Shinto Festivals and Calendar
Nen-chu-gyo-ji, "year-round-discipline-rituals," refers to the events of the Shinto year, the annual calendar of events. These make up the cycle of activities that occupy the priests of the shrine from one year to the next. The central events of that year are the festivals in which the greatest acts of celebration take place. The yearly cycle follows a rhythm that gives life in Japan its context in times and seasons.
Oshogatsu - New Year
The end of the old year and the beginning of the New Year are very important times in Japan. Towards the end of the old year, people gather for bonenkai, year-end parties at which the irritations and frustrations and any misfortunes of the past year are symbolically washed away and forgotten in the sake drunk on these occasions. After the new year has been ceremonially ushered in, people hold shinenkai or new year parties, toasting the new year, expressing their hopes and expectations for the year to come, wishing each other well, and anticipating the good things to be.
Between these happenings, a number of important rituals are performed. About a month before the New Year, at the beginning of December, people traditionally put up a Kadomatsu - "entrance pine" - at their home. A combination of standing bamboo and pine branches, the Kadomatsu acts as a point of welcome for the Kami whose goodwill and blessings are being invoked. Nowadays in the cities, the entrance pine usually goes up the last week of December on either side of the doorways to houses, hotels, offices, bars and even bath houses. The shortening of the New Year celebration has been forced on modern people by the pressures of business life. Companies begin around the end of the first week with staff dressed in kimono (even banks do this) on the first day for ceremonial greetings. In the country areas, where the whole celebration was based on the patterns of a rice culture, New Year's festivities used to go on until January 15, Koshogatsu, literally "Little New Year," and sometimes continued into February.
Other New Year preparations include Susuharai, a ceremonial house cleaning followed by the preparation of traditional cold dishes called osechi-ryori and motchitsuki, rice cake. The purpose of the dishes being cold was to relieve housewives of the task of cooking for the opening three days of the New Year. This ideal is not so easy to realize with the numbers of visitors coming and going during that time. Still, the intention was good. The closing act of the old Year is eating toshi-koshi-soba, the final plate of Japanese noodles for the year for the year that is about to end.
People sometimes visit their local shrines just after midnight, while others wait until daytime. At home, a family will clap their hands in front of the Kamidana, the shelf on which the miniature shrine is placed and make offerings to the Kami. Some people go out to watch the first sunrise of the year, hatsu-hi-node, while other simply go to a shrine the first two or three days of the year, hatsu-mode. People exchange visits, nenga ,among friends and relatives and send cards to each other, nengajo.
Children receive money, otoshidama, for the New Year and people involve themselves in the whole range of activities special to the New Year such as ladies in kimono playing a kind of badminton, men playing card and dice games and, in some rural areas, costumed men called Namahage visiting homes to see if the young are behaving well. New Year is busy, exciting and still highly colorful.
(Note: For a fuller account in English of the Japanese New Year, see an article by S.D.B.P. in Look Japan January 1984 "Oshogatsu: New Year in Japan - a window to the spiritual roots of modernity" which lists a vocabulary of over sixty terms that are special to the events, activities and ceremonies of New Year. This should give an idea of how complex and developed the sequence of events actually is and how the meaning and significance of New Year has been ritualized.)
January 15th Sago-cho and also Seijin-no-hi.
Seijin-no-hi is coming of age day, in Japan is the age of twenty. Shinto considers time and age to be important, and therefore decisive moments are celebrated. Local town halls give presents to the year's new twenty-year olds. Girls will often dress in kimono and take pictures which will in due course be used to introduce them to prospective husbands according to the traditional Japanese marriage system. It is a big day for those becoming recognized adults, full-fledged adult members of society. They also come to the shrine to seek the blessing of the Kami on their new status.
Setsubun-no-hi is celebrated by the Setsubun festival. Setsubun means the day before the official calendar beginning of Spring. According to the old calendar, it marks the end of winter. People on that day at home throw beans to expel bad fortune and invoke the good. At Tsubaki, priests dress in classic costume and shrine members join in a procession for purification and then, from a great dais raised in front of the haiden, they throw packets of beans for believers and visitors to catch. As Guji of the Shrine, I shoot an arrow to break the power of misfortune and then we proceed to the ceremony. Several thousand people come that day. February 21st Toshi-goi-no-Matsuri is a festival known also as the Yakuyoke festival. Yakuyuoke means a talisman, or omamori, which is designed to ward off evil influences. The festival is linked closely to the rites of passage in society and deals with the problems people faced at particularly difficult periods of their lives. There is the coming of manhood for boys at 17 and womanhood for girls at 19 - or genbuku as it is called.
There are the years of yakudoshi when misfortunes are most likely to befall, 21 is a turning point as is 33 for women and 42 for men. They come to the shrine for special purification to avoid serious disasters. There are other stages in later life of celebration such as kanreki which for men and women is 61 and later years such as 70, 77, 88 and 99. People will come to the shrine and receive an arrow as an omamori to break ill fortune and they will install in in the Kamidana.
Hina-matsuri is a festival of dolls to celebrate daughters in the family. These dolls wear Heian age costumes and are sometimes very old, being in the family for generations. Traditional food, various celebrations and a shrine visit are associated with hina -matsuri.
Shubun-sai is equinox day, a day for grave-visiting in particular and for remembering ancestors. It is closely associated with Buddhism in particular, but is nevertheless one of the annual cycle of events and national holidays of the year.
End of March
Haru Matsuri, the Spring festival, begins towards the end of March and lasts approximately until the end of April, once all the work of rice planting has been completed. Because Japan has depended upon agriculture, rice in particular, praying for a successful harvest is one of the the major acts of the year. The entire staff of priests in full ceremonial dress enter the Haiden in solemn procession for the purification rites, usually attended by several thousand people.
Koi-no-bori is the boys festival. Large cloth carp blow in the wind outside homes where there are boys. The carp is admired because of its ability to swim against the stream, and is a fitting model for youth to emulate. The household decoration for boys is the model of the helmet of an ancient samurai.
Natsu-matsuri lasts for almost the entire month of June. The summer festival is celebrated at the time when the crops are in the greatest danger of being destroyed by insects and by blights. Storms and floods can create unexpected chaos and therefore the blessing of the Kami at this delicate time is sought.
Nagoshi-no-Oharai --this form of purification or walking through a circle of rope - takes place in June also. A large sacred ring called a chi-no-wa, made of loosely-twisted miscanthus reeds, is set up and after oharai people walk through it. Intended for the purification of agricultural workers, to ward off mishaps of any kind, it is performed on June 30, one of the two great days of national purification, Obarae (the other is December 31, Shiwasu-Oharai) and completes the rites of the summer period. The summer festivals are nowadays a highlight for tourists as well as celebrations for local people. Because it is between sowing time and harvest it is a time of relative relaxation and of community celebration.
September to November
The Autumn Festival, Akimatsuri, takes place during the months of September to November. At Tsubaki Grand Shrine, we celebrate the Rei-tai-sai from October 11 to 13. This festival is also associated with Sarutuhiko OKami. The community gathers to offer thanksgiving for the incoming harvest. The Autumn Festival is the sequel to the Spring Festival. October is known in Japanese as kan -na-zuki, the month when the Kami are absent. September was in the past a month of strict taboos in various ways. Consequently, for many shrines, the Autumn Festival can be the main festival.
In the neighboring Ise Jingu where Amaterasu OmiKami is enshrined, there is the festival called Kannamae-sai in mid-October when the first fruits of the grain harvest are offered to the Deity of the Sun. Closely related to this, and held at Tsubaki Grand Shrine on November 23, is the festival known as Niiname-sai, a very old and important festival held once a year which, like the Kannamae-sai, has to do with the agricultural cycle. At the Ise celebration, the Emperor offers the first cuttings of harvest just as a local village headman would do at a village shrine. November 15th
Shichi-go-san , the festival for three, five and seven year-olds, is held nationwide around this time. Children in classical dress are taken to shrines to seek the protection of the Kami in this delicate stage of their lives.
End Of Year
After November, we come to the end of year and the Oshogatsu festival and the cycle begins all over again. It is in the festival, the matsuri, that the greatest celebration of life can be seen in the world of Shinto.