Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

February 6, 2014

Setsubun Rite (Tsuinashiki) in the Nagata Shrine in Kobe

Monday (February 3) was Setsubun (see my previous post about the Setsubun Festival), a festival that welcomes the start of spring and therefore a new beginning. This is done by purifying oneself and getting rid of all bad things - these "bad things" are symbolized as demons that are driven out. In this way, one can spend the year in good health. Temples and shrines all over Japan hold Setsubun ceremonies and rituals. Some of these are very superficial, such as those of Zojoji in Tokyo or the Ikuta Shrine in Kobe, where popstars, sports people and other cardboard figures throw handfuls of soy beans at the spectators. But there also exist interesting ceremonies with deep historical roots, such as those of the Yoshida Shrine in Kyoto, or the Nagata Shrine in Kobe.


The Nagata Shrine stands in the area of Kobe that was hit hardest by the 1995 earthquake. The town has been rebuilt by pouring tons of concrete, but the Nagata Shrine stands in a small wood and seems far away from the danchi (clusters of apartment buildings). The oldest record about the shrine dates from the 9th century. But, on the other hand, archeological finds show there was a community in this area already in the Yayoi-period (200 BCE - 200 CE). The shrine probably originated in an old cult place of this community where nearby Mt Takatori (a so-called kannabi or sacred mountain) was venerated, so it does go back a long time, although in a more misty way than mythology asserts - in myth, its founding is ascribed to the ahistorical Empress Jingu, who presumably passed here in 201 CE on her way back from just such an ahistorical "conquest of Korea." Forget mythology - the shrine must have originated in a nature cult, like so many old shrines in Japan, and its amorphous kami was later deified, as happened all over the country when powerful clans took the reins and projected their deified ancestors over the originally formless natural forces. The ancestor deity here is Kotoshironushi, who came from the politically ascendant Yamato area (Nara area). It was probably adopted by the clan ruling at the foot of Mt Takatori to express an alliance with a powerful Yamato clan.


As all shrines in Japan, for most of its history the Nagata Shrine was under the management of Buddhism, until the forced (and unnatural) separation of the two creeds by the Meiji Government in the early 1870s. Before the Meiji regime destroyed them, there also stood several temple buildings in the shrine grounds. One of these was a hall dedicated to Yakushi, the Buddha of Healing, and it was at this Yakushi Hall that the tsuinashiki Setsubun rite developed in the Muromachi period (1337-1573).


The rite features several oni (demons) who are played by costumed men wearing ancient wooden demon masks. The men must be supporters of the shrine for many years and they undergo seclusion and purification the night before the ceremony. Carrying a large torch (taimatsu) and with a sword on the left side, they dance a pantomime on the stage in front of the shrine. During the dance they strike various poses (almost like sumo wrestlers), glaring at the public and swaying their torches to shower sparks on the devotees. This "purification by fire" has the same meaning as the large Omizutori ceremony at Todaiji in Nara in mid-March. The flames of the torches burn away all calamitous influences, just as the blades of the swords symbolically cut away all evil coming near.


The dance is accompanied by the beat of a large drum and blowing on horagai (conch shells). In the evening, the ceremony (which starts at 14:00) ends with a mochi cracking ceremony, after which the onlookers take home bits of the extinguished torches and pieces of the cracked mochi.

P.S. It is also customary to eat Ehomaki, large uncut sushi rolls on Setsubun.
The Nagata Shrine is a 7 min walk N of Kosoku Nagata St on the Hankyu/Hanshin/Sanyo Dentetsu lines, or Nagata St on the Kobe subway line. The annual festival of the shrine is held on Oct. 17-19. The shrine is also a popular Hatsumode destination.