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Otherworldly Encounters in the Middle of the Night

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Otherworldly Encounters in the Middle of the NightKasuga Wakamiya On-Matsuri in Nara

Jan Fornell (Sweden)

For two years in a row now I have visited the On-matsuri festival in Nara. Quite unlike the boisterous revelry and hawker stands of ordinary Japanese festivals, this is a rather slow and esoteric affair, but one that certainly gets under your skin. It has been held every year without fail since 1136, and the interesting thing is that the program has remained virtually unchanged over all these centuries, a kind of time capsule of Heian period culture. If the past in general is a foreign country, this is almost like a visit to another planet.
On-matsuri is celebrated in honor of Wakamiya, the son of two of the main deities enshrined at the Kasuga-taisha Grand Shrine. During the rest of the year, Wakamiya is worshipped at his own subsidiary shrine within the vast Kasuga-taisha compound, but during the 24 hours of December 17 every year, the sacred object in which his spirit supposedly resides is transported to a special “travel lodge" in the middle of Nara Park, the otabisho, which is a small shrine built to extremely ancient specifications with a roof of fresh pine branches. This is where the main events of the festival take place.
For me, the high point of the festival is precisely this rite of transportation, called Senkou no gi. “Highlight" would be the wrong word, since it is performed in total darkness at midnight!
Although the trees in Nara Park may look fairly sparse during the daytime, at night the park feels like the middle of a dense forest, and the occasional otherworldly cries of the deer make for a very spooky atmosphere indeed. Up above, the moonlight is surprisingly bright, but to the sides everything is pitch black. It is also freezing cold.
Setting out from our hotel bundled in double underwear and mittens around 11 pm, we follow the trail through the park towards Kasuga-taisha until we reach the end of the line of watchers and worshippers along the path. The still lit shrine itself is slightly further ahead. An official keeps walking up and down, reminding everyone several times that all photography, video recording and use of light during the actual passage is strictly prohibited as “offensive to the god," but this being modern Japan, people keep fiddling with their mobile phones until the very last minute. At the stroke of midnight, all the lights go out at Kasuga-taisha and a hush ensues. Soon we can hear the procession approaching.
First come two teams of men dragging huge torches along the ground, marking the way with a trail of glowing embers. They are followed by Shinto priests, shrine maidens and gagaku musicians, and then a tightly knit group of people in ghostly white robes and white masks carrying something that they desperately shield with pine branches. Even though they pass right before my eyes and the moonlight is quite bright, it is impossible to get even a glimpse of what it is. All this is profoundly mysterious, but it is nothing compared to the sound! All the participants go “Wooh! Wooh!" in a barber pole of voices, which in combination with the gagaku instruments create the eeriest sound I've ever heard in my whole life. Maybe it's a cry from the world beyond, or echoes from a thousand years ago, or even the sound of the cosmos itself, but it definitely makes all your hairs stand on end. (I went back this year mainly to hear this sound again, and it had exactly the same spine-tingling effect even though I knew what to expect. Indeed, it probably always has: apparently already mediaeval documents describe the same phenomenon.)
Still reeling from this unearthly encounter, we fall in line behind the worshippers and follow the procession to the otabisho, which gets quite crowded despite the late hour. Here too some secret ceremonies are performed in darkness, before a lantern is lit, signaling that Wakamiya has arrived. Prayers are offered and two shrine maidens dance a sacred kagura dance – in tabi socks on the frosty ground.
Later the same day, at noon, there is a colorful and popular parade through the streets of Nara, featuring over a thousand people in traditional outfits from various epochs over the last millennium. The parade ends at the otabisho, where Wakamiya is entertained until late at night with a long showcase of Heian period dances, music and performing arts ranging from the arcane to the thoroughly obscure. Most of the dances and music are over a thousand years old, and some have roots on the Asian continent that go back much longer. It is to a large extent thanks to this festival that they have been kept alive.
Very striking is how everything is performed in complete earnest for the benefit of the spirit of Wakamiya; that is, facing the otabisho and with the back towards the human audience. For example, the dengaku ensemble performs an ancient precursor of Noh theatre, but you can't hear a thing – but then it wasn't meant for human ears anyway. Everything is very slow. As it gets darker and colder, the audience starts to dwindle. The bugaku dancers wear dazzling costumes and, for the final dances, grotesque masks as well. When performed on a stage, these may perhaps be “elegant court dances," but in this primeval setting in the middle of a forest by the light of blazing fires they become something else altogether. We're talking shamanism and magic here. It gets downright scary.
Around 10.30 pm the entertainment is over, and it's time for Wakamiya to return home. The fires are put out, and in the rising mist once again a tight group of white-shrouded attendants gathers in front of the otabisho, shielding whatever is going on behind them from curious eyes with their bodies and pine branches. Once again, those voices start up, and once again my hair stands on end. Wooh! Wooh!
Jan Fornell
Born in Malmö, Sweden, in 1959. Lives in Japan since 1987. Linguist, translator, diversologist, art collector, traveler, gourmet.
Kasuga-taisha Grand Shrine.

Related Information

Kasuga-taisha Grand Shrine.

Location: Nara Park, Nara, Japan