Last Saturday was so fantastic! We went to Mount Masui, which is located next to my junior high school. In the fall, I climbed Masui with some of the English teachers and had a picnic. I posted about it on October 13th. We were invited by one of Julian's studio mates to go to Mt. Masui for the Oni Festival. Oni is a demon (the same demon that we had the bean throwing party for a couple of weeks ago). This is a really long post, but so much happened that day and it was so great!
Anyway, Julian's studio mate, Momoyo and her daughter and husband picked us up and took us up the mountain by car. Zuiganji Temple is located on the mountain and it's approximately 500 years old. It's a beautiful old Buddhist temple. It's all wood and there are a few buildings, and graveyards as well. There's also a modern building where I think the monks reside and meditate.
As soon as we arrived, Momoyo bought us a lunch of udon noodle soup. The food vendors were calling out to us in English. We were the only foreigners there so it seemed like people were surprised and interested to see us. We were introduced to several people from the community that Momoyo knew. It was a village gathering up in the mountains. Even though the mountain is in Himeji, I felt far away from city life. I know there are similar gatherings in America such as block parties and small town gatherings, but when you are an outsider it's really special and wonderful to feel welcomed to a community gathering. I think people were excited to show us their festival and I was super excited to be there.
It was also nice to meet some of the parents of children that I teach. As the Masui Jr. High School English teacher, I think it's good for me to join in on community festivities, which I love to do anyway! Soon, I will be going to the local elementary schools as well, so I'll get to know more of the families that live in this community. I'm so happy I'm at this school. I didn't have these kinds of opportunities at my last school, so I felt disconnected from the community.
We slurped our noodles, as we sat near the vendors. Julian made eye contact with one of the vendors and they smiled at each other. So, he poured Julian a huge cup of shochu and gave it to him. Shochuu is a really strong type of sake with maybe 20% or more alcohol. In Japan, sharing a drink amongst men is very important, but that's an entirely different subject.
I'm still trying to master the art of slurping noodles
A tall cup of shochu
As we were eating our noodles, a group of people lined up along the front area of the temple and started playing the shakuhachi, a type of bamboo flute that's held like a clarinet. The group of shakuhachi players were wearing basket woven hats called the tengai. The hat covers the players faces and there's only a small opening for the players to see. It was so interesting and unusual and curious. I looked up what it meant. Here's a website if you are interestested about the Komuso monks: http://www.shakuhachi.com/Q-Origins&History.html
As we were watching the shakuhachi players a guy asked us if he could take our picture, so we posed near the temple and suddenly there were 5 or more people taking our photograph. I turned beat red and didn't know what to do. Luckily I was holding my camera, and Julian suggested I take a picture of the photographers. So, here's a picture of our paparazzi. It cracks me up.
We went into the temple for the oni dance and were instructed by one of the volunteers to go around to the side entrance. Julian had met the volunteer in the ceramics studio last week. He'’s really interested in making ceramics with Julian and he was really happy we were at the festival. He ushered us through the side door and suddenly we were in the inner area of the temple that people are not usually allowed to enter. Usually, we are standing at the rail looking at the monks and statues from afar. There were other lucky spectators in that area as well and we all sat together on pillows. I was maybe 3 feet away from the altar.
The shakuhachi players came inside the temple and took their hats off and played. I don'’t know why, but I thought they were women and was surprised to see that they were all men. Next, the monks entered the temple and sat maybe three feet away from me. They started praying and chanting. They must've chanted for 30 or more minutes. It was mesmerizing! I wish I could understand what they were chanting. After the chanting was done, the oni dance began.
One oni circled three times throughout the temple while holding a torch. He had a face mask that he was holding and he was also chanting something. Next a group of children dressed in red and blue with oni masks walked around the temple 3 times chanting and stomping. Finally the big onis, one in blue and one in red came out and danced with torches. I was a little nervous because we were in a 500 year old wooden temple with fabric drapes hanging near where the torches were moving. I kept thinking this would never happen in America! I love it here! They also circled three times. They continued to all circle two more times. It was so beautiful and interesting and amazing and I started to cry because I felt so honored and happy that I could be apart of this ceremony and everyone was so kind.
Red and Blue Demons
When we left the temple, the oni children lined up and on the deck/porch of the temple and threw mame (beans), mochi (pounded rice balls) and candy to us.
There was a pyre of leaves and wood decorated with paper outside of the temple. After the oni dance, everyone gathered around the pyre. There were monks dressed in unusual costumes. A monk started blowing into a conque shell. One monk with a bow and arrow walked around the pyre and started shooting decorative arrows lightly out to the crowd for the crowd to catch. Arrows are a sign of good luck into the next year. After the arrows were shot out, some monks started to pray and walk around the pyre. The crowd suddenly became antsy and they were starting to walk towards the pyre, but the monks were holding them off for a few more moments, but when the word went out that they could come forward, there was a crowd of people that rushed forward to grab the decorations from the pyre. I believe they are for good luck.
Pyre and a good shot of Zuigangi Temple in the background
Good Luck Arrows
Mad rush for the decorations
Once the decorations had been removed and the crowd moved back, the monks started to prepare for the lighting of the pyre. It was lit from below, so it started off as a slow and small burn with some smoke. Soon it became very smoky with smoldering wood and finally we could see the fire. We must'’ve been 20-30 feet away from the pyre but you could feel it'’s heat. It was very hot and very smoky.
There were Himeji Fire Trucks and firemen present. They helped with the pyre and eventually knocked it down. One firemen was wearing a heat proof happi coat (short kimono coat). The monks and firemen, pulled big smoldering logs out of the fire. We were then told that people would do a "“fire walk"”. People would walk barefoot on these smoldering logs, that it would bring good health for one year. People kept teasing us and asking us if we wanted to do the fire walk, but we said no way. When the fire walk started we saw lots of people lined up to walk on the logs, including young children and old people. We then realized that it really wasn'’t that hot, that they had cooled it down. So, Julian, me and Momoyo's daughter, Aii, walked barefoot across the logs. It was awesome. Because we walked across the logs, we will have good health for the year! I wonder if in the old days, people actually walked across these logs while they were burning hot. One of the monks gave me a decoration from the tree.
Himeji Fire Truck
Himeji Firemen "Have a Brighter Tomorrow"
Fire Walk Set Up
Yay, more good luck!
I really enjoyed this event. As usual, I didn'’t understand exactly what was happening or why it was happening, but I really enjoyed it. Julian and I were talking about how often times when we get invited to something, we don'’t really know what to expect until we get there. It's a surprise each and every time.
After the event, we stopped at Momoyo'’s house for some coffee and cake. She lives right at the base of Masui Mountain. It was such a pleasure to hang out with her and her family. I'’m so lucky!
Momoyo, Aii and me