On the evening of Setsubun, we went to a shrine called Nunose Jinja, about a mile east of here, for a lantern-lighting ceremony called 万灯籠 mantourou.
The ceremony was due to start at 5:00. We arrived early, expecting that it would be crowded. But there were fewer people than we expected, mainly middle-aged, but a few younger people and children. The lanterns were laid out in neat rows in the grounds of the shrine, waiting to be lit. .
The priest moved between the little groups of people, chatting easily to everyone. He was wearing his sacramental robes (kariginu) and hat (eboushi).
While Yuko was ringing the bell to pray, the priest approached me and asked me if I was with someone. Unsure whether he was challenging my right to be there, I explained that I was there with my wife. It turned out that the priest was extremely friendly and kind, and just wanted to put me at my ease and make sure we felt welcome.
There was a little box of paper cutout dolls. The idea is that you take a doll, write your name and age on it and blow on it.
Later all the dolls would be floated down the river, taking your bad luck with them. Setsubun is an interstitial or “in-between” time, a “crack” between winter and spring, so a lot of the traditions are based on the idea that bad luck can slip into our lives at this time.
When it was time to light the lanterns, I was handed a lighter and invited to help lighting them. I was delighted to be included in this activity, and not just an onlooker.
Then everyone was invited inside the honden for the service.
The interior was beautifully and elegantly decorated with lamps, pictures, colourfully-painted timbers, and so on. We took our seats on rows of benches just inside the door. There were three people on the raised area in front of where we were seated: the priest, a female musician with a flute, and a miko-san, who assisted the priest and instructed the congregation when to stand, bow or sit during the service. The musician was also dressed up in a ceremonial robes and hat.
We would have very much liked to take photographs but we felt that it would not be appropriate.
The priest moved around and performed various rituals of blessing using an ōnusa wand decorated with white paper streamers (shide), intoning the words of the ceremony in a kind of sonorous chant. Then individual members of the congregation were invited, one at a time, to come forward, receive a tamagushi (leafy branch) from the priest, and place it as an offering. Each person who went up represented a group, such as the local women’s association. While the representative was making the offering, the members of that group stood and bowed.
Then, to our surprise, Yuko was invited to go up and place an offering, and I stood and bowed. Again, I was delighted that the priest took the trouble to include us.
The flute music was a surprise. I expected a soft, airy sound like a western-style flute. Instead, the first note blared out like a train whistle. The music seemed ancient and sacral, almost primitive. The instrument has an amazing dynamic range, and can be plaintive, strident, breathy or gentle.
After the ceremony, the priest addressed the congregation directly in a very friendly and engaging manner, explaining the religious and cultural significance of the Setsubun festival.
The musician then took her turn to address us, letting us know about some upcoming concerts she would be taking part in. For example, there will be a concert in Kyoto to celebrate 400 years of Spanish-Japanese cultural contact, featuring Japanese dance and flamenco.
Finally, we filed out, each participant receiving a little bowl of sake to drink.
By this time, it was almost dark, and the lanterns could be appreciated to better effect.
The musician wandered among the lanterns, and the strange sound of the flute drifted through the twilit evening.
We took our leave, and the priest said we were welcome to come back any time.
Note on the word of the day:
神主 kannushi is a Shintō priest. The first character is 神 kami meaning god. This character is also found in 神社 jinja or 神宮 jinguu meaning a shrine, and 神道 shintou, the Shintō religion (literally, “way of the gods”).
The second character, 主 has various pronunciations like omo, nushi and shu, and means things like master, landlord, husband, host, main, etc. Taken together, the two characters mean something like “spiritual leader”.
The word for a Catholic priest is 神父 shinpu which is written with the characters 神 kami (as above) and 父 chichi meaning “father”, together meaning “spiritual father”.