strike the soil 3 times crying Ay-Ay-Ay. This was repeated by the architect and carpenter.
And finally, just as in a Japanese style wedding, sake was offered to the couple and was drunk out of traditional dishes. The same was then offered to all those present.
It was then time to send off the Kami with an extended and goose-bump raising OOOOoooooohhh! The Kami was then gone. The amulet was taken by the architect who said it would be placed in the foundation of the house.
The Kannushi announced that the ceremony was completed and began packing up. Tatsuya told him to please take all the food offerings, which he promptly did after receiving the envelope containing his fee. The bamboo and rope which mark off the sacred space would remain until the onset of construction.
Such ceremonies are carried out for any type of building activity: building or rebuilding a home, erecting a grave, clearing wild land for agriculture, well-digging etc. Since in Japan everything belongs to the Kami, it is necessary to acknowledge them and pay respects before using the land for our purposes. Purification is necessary to clear away any bad luck, impurities, or evil which might be connected to that land. The Kannushi also prays for safety, happiness, and protection from disaster.
These ceremonies are currently part of the debate over the separation of church and state in Japan, as all official construction projects are usually preceded by extravagant Jichinsai which are paid for by tax yen. As I have stated earlier however, workers would find it uncomfortable to go ahead on a project without having the ceremony.
With all the destruction going on around us of nature and rustic old buildings, it is a little comforting (just a tiny bit) to find the color and magic of the Jichinsai.
Since Tatsuya and Mariko do not want their photos to appear in cyberspace, I am not posting any pics of their JICHINSAI. Until I did some other up from my own collection or get some new shots you can look at what theyve got on google. Just search under:
地鎮祭 in Japanese.