TsukuBlog

A Local Perspective on Life in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan.

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Iina Shrine`s (Benten-sama`s) Traditional Daruma Market (飯名神社のだるま市) – on the first DAY OF THE SNAKE of the year (according to the old, lunar calendar) Monday January 30th 2017

 

Large white banners reading: Money Goes-Money Comes!* are raised on the day of the Daruma Market at the Iina Shrine ( known affectionately as BENTEN SAMA) in Usui, Tsukuba. It is one of the five extant traditional annual markets held within today`s Tsukuba City limits. This year it will take place on Monday January 30, 2017

 

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.

At the foot of Mt. Tsukuba, near the road that leads up to Benten-san (the Iina Shrine) is this old Yakushi Hall (rebuilt in 1760) which was first established in the Usui, Tsukuba in the year 782

At the foot of Mt. Tsukuba, near the road that leads up to Benten-san (the Iina Shrine) is this old Yakushi Hall (rebuilt in 1760) which was first established in the Usui, Tsukuba in the year 782 . Until recent years prayer meetings would be held every month on Yakushi-sama`s (the Buddhist deity of healing) special day (en nichi) – the 8th

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.

For practitioners of esoteric Buddhism these cracked boulders were embodiments of the "female-force" .

For practitioners of esoteric Buddhism these cracked boulders were embodiments of the “female-force” .

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.

Because of the slit in this large crag the ancient residents of this area believed this spot to sacred manifestation of the FEMALE FORCE

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 January 30, 2017

Last year`s DARUMA DOLLS returned to the Iina Shrine for proper disposal

The distinctive amulet sold on the First Day of the Snake contains coins- which are supposed to help bring you financial good luck*

I felt fortunate two years ago, 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 that year – this year it will be a Sunday!). 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.

Bundled up and masked- the crowds negotiating the narrow path leading to and from the Iina Jinja Shrine

The bounty of the sea (UMI NO SACHI) on sale on the mountainside.

The bounty of the sea (UMI NO SACHI) on sale on the mountainside.

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.

Slope

The old sloping road leading up to the shrine is lined with big old houses

The yard of one of the old houses along the sloping road up to the Iina Shrine had been turned into a flower shop

Selling dried shrimp down by the main road

Shrimp from Lake Kasumigaura

Shrimp from Lake Kasumigaura

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.

A man displays his knives and bladed tools

This pickle stand was doing brisk business selling all sorts of unique TSUKEMONO made from garlic, rakkyo, chilli peppers, etc.

 

Vendors selling a variety of Ibaraki`s citrus fruit

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!).

A basket and box dealer

A closer look

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.

Going down to the clear stream water your money - placed on a straw sieve. Naturally this is done in the hope that ones fortunes will grow!

Going down to the clear stream water your money – placed on a straw sieve. Naturally this is done in the hope that ones fortunes will grow!

A talisman salesman/ reiki healer had a booth set up near the shrine

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.

Just before noon a large crowd had gathered in front of the Iina Jinja Shrine waiting for the good luck MOCHI (rice cake) throwing event

After the Mochi Throwing, the crowd started to thin out- for the time being: more throwings would be held during the day.

A view from behind the shrine

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!

For a fee, some worshippers enter the Main Hall to be blessed/purified by the priest

 

A look inside the shrine`s worship hall

Keeping warm while making a wish ( by drawing in one of the DARUMA DOLL`s eyes)

 

Neighborhood men staff the office and sell amulets and other GOODS

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.

The carvings depicting Taoist tales of the immortals

The carvings depicting Taoist tales of the immortals

A peek at some of the intricate wood carvings on the side of the shrine`s worship hall

 

You can see pictures of the damage caused by the earthquake at the Iina Shrine in an article I wrote last year:

http://blog.alientimes.org/2011/08/kitsune-no-kamisori-%E7%8B%90%E3%81%AE%E5%89%83%E5%88%80-bloom-around-o-bon-time-mid-august-near-temples-and-shrines/

An old stone with sanskrit carvings hidden behind the shrine attest to the fact that the building was once a Buddhist temple.

An old stone with sanskrit carvings hidden behind the shrine attest to the fact that the building was once a Buddhist temple.The inscription bears the name of Fudo Myo-o

Vendors making and selling OBAN YAKI- a kind of pancake filled with sweet bean paste and shaped like a big gold coin

*

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 is 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 buy them believe the money, like a molted snake, will grow!

One of the beautiful old houses at the base of Mt. Tsukuba.

One of the beautiful old houses at the base of Mt. Tsukuba.

 

One of the creepy Jizo markers (unique to the Tsukuba area) that indicate a path to a cemetery

One of the creepy Jizo markers (unique to the Tsukuba area) that indicate a path to a cemetery