The annual Grand Festival of Shirahata Hachiman Daijin, our local shrine, was held last weekend. The festival itself is on the Sunday, and on the previous day, the Saturday, there is a children’s mikoshi procession. A mikoshi is a portable shrine, based on the palanquins in which the nobility were carried in Heian times (about a thousand years ago), and the processions take the kami around the area under the protection of the shrine (the parish, if you like) to see what is going on, and to be livened up by the fun of the event.
As I normally work on Saturdays, I hadn’t been to the procession before, but this year I happened to have an open slot that coincided with the procession setting out from the shrine, so I went along to see what happened. The procession is organised by the Children’s Group of the Taira Residents’ Association, rather than by the shrine, but there’s a significant overlap between the officers of the Residents’ Association and the shrine’s Ujiko, and the areas are very similar. One exception is that, although we live in the shrine’s area, we have a different Residents’ Association. This is presumably why the event is not advertised in the immediate vicinity of our flat.
Although the organisers are not the shrine, the shrine is deeply involved. First, the event starts at the shrine, and starts with a Shinto ceremony. The adults involved in the event gathered in the shrine for a ceremony, during which the mikoshi was purified, and the kami invited to enter it. The mikoshi seemed to be purified twice, once with the harai-gushi (as shown in the picture), and once with water splashed with a twig of sakaki. In each case it was purified four times, once from each side, and the Japanese drum that would be taken around with it was also purified.
As you can see from the photograph, this ceremony was performed by the younger woman in the shrine family. I think she qualified as a priest a couple of years ago (at least, that’s when she started wearing hakama in priest’s colours for the Grand Festival), but this was the first time I’d seen her perform a ceremony. I gather that it’s not at all uncommon in local shrines for all members of the family to be ordained priests, because that means that they can all help with what is, after all, the family business. Female chief priests are still a bit unusual, though, as are female priests at larger shrines.
After the purification, the tamagushi that had been offered in the shrine were put into the mikoshi, to be offered to the kami there, I assume. Then, the mikoshi had to be taken out of the shrine and down the steps for the procession. There was an immediate problem: the mikoshi frame was wider than the torii. The solution, of course, was to tip it on one side to make it narrower, so that it would fit through. The torii at the bottom of the steps was made even narrower because there was a takoyaki (deep fried octopus) stall next to it, so the mikoshi had to be turned vertically to get it through there. This didn’t seem to disturb anyone, and, indeed, it is traditional to shake the mikoshi in a lot of festivals, to liven the kami up. Mayuki likes that sort of thing, so I guess the kami do, too.
Everyone gathered in the car park at the base of the steps. The children were pulling the drum, which was on wheels, rather than carrying the mikoshi, as the mikoshi was probably too heavy, and one thing I noticed was that, although the adults all had the traditional festival happi coats, there were none for the children. I thought that was a bit of a shame, but checking online afterwards revealed that it would be quite pricey to get enough happi to go around, so I imagine that’s the reason.
The procession was led by two children carrying metal staves with rings in the top: Buddhist staves. Behind the mikoshi were two more with giant fans, and bringing up the rear was a truck with traditional musicians on. The procession was quite lively, and went around the area for most of the day, even after I was back at work.
I’ve talked about the Grand Festival before, and it was, of course, more or less the same as ever. I’ll just mention the points that were different. First, the young female priest was fully involved for the first time, sitting with the other priests on the dais and participating in the ritual, rather than just reading out the order of service and instructions (although she was doing that as well). Second, I offered my tamagushi at a different place in the ritual, so I’m not at all sure how they decide the order now. The head of the Ujiko goes first, and last is someone who can represent all of the Ujiko so that they can pay their respects with him, but I’m no longer at all sure how they work things out in the middle.
Mayuki came during the ceremony, to watch the children’s sumo contest and eat shaved ice (and feed some to her toys), and she stayed for the sacred dance. She said she was frightened at first, but it wasn’t very convincing, and she was soon showing no signs at all. During the final two dances, she was dancing along with the drum beat, so I hope the kami appreciated the extra entertainment.
Once again, the festival went off successfully, but maybe with small changes to adapt to modern conditions.