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

June 8, 2017

Okera mairi (Yasaka Shrine, Kyoto)

The Yasaka Shrine on the eastern edge of Kyoto plays an important role in the cultural life of the old capital, now and in the past. In July it organizes Kyoto's largest festival, the Gion Matsuri, and and top of that it is one of the most popular destinations for a New Year shrine visit (hatsumode). It also gave rise to the large pleasure quarter at its gates, catering to native townsmen and visitors from all over the country, of which the elegant Gion geisha quarters still form a vivid testimony.

The Yasaka Shrine is also the location of an interesting observance that already starts on New Year's eve and continues throughout the night: okera mairi. People come to the shrine to light a length of straw rope at a ritually pure fire to which okera plants have been added. Okera is a herb used in Chinese medicine (it is related to the chrysanthemum) and is believed to help against stomach trouble. It is burned in the New Year fires of the shrine because it keeps the air dry and pure. The slow-burning straw ropes, by the way, are sold by vendors in the shrine grounds for rather inflated prices (700 yen).

[The holy fire]

The Yasaka Shrine is a 24 hours affair even on ordinary days. Its large red Romon gate, that is turned towards Shijodori as if in a welcoming gesture, is open also at night and in fact, after dark, when the lanterns on the Kagura platform are lighted, the shrine is at its best. So too, on Omisoka, New Year's Eve, when the grounds are literally ablaze with light.

We carry our rope to the lanterns where the okera is burned together with gomagi, oblong wooden tablets on which wishes have been written (in fact, a Buddhist custom - the shrine used to be half Buddhist in the past as also its name Gion testifies - Gion is the name of the first Buddhist temple set up in India, already during the lifetime of the Buddha).

[Lighting the rope in the holy fire]

Traditionally, the flame was taken home to light the first hearth fire in the New Year, but that is not very practical anymore in this modern age of electric stoves and automatic gas burners. Still, people walk around gaily twirling the ropes to keep the sacred flame alive and for a while, we join the crowds, swinging the rope so that its burning end makes red circles in the night air.

It helps that we have come early, there are no lines, there is no danger to set each other afire. From 12:00 the main gates which have been temporarily shut, will open to let in the masses, and then the shrine grounds will become one-way traffic from Shijodori to Maruyama Park.

[The shrine is prepared for New Year with a fresh supply of amulets and other religious goods. Note the shinya, hanging down from under the eaves, the holy arrows that people come to buy for decorating in their homes]

It is clear that the shrine has prepared itself carefully for the coming onslaught of the masses. There are more booths than usual, all loaded to the brim with fresh supplies of amulets and holy arrows. The shrine maidens (mostly part-timers, I guess) sit primly ready in their neat costumes. This is the largest income generating event in the whole year for shrines and temples and nobody takes it lightly. New Year is when the whole of Japan stocks up on luck.

Having obtained our fire, we walk back, into the park, past the many small stalls selling everything edible conceivable, huge sausages, squid on a stick, toffee apples, octopus balls, yakisoba, sweet sake, and even Kitty candyfloss. The red and white of the stalls and the many lanterns create a magic atmosphere.

Before going down the steps for the subway at Higashiyama station, we remember at the last moment: better to extinguish our holy fire before boarding.