A Festival of traditional Village Shinto
The Cult Torches of Ueda Village
in the Framework of Symbolic Architectural Traditions
around the Town of Omihachiman
by Nold Egenter
Use separate browser for photographs
Throughout Japan an extremely rich multitude of folk Shinto cults (matsuri)
has been locally handed down and preserved, in which the construction and - often
shortly after - the ritual destruction of "sacred seats of deities" (yorishiro)
made with perishable plant materials play a central role. In contrast to the conventional
ways of interpreting such cults with concepts of the history of religion, the author
has objectively documented a living tradition of this type of cult-torch festival (taimatsu matsuri,
in the region around the town Omihachiman on the eastern shore of lake Biwa. In
about 100 villages a still-living tradition was studied essentially in the framework
of the ethnology of art and architecture.
If one deals seriously and in detail with the numerous cult festivals of this region,
one will soon make a surprising discovery. Did time stand still here? In front of
one's eyes things take place which are reminiscent of descriptions in very ancient
mythical texts. Nobody would think that such things are still possible today. People still
proceed with 'sun spears' carrying 'mirrors' decorated with 'jewels' like in mythical
times. 'Sun-wheels' still appear in this region. Symbolic struggles are performed
in front of the deity with such objects. And as described in the oldest mythical texts
of Japan, divine figures are created from reeds. Multi-headed snakes moving in front
of our eyes are cut into pieces by heroic men. One-headed snakes guard a sacred
place and later die in fire. Strangely formed 'dragons' spit fire and eat themselves
up, moving wildly through the narrow lanes of villages at night. Ocean fish are
'swimming' through the night while madly burning. They will soon disappear in the
mountain forest. Gloomy lantern ships are aimlessly moving back and forth through the night
on drunken waves. Like miracles, multi-species trees are growing out of the ground
to considerable size in just one day. They never get old, remain young and fresh,
shining at night in brilliant light, but soon returning back to nothingness.
A land of fairy tales? Not at all. There's nothing odd going on here. What we described
appears very realistic at these cult festivals, closely related to a very primordial
object tradition. If we describe the cults phenomenologically together with this
object tradition, these seemingly irrational ideas gain a quite clearly understandable
meaning. Can they explain the meaning of myths?
The region around the small rural town Omihachiman is part of a wider plain in which
rice is intensively cultivated. This plain extends between the eastern shore of
lake Biwa being delimited in the east by the hilly Suzuka chain. The famous area
owes its enchantment to the wide stretches of shores lined with high grown reeds and to the
picturesque spaces defined by mountains often formed like islands in the landscape.
The Omi region is one of the earliest cultural provinces of Japan. Similar to the
Yamato plain around Nara or the fertile river plains around Kyoto and Osaka, it was from
earliest times one of the most important seeds of Japanese culture.
Annually, around the month of April, about 100 villages in this region celebrate a
type of Shinto cult festival which is quite strange for Western ideas. These festivals
are focused on the local village deity called ujigami. The elderly men, a cult group composed of members who are representative of the
important houses and their family lines (ujiko),
all come together at the shrine of the village deity in the morning of the festival
day and build a cultic sign fixed to the ground. It is made of reed, bamboo, rice
straw and rape. Evidently it owes its form to very ancient local traditions. During
the festival time it temporarily incorporates the deity venerated in the local shrine.
This sacred seat of the deity (yorishiro)
demarcates a sacred place within village space, and may then become the centre of
secondary cult activities and customs. At the end of the ceremonies, the cult sign
is dissolved materially and formally in the framework of spectacular fire festivals
In the whole region this basic pattern appears in enormously rich and multilevelled
differentiations which can be explained from the complex character of the symbols.
They can be interpreted at the same time as buildings, as signs in space and as cultic
symbols showing specific characteristics as aesthetic forms and often also as figuratively
interpreted structures. They are thus a kind of deeply rooted sacred art. Methodologically
comparing their forms, positions and functions, their basic meaning can be reconstructed. They speak a clear language without script. They are visual symbols
in the most profound sense. And they tell us important things about the local settlement
In the framework of the history of religion which conventionally dealt with cults
of this type, such symbols were not of objective interest. Western history of religion
is theologically based on the absolutely interpreted spiritual, thus is focused on
religious ideas, on "belief". Cult objects were registered only marginally. Particularly
if things looked technically simple, it was considered as part of "primitive religion",
"primitive belief". Thus the symbols we are looking at would have to be considered
as "fetishes" or "idols". Or, the fire would be taken as sacred element and this might
then form the basis of the religious interpretation of the rites. However, in the
region researched this would be entirely wrong. The factual reality is quite different. The cults show a considerable manifold of explicitly symbolic buildings which are
closely related to the traditional social structure of the settlements. Evidently
we are confronted primarily with a very ancient type of construction. A sacred architecture related to primordial Shinto. The fire is of secondary significance. Objective characteristics
of the buildings, the evident manifold of their forms, the explicit symbolic designations
and the complex social and territorial functions make it evident: the cults can dominantly be regarded with an objective view. They can be described in
the framework of an ethnology of art and architecture. With this approach, considerable
new possibilities of aesthetic interpretation are shown.
Technically these cult symbols are unusual buildings, carefully and precisely made.
They are constructed with simple manipulations by binding and bundling stalks and
twigs around staked constructions. Similar types of handicraft are known in many
traditional cultures related to huts and windbreaks. But this comparison immediately raises
an important question: does man not only build huts and houses, that is, buildings
which offer protection, but also signs and symbols which are freely set up in space?
The traditions surviving in this region show this clearly because the cult symbols do not
offer interior space. Their meaning is entirely in the outer form.
Regarding the exterior of these symbols, we are surprised to see an ever present geometry.
The forms are abstract, even if they imply figurative meanings from the terms they
are given. But they are not abstract in the sense of modern art where this implies in fact "abstracted". Geometry is the primordial essence of this tradition. This
is expressed in triangles, squares, circles, polygons, in cylinders, cones and pyramids.
But everyone will be aware on first sight: geometry is not produced here based on
the "artists love of geometry". It is produced quasi autonomously by the constructive
processes. It is an intrinsic by-product, a result. To name just some samples: bundling
many stalks leads always and automatically to cylindrical or conical forms. In other words, what man always considered his own pure creation, geometry, creates itself
quasi automatically in these divine figures. Maybe the ancient legends are right
in describing geometry as a gift of the gods.
There is something more to become aware of in the exterior of these seemingly primitive
cult symbols. If we are not completely blinded by Eurocentric ideals of art which
only accept the materially durable and costly and what is individually created by
an 'artist', we will say spontaneously: these forms are beautiful. But what is it that
makes them beautiful? If we look more closely, we become aware that these cult signs
show a mysterious type of aesthetics. They are not forms protruding dynamically into
space or, on the contrary, closed forms. They are both. They do not show a picturesque
naturalness or emphasise the linearly technical, they show both. They are not diffusely
defined or clearly outlined form, they are both. And all this is enclosed in the
same form which is at the same time definitely articulated but also a clearly unified
form. Nietzsche would say that two basic oppositions of all art, the Dionysian and
the Apollonian, are harmoniously united in these forms. They are full of tension
in the extremest possible sense. Similar to the Chinese YinYang concept, or Daoism, they
are models of polar categorical experience of the world. They reflect polar creativity.
They incorporate the forces of the universe manifested in contrasting forces which
man experiences and with which he harmonises his environment. If for instance we grasp
the depth of this principle from Chinese thought, we will be surprised by the most
simple means with which this is expressed here. But it is also very evident that
this profound formal principle is to a great extent a product of the techniques and the
In view of this symbolic depth, it is not surprising that the wise inhabitants of
this region preserved their treasures over the centuries. Each cult group consequently
considers of highest value the knowledge handed down in this group. Throughout their
lives they are learning about it and teaching it, recreating it again and again in the
same form. Are these cult symbols metaphysical models? We could understand that
these structures are still signs today of ancient sedentary groups in the villages.
They are representative of the land they live off and which they inhabit. A traditional
type of land law! A pre-written constitution?
Evidently, this stereotyped tradition presents us with doubtless valuable forms. The
symbols unfold a spiritual concept in space very narrowly related to a small circle
of territory on which humans live their lives strongly adhering to local traditions.
It is very surprising in this context that many of these cult symbols carry the "sun
at the top of their form. There are other types in which the upper part is considered
the "canopy of heaven" (tenkai),
thus reminding us, for instance, of symbolic concepts like Shamanistic world pillars
or even the Greek god Atlas. Further, many ancient cultures considered their environmental
world as a world of polar harmony, as articulated into substantial and non substantial, consisting of materia and the spiritual, of earth and heaven, sometimes
imagining both parts united by symbolic bands or ribbons. In a world that has become
dualistic, we have difficulty in understanding such polar world views operating with
analogies of 'coincidence of opposites'. It is probably not by chance that the thick
rope, the 'conditio sine qua non' of our forms is sacred (shimenawa).
Is it possible that these forms are some sort of primordial models or prototypes
of those universally known world views that operate with cosmic axial systems like
Mircea Eliade's 'axis mundi'?
Initially we mentioned also that some very abstract forms showed designations indicating
figurative concepts. This too is very surprising. In spite of their dominantly constructive
character, these forms are considered as fish, as dragons, as trees, as man and women or as divine figures. Often parts of them are considered as snakes, as
cancers and dragons. This type of figure touches our senses as something very archaic,
often nearly grotesque. Evidently, a technically conditioned abstract symbolic form
seems to be on the way to reach out towards natural forms of the environment, but the
result of this cognitive process seems to have been stabilised on a very elementary
level. It seems that these forms want to tell us something about how man - long ago
- discovered natural form.
In prehistoric times the shores of lake Biwa were inhabited by fishermen. Later archaeological
finds show a successive settling of the plain extending to the hills of the Suzuka
chain. Maybe the type of cult festival described, particularly in regard to its reed symbols, still shows traits of these early times when land-seeking settlers
from the near continent reached the Japanese archipelago, moved along the inland
sea and reached the central lands of Japan. In this case they were very likely
coming up the Yodogawa river, entering the region through the lower end of lake Biwa, spreading
along its shores and superseding the earlier cultures with a stratum of a higher
agrarian culture. It can well be imagined that at those times the plains that today
are intensively cultivated, were, as is often mentioned in ancient texts, still covered
widely by reed fields. Maybe these early settlers had brought their customary sacred
territorial law with them, a tradition which the 100 villages still carry on today.
Thus, the perishable signs and symbols which these farmers of the Omi region annually
build anew, very likely correspond to those signs and symbols that related their
ancestors for the first time with their settlements in this region.
Back to Introduction
Back to homepage