Friday, March 9, 2012

shuni-e: otaimatsu

The Shuni-e, Second-Month Service, is a ceremony held every year on the second month of the lunar calender as devotion and confession to the Bodhisattva Kannon. The most famous Shuni-e ceremony is the one held at the Nigatsu-dō of Tōdai-ji in Nara. The ceremony lasts for two weeks and I was fortunate to be in Nara during this time so even though I finished sightseeing pretty early, I stayed to see the ceremony being performed. The Shuni-e is known for two ceremonies the otaimatsu (fire ceremony) and omizutori (water ceremony), which this festival is also commonly called.

Otaimatsu is a spectacular sight where specially selected monks carry giant torches up to Nigatsu-dō's balcony and are held over the crowd. The burning embers are said to protect you from evil and to give you a safe year.

They weren't kidding when they said the torches were giant. On the day I went the torches were six meters in length and weighted 40kg. Since I had finished all my sightseeing I managed to get here an hour before the ceremony started at 7pm. It was a good thing too cause the yard soon filled with people and because I was there so early I managed to be right up against the fence beneath the balcony, an ideal place to get flaming embers to fall on me and to protect me from evil.

Since they have been doing this ceremony for hundreds of years these guys were well prepared. They had men stationed underneath the balcony with water bags and brooms to put out the flaming embers as they fell to the ground. Since everything is made of wood it would be disastrous if one of those buggers caught. They also had men stationed on the balcony that would immediately start attacking those embers after the monk made his run across.

I was so close no one was in front of me! I had an excellent view of the balcony and right in the center but I believe the best spot would be in the corner right next to the staircase. That position would have offered you an awesome view of the monks as they carried the torches up the staircase and that is also where the monks hold the giant torch, twirling it so that the embers fell down onto us. Rarely did they stop in the middle and they do stop at the end of the balcony but that goes over the a different set of stairs which people are prevented from crowding onto. I had no way to tell the time and I was anxious for it to start. There was a woman speaking Japanese but I had no clue what she was saying until all the lights turned off and it was finally time!

I loved it when they spun the torches because it would cause all the embers to fly everywhere. A lot of the times it seemed as if the embers weren't even touching me! I kept raising my arms and tried to catch those dang embers. Everyone was doing the same. Never seen a group of people who wanted flaming hot stuff to fall on them so badly.

Here a monk is running down the balcony with his burning torch. Even though several monks carry the torches up the stairs, only one runs down the balcony with it. The day I went there were 10 torches and the whole ceremony lasted for only 20 minutes. After it ended people weren't dispersing fast enough, instead they crowded towards the fence. I was wondering if there was something else that was gonna happen but instead the people in charge of putting out the embers were throwing the burnt plants that made up the torches into the audience. One got thrown my way and some nearby people were trying to snatch it but of course I was too quick for them and managed to bring home a souvenir for Vinnie!

It was hard keeping this crumbling branch intact and it smelled bad but it was worth it to bring it Vinnie and keep her blessed from evil. I even managed to keep some in a vial that I brought back with me to Taiwan! I was scared that it might be found since I'm pretty sure you can't bring vegetation across country lines but it was already super burnt and I didn't keep the green part just the black.

For more info about this festival or for future dates of when this ceremony will happen please click here.

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