By Avi Landau
In many parts of the world, including the Japanese Isles, earlier generations looked around and found REAL SIGNIFICANCE is the SHAPES of the things around them. Thus, it seems to me only natural that because of its distinctive twin-peaked shape, the mountain that we now call Mt Tsukuba (Tsukuba-San), has since time immemorial been connected, in the minds of the people, with the MALE and FEMALE forces AND their interaction.
Some scholars believe that Mt, Tsukuba- in its entirety- was once considered so sacred ( for this reason), that it was OFF LIMITS to most people except for the occassions of the two great COUPLING EVENTS ( called KAGAI or UTAGAKI) which were held in the spring and fall in which the first step towards getting to know each other for the men and women who participated was the improvised exchange of poetry.
These same historians assert that when this revered mountain was approached for prayer, worshipers would go to the foot of the mountain, to a place in what is now part of the USUI neighborhood of Tsukuba City, where there stood ( and still stands) a large rock with a slit down its middle. This shape was seen as evidence of the presence of the FEMALE force.
Whether or not these historians are correct about Mt Tsukuba being taboo teritory, we will probably never know- but it is CERTAIN, however,that the spot on which this FEMALE rock sits, the spot upon which the old Iina Jinja Shrine now stands has been considered sacred by the local people since long before written records were kept in these parts.
And though as time passed, in accordance with standard religious practice in Japan, a Shinto Shrine called Iina Jinja was built at this long venerated place, which is officially supposed to be dedicated to an agricultural God called UKEMOCHI NO KAMI (保食神). The local people, however, never refer to it by that name, they call it instead BENTEN SAMA- as BENTEN or BENZAITEN as she is usually called is one of the most popular of female deities in the Buddhist pantheon, a paragon of womanhood, and thus a fine way to refer to a spot which is connected so strongly in the people`s hearts and minds with the FEMALE.
And since BENTEN is associated with snakes in Japanese culture, it is appropriate that as the date for this shrine`s big festival, the first DAY OF THE SNAKE of the year ( according to the old LUNI-SOLAR calendar) would be selected.
I always make sure to check my calendar ( which of course gives me the details of the old calendar as well as the gregorian) and make a note of which day the festival falls on each year.
This year, the festival, called the DARUMA MARKET ( DARUMA ICHI) will fall on February 20, 2013.
I felt fortunate last year, as by a twist of fate, I had most of that day off- something very rare for me on a Thurday (the day on which the festival was held in 2012). Not only was I looking forward to enjoying the festival at my leisure, but I was also planning on sleeping late, for a change.
But as they say, there is NO rest for the weary! Instead of enjoying a long and well needed slumber, I was awakened at 6 AM sharp by the succession of fireworks blasts which were fired to announce that the festival was on! The subsequent frenzy of barking by the neighborhood dogs driven wild by the explosions, made it certain that I would not be falling back to sleep again.
Since I was up early, I decided that it would be a good opportunity to WALK to the shrine- something which could be done from my place in about 90 minutes.
When I stepped outside,however, I realized that trekking to the foot of Mt Tsukuba was not going to be a picnic, as frosty gales continued to punish me for having made such a stupid decision!
I could , however, occassionally catch sight of some things which almost ( but quite) made me think that the walk was worth it- a kingfisher and a group of more than ten TOMBI (kites, large hawk-like birds) interacting in the now fallow rice lands between my neighborhood and the mountain.
Nearing my destination I was almost in a daze from the freezing winds pounding into my ears. I snapped back to it, though when I hit a road block which had been set up to control the traffic to and from the festival, on the impossibly narrow roads which run through most of Tsukuba`s old neighborhoods. Already, early in the morning, surprisingly large crowgs had gathered, jamming the roads along which on a usual day not a soul would be seen.
There were also plenty of TEKIYA, festival vendors, who had set up for the day ( and they really had to anchor down their stalls because of the ferocious wind.
When I reached the shrine itself ( a favorite place for me to get away from it all throughout the year), I was surprised- for two reasons! One, because it as so crowded- maybe in these bad times more people are resorting to prayer and lucky charms for help, and two, they had completely repaired all the damage which had been caused by the earthquake ( and this had to be done recently because I had visited not long ago and the damage was still there!).
The festival at Usui`s Benten Sama ( the Iina Jinja Shrine) is an event which people come to to pray for household safety, health, and especially SUCCESS IN BUSINESS. One unique feature of the shrine is that when you buy a certain type of amulet there, you get some coins- which are in fact a loan! You are supposed to bring take double the amount the next year!
Daruma dolls and Kumade ( both traditional good luck charms) can be bought, and last years items disposed of.
Talking with some of the worshippers, I was surprised to find that many had come from as far away as Tsuchiura, Ushiku, and Ryugasaki.
There was a real sense of excitement in the air, which kept building up until noon, when the lucky MOCHI THROWING event was held. The priests ( and respected parishioners) tossed out white and red rice cakes which when caught and eaten are said to bring good luck and keep one healthy ( though you have to be careful not to be smacked in the face by one of these hard and heavy objects as they are hurled into the excited crowd.
After the Mochi Throwing, the crowd started to thin out- for the time being: more throwings would be held during the day.
I walked around the back of the shrine( as I always do) to admire the carvings on the prayer halls exterior, and to take a little stroll in the surrounding woods.
But enough walking, I thought, since that was how I was going to get back home!
And since that was going to take a long time, I decided to head back down to the main road at about 12:30, stopping at some of the YATAI (stalls) for some FUEL for the long cold journey back.
I hope that next year, on the first DAY OF THE SNAKE of the year ( according to the old calendar) that I have some free time again, and that the weather is better!
You can see pictures of the damage caused by the earthquake at the Iina Shrine in an article I wrote last year:
Since this shrine is said to be connected with the Deity Benzaiten (because Benzaiten is a woman and this spot had long been associated woth the female force) it is also connected with snakes- since the snake is her messenger.
In Japan (and China) snakes, especially white snakes were connected with money.
The custom of keeping molted snake skins in wallets or boxes still exists today. The idea behind this was that just as a snake sheds his old skin and gets a newer, bigger one, so it will be with your money- when it leaves your wallet, it will come back again, in an even greater amount.
That is why the festival, at which people came to pray for SUCCESS IN BUSINESS and PROSPERITY was held on the first Day of the Snake of the new year, and why the amulets sold on that day contained coins- the people who by them believe the money, like a snake, will grow!