2005/09/05

Lantern Festival

September brings a double festival to Kashima Jingu, that ancient and important Shinto Shrine located in the heart of Kashima City. The two festivals are Chochin Matsuri (Lantern Festival) and Jinko-Sai (God's Blessing Festival).

Jinko-sai lasts two days and usually is held on September 1st and 2nd. During this festival the object of worship which is normally kept in the Hondo or main building within Kashima Jingu, is moved to a smaller building. It is believed that the god visits during this time. The Lantern festival is held on the first day and is to give light to the Jinko-sai.
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Two girls in yukata stand by a member of the "red lantern" team which is approaching

Paper lanterns, or chochin, are tied to a bamboo tree which is wrapped in heavy rope. Four bamboo poles are attached which are used to steady the tree. You can see some in the first photo of the post "Bon Dance Update". The trees of lanterns are paraded along the street leading to Kashima Jingu and the taken into the ground of the shrine, where a bonfire, kept hot with bales of hay, awaits. That may sound like a nice, simple, quiet ceremony, but it is far from it. Shinto festivals are anything but sedate.

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Steady lads - maneuvering through overhead traffic lights and a phone wire


The trees of lanterns reach heights of 20 feet or more and are heavy and unwieldy. It can take five or six people at the base to lift it plus two on each of four side poles and more people yet on guide ropes to control it. The teams are shrine members, dressed in yukata or happi coats. Each team represents a neighborhood in Kashima City and there were 14 in this festival. Getting around light poles, traffic light fixtures and the occasional wire can be very tricky. Several lanterns struck me as one team lost control of their tree. Every several meters the team stops and pounds the tree up and down on the pavement accompanied by chanting to the beat of a drum. As in other festivals the drumsticks are in the shape of a phallus. Shinto is a religion of nature and fertility after all. Some of the lanterns may fall off during the parade and it is considered lucky to obtain of them. When they reach the shrine, members remove some lanterns for souvenirs and the rest, along with the entire tree, are thrown onto the bonfire. If you are a pyromaniac, this is your kind of event.

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Who's got the marshmallows?


At the same time, five Jinko-sai floats made of ornately carved wood are pulled around a two block area near the shrine by teams of men and women. One of the floats is a century old. The floats have wooden wheels and with a likeness of either a famous historical figure or a god on their roof reach a height of perhaps 20 feet. The figures can be partly lowered into the floats to duck under obstructions. A dozen or so musicians are seated around the float and play flute, drum, or gong. At each intersection, the floats are turned 360 degrees to give everyone a good look. This takes brute strength and two heavy wooden poles are used both as levers and as stops on the wheels.
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During festivals, the streets leading to the shrine are lined with booths selling food, sweets, and toys. There are booths with shallow rectangular pools of gold fish or turtles at which kids pay to try and scoop up a fish or turtle with a rice bowl. Cooking meats, noodles and egg dishes fill the air with an appetizing aroma. I had some takoyaki (octopus balls) made with a mixture of soup stock, flour, and egg, stuffed with octopus, cooked and covered in sauce - oishii! (yummy) or as we say in Hawaii, ono.

At dusk the five floats meet at an intersection in town. On one street, two floats are parked side-by-side facing another pair on the opposite side of the intersection. The fifth float is parked on the other street. After the teams had a break for dinner, the emcee, a woman wearing a kimono, mounted a ladder on the street corner and announced the coming events. Darkness was falling and the floats lit up their lanterns. In turn, the musicians on each float performed for the crowd. The sidewalks were packed with spectators and the streets with the teams who hauled the floats as well as their chanters, each team in a distinctive happi coat or yukata design. The only way to get a photo was hold one's camera aloft and hope your aim was OK.

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Then came a long dance of the participants. Not calm and graceful like a bon dance even the fast ones. The beat was stronger and faster. When the dance finished, the dancers laughed and appeared warmed up and ready for the grand finale. One by one, the floats were brought forward into the intersection. The chanters stood in a circle around the float and as the musicians played, the chanters raised their voices and moved their fans in rhythm to encourage the men who, with shoulders to the float and sweated brow, turned the heavy float in a circle several times. The rhythmic chants reminded me of those old movies where a virgin was sacrificed to a volcano. The effort expended in turning the floats was palpable. And to think they would do it again tomorrow!

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A final note: As we walked through the streets, we passed a booth where the Chamber of Commerce was handing out fans and brochures about local activities. In an adjacent parking lot, chairs and a stage were set up for entertainment. The owner of a local Hula Halau (hula school) was performing "Hawaiian Wedding Song", and other hula dancers were waiting their turn on stage. It seemed quite a contrast, and yet, it was really a connection with all Pacific Islanders as a celebration of life.

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4 comments:

J-apricot said...

Lively pictures and so colorful festival costumes.
Awesome!
The festivals seem to be for adults, as far as I remember, there used to be more children pulling floats.

The Moody Minstrel said...

Very nice write-up on two festivals I've always treasured during my protracted stay in this area!

I'd like to make one comment/correction, however:

You mentioned that people consider it good luck to obtain paper lanterns that have fallen off the bamboo trees. Yes, that's true, but doing so is said to give you only a minimal portion of luck. In order to get the maximum blessing (which I hear mainly applies to commerce or agriculture), you actually have to pull a lantern off of one of the trees while it's still "ripe".

The neighborhood teams that manage each tree also include several guards that escort them and drive off ambitious luck-seekers. Nowadays they are usually armed with rubber squeak-hammers, but long ago they carried bona fide clubs and were known to seriously injure people on occasion.

I saw a Chochin Matsuri once when a small group of young men confronted the guards, and one of them got through. He immediately jumped on the tree, causing its carriers to lose control of it. As the towering monstrosity came crashing down (smashing a takoyaki booth), the crowd immediately went into a feeding frenzy and piled onto the thing en masse. The guards immediately put the squeak-hammers away and got seriously violent. By the time the wrested the tree free of the rioting mob and got it on its way again, it looked rather pathetic.

(One of the guests I had invited to see the Chochin Matsuri with me, a New Yorker named Michael, remarked, "Now THIS is what I call a FESTIVAL!")

Pandabonium wasn't kidding. Buddhist festivals tend to be rather sedate, but Shinto festivals are totally on the opposite end of the spectrum. Shinto is very much an animistic religion, and so people tend to get very animated...or animal-like...during its sacred events.

Don Snabulus said...

You take great pix!

Pandabonium said...

Thanks! (Don't tell anyone that I only get a few usable ones out of a whole roll).