The New Year`s Decorations Go Up In Smoke at the DONDO-YAKI (どんど焼き) Bonfire on Saturday January 16th at the site of the ruins of the old Oda Castle in Tsukuba
By Avi Landau
In Tsukuba, when we want to get rid of any unneeded or unwanted stuff taking up space in 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 provides no clue as to how they should be dealt 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).
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 fires.
Since it was believed that at New Years the gods would descend, 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.
I have also heard that practitioners 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.
On Saturday (the 16th), many people with items (straw, wood or paper) that need to be disposed of with respect will attend the big dondoyaki bash held every year near the site of the old Oda Castle.
Don’t put any plastic, ceramic or metal objects in the fire.
See you there (at the Oda Castle ruins)! It should be quite a spectacle with the huge bonfire and lots of people roasting rice cakes on the tips of long bamboo poles!
You can get to Oda by taking the Tsuku-bus 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 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 throughout that entire period. There was not only a great castle- with about 40 satellite castles spread out over the region in its heyday- 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 To-jo-ji- which is well worth a visit).
An outstanding point of interest in Oda`s history is that during 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 he asserted something which many later would repeat- that Japan is the Land of the Gods, since it had been ruled since time immemorial by the same imperial family.
Also interesting is the fact that Ninsho (1217-1303), an eminent priest of the Ritsu Sect of Buddhism stayed for ten years at the Gokuraji Temple which once stood on the mountain behind Oda Castle. The Ritsu Sect stressed good works, social welfare and caring for the sick, the poor and the invalid, and one of the most interesting sights you encounter when hiking Mt. Hokkyo is the YU JIZO, a large statue a Jizo said to have been erected to bring solace to those suffering from leprosy.
Three years ago (2018) marked the 800th year since Ninsho`s birth in what is now Nara Prefecture. To commemorate his birthday a bronze statue of him helping aiding the sick was unveiled on top of Mt. Hokkyo on November 17.
I have posted more pictures of Oda here.