- continued -


Permanent sacred topography

South east of the old country town of ômi-hachiman, on the fertile rice plains of the eastern bank of Lake Biwa, are three neighbouring villages: Mabuchi, on National Highway 8, west of it Sensôku, and further west again Iwakura, at the foot of a wooded mountain which, typical of the Shiga region, rises island-like from the paddy fields (fig.1). Since the end of a quarrel in the 15th century, these three villages (previously also Ueda) have been joined in a political and religious union. This alliance is still reflected today, not only in the relationships between places of worship, but also in the way worship is organised (fig.2).

Each of the three villages possesses its own village shrine or jinja, a term used to describe the building as a whole as well as the individual shrines (fig.3). The buildings and the shrines represent the “village deity” (ujigami) in the minds of the local people. As elsewhere in Japan, the buildings are marked by a sacred gateway (torii) at the entrance, leading to a forecourt filled with an open ‘dance hall’ (haiden), and, at the end of the forecourt, with shrines (honden) dedicated to specific historical gods (eg. Hachiman [god of war] in Mabuchi, and Inari [god of rice] in Iwakura). Behind these, and along the sides, are wooded areas which serve as a ‘forest of the gods’ (kami no mori). These shrines, usually personified locally as ‘o-miya-san’, are the most important places of worship and areas of sacred space in the individual villages. On a plateau in a clearing in the mountain forest of Iwakura is a further shrine (Umamiokajinja) which serves as the central shrine (gosha) of the three villages. It is reached via steps up the sheer mountain face. As well as these places of worship we find another one. In the garden of the founders of Sensôku (the Bamba family) is a place, marked by a stone laid when the house was first built, which, by means of a special ceremony, becomes a temporary place of worship at festival time.

Around this structure is played out during two or three days at a specific time of year the most important religious festival (hi-matsuri) of the three villages. The ordering of the celebration is strictly governed by tradition, and its content indicates various stages of development. One gains the clear impression of a structure which has built up over time. We shall now describe the festival briefly.

Temporary sacred topography: the annual ujigami festival of the three villages

The complex of combined religious celebrations which takes place annually in early May is ordered, in terms of both space and time, according to the significance of the places of worship. From beginning to end a higher religious festival (gosha-matsuri) creates the framework for a core of activity which consists essentially of three parallel village festivals (uchimatsuri).

The higher framework festival opens the proceedings with an ‘eve for all the villages’ (gôdô no yomiya). People come from the three villages at nightfall, accompanied by loud drumming, to the central shrine, where a previously constructed religious symbol as the ‘local torch of worship’ (suetaimatsu) (fig.4) and a multi-regional column as the ‘umbrella torch’ (kasataimatsu) are burnt down (fig.5). This happens each year in rotation (village A, B or C). The temporary erection represents the union of the villages.

The next morning the related daytime festival begins, the ‘principal festival of all the villages’ (gôdô no honbi) connected closely with the house of the founders of Sensoku (oyamoto): in its garden, during a solemn ceremony, an altar is constructed (o-hake). In addition, a branch broken from a tree in the mountain forest of the central shrine (sakaki) is brought to the village shrine, raised to the status of a sacred object (tamagushi) and carried in a procession to the founders’ garden. There it is placed upright on a grass-covered (iwagusari) stone laid by the founder of the house. Then the square holy area around the stone, strewn with red soil (akatsuchi) brought from the mountain forest is separated from the rest of the garden by a ritualistic rope (shimenawa).

After this peaceful opening ceremony centred on the founders’ house in Sensoku at dawn, there immediately follows an idyllic procession of the three village groups along old paths from the villages to the central shrine (gosha-matsuri). In this procession, accompanied by the sound of rhythmic bells (u no toki watari) through paddy fields in the early morning haze, movable cult objects (burning torches, hiboko, “sun spear”) (fig.6) and bamboo canes with insignia-like markings (heitsue) are carried. According to a traditional greeting ceremony (aisatsu), people approach the foot of the central shrine and carry out various rites <22>. The most striking is the one where groups of worshippers suddenly gather around the ‘sun spears’ with a loud cry, turn them in circles and destroy them by hitting out at them with the bamboo canes.

Another part of the framework festival is the ensuing celebration in the founders’ house (niwa-matsuri) and a ceremonial meeting of the groups of worshippers in Sensoku. The latter takes place at the temporary festival site (o-tabisho) near the founders’ house (oyamoto). They celebrate in the presence of the village deities embodied in the movable shrines (o-mikoshi, ‘holy sedan chair’) brought into specially erected tents. Gathered together in groups and seated on mats, people partake merrily of sacred rice wine (o-miki) and festive food. This part of the festival bears strong traces of the social and religious order of the Middle Ages (miyaza), and with its feudalistic character, plays only a secondary role here.

The heart of the festival complex consists of the village festivals (uchimatsuri) in the areas around the village shrines. They are of the same basic type as is found throughout the whole region (a shrine, a group of worshippers, a temporary religious symbol in front of the shrine. See fig.4 [plan] and fig. 17.) In contrast, the concluding part of these village festivals consists of a ceremony which belongs to the framework festival. The altar (o-hake) in the garden of the founders’ house (oyamoto) is dismantled, the holy (sakaki-) branch is carried back in a procession to the village shrine (Tsubakijinja) and there left to decay behind the shrine.

Figure 2 gives a schematic spatial representation of the festival. There are three parallel village festivals overlaid by a similarly structured celebration in front of the central shrine. The festival before the central shrine reproduces annually the alliance between the villages. Parallel to, and interwoven with, the whole event, is the festival at the founder’s house, which clearly has its roots in the feudal festival of the Middle Ages.

This shows us the basic overall structure of the cult complex. This religious event is strikingly different from that which we usually understand today as ‘Shinto worship’. It demonstrates a concise, chess board like order, a system which links territorial and social elements with specific signs and symbols in a traditional pattern.


We have until now described the religious festival as factually as possible, much in the style of a documentary film <23>, without any accompanying interpretation of its spatial elements. Most significant in our view are the sacred signs and symbols which are constructed and then destroyed in specific places.

The example was taken from the author’s research in the field, in 100 villages of central Japan (EGENTER 1980, 1994d). This work consisted of over four years (1972-76) of systematic research into a type of cult which is still found throughout the whole of Japan today, mostly based on the ujigami system, where 'fibro-constructive' structures, so-called ‘holy seats’ (yorishiro) <24>, made out of fibrous plant materials (reeds, straw, bamboo, branches, etc.) play a central role (fig.7,8). <25>

On the whole, such ‘holy seats’ are erected in close proximity to permanent religious sites. Once completed, they are seen as sacred, as the temporary seat of a local deity; they are, according to our definition, the regional centre of the highest value. Other elements of the cult , different in character, refer back to these sacred signs. At the end of what is often an accumulated sequence of heterogeneous celebrations, the symbols of the gods are destroyed by hand, displaced, or explicitly thrown away and left to decay. They are often placed in a fire as part of spectacular fire festivals (hi-matsuri), and destroyed in this way.

In Japanese folklore these temporary ‘holy seats’ are widely known, for example as a part (sagichô, dondonbi) of the small New Year celebrations (koshôgatsu). They are however generally classified as secondary phenomena, described for instance in connection with annual customs, or mentioned within the framework of a fire festival. Discussion of folklore is normally dominated by an explanation of official Shinto theology, according to which such objects are erected as a sign of invitation to the local spirit (shinrei). Having descended from heaven, it is present during the festival (matsuri, reisai) or banquet (gochisô) and presides over the social event. At dominating centralised shrines there is also a ceremonial ‘invitation to the god to descend’ (kami-oroshi). <26>

A temporary divinity in man-made form; rather a provocative subject in western thinking! In Shintô theology on the other hand, the holy spirit is not seen as an absolute. <27> Thus there are very few works concerned with the phenomenon of temporary ‘holy seats’. YANAGITA (1943) discusses, within the framework of ‘Japanese religious festivals’, under the title ‘The marking of religious sites’, a few types of ‘holy seats’, but sticks to the older western theories of tree worship, as determined to a certain extent by the manner in which his material is arranged. HARADA (1941) gives, in relation to form and religious significance, a typology of religious symbols as normally inferred from the term ‘o-hake’, which he at that time principally understood as sacrifices. Important in our context is HARADA’s later work (1961b) ‘Himorogi kara o-kariya made’, which is much more differentiated and ethno-historically calculated. It uses as its starting point the early religious symbols known as ‘himorogi’, and refers to related modern traditions in the Ise cult (shin no mi-hashira, sakaki branch), notes comparable symbols in a neighbouring village shrine, renewed each year with sakaki branches (Matsushita, see below, fig.26,27) and finally examines, using sources from history and folklore, a group of ‘temporary roof-like structures’ (o-kariya), parts of which are continually renewed, and parts of which are erected only temporarily, appearing either attributable to specific houses (tôban), or linked to existing ujigami shrines. In this way HARADA brings out, in terms of cultural change, the complex differences between these types. The most important of these is that the continually renewed ‘holy seat’ belonging to the house, when completed, acts autonomously as the ‘holy spirit’ (shinrei), whereas the transfer of worship to the established shrine results in a devaluation of the autonomous religious memorial. The deity in question becomes a partial spirit (bunrei) of the local god at that particular shrine, and returns at the end of the event in a procession (o-watari) to the established shrine. In other words, the periodically renewed form is the most highly valued and can be looked on as the primary structure. Similarly, the extraordinarily important cyclical perenniality of what today are for the most part only temporary ‘holy seats’ viewed in relation to all types, could be said to reconstruct, with the help of the perennial straw shrines (waramiya), the household god (yashiki-gami, NAOE Hiroji 1963,1966) (EGENTER 1980:60, fig.66).

In the ômi-hachiman region where the writer's research was carried out, festivals involving ‘holy seats’ have been described by Japanese authors: festivals in Ueda (KITAGAWA 1966), Omi-hachiman (TSUKITAKE 1966) and Sensôku (HAGIWARA T. 1965). HAGIWARA describes as an aside the torch part of the festival represented here. He was interested above all in the feudal elements retained by this religious festival, and did not attribute any particular significance to the torches. KITAGAWA and TSUKITAKE give detailed descriptions of the festival. Their interpretation of it is however based on the concepts of Shinto theology outlined above. Objects constructed during worship are seen as flaming torches (taimatsu) within the framework of fire festivals (hi-matsuri), they are sanctified, the spirit of the local deity presides over festivities and banquets. At the end its spirit uses the element fire to facilitate its return to heaven.

The author’s ethnographic research in the field called these theories into question at a basic level. In the one hundred villages studied, it was proved that in the ‘holy seats’ of the Omi-hachiman area, we are concerned with more than just torches or bursts of fire, there are also buildings to be considered. From the point of view of architectural theory it is a question of a native variety of erection with territorial, semantic and symbolic functions <28>. In other words, the determining factor in these cults is the ‘holy seat’ itself, its cyclical renewal, its structure, its shapes, its signs and symbols, its connection with the social structure of the village: ‘holy seats’ as forerunners of ujigami shrines. <29>. From extensive reconstructions we can deduce that another essential factor in the origin of these forms of worship is the prehistoric territorial rights of agrarian villages, rights by which the restrictive founding charters are periodically renewed. Two standpoints lead us to this assessment: a detailed morphological study of the symbols and an insight into their socio-territorial representative functions.

Morphological research into the ‘holy seats’

Detailed morphological research according to various criteria has shown that we are certainly dealing with built forms (fig.9,10), and that ‘holy seats’ are constructions which hold a wealth of cultural history within them (autonomous formation, geometry, elementary architectural principles: see EGENTER 1980:35-69). Furthermore, in the analysis of various basic aesthetic terms (aesthetics, proportion, symbolism) new and unusual insights can be gained. The forms are not ‘simple’ as their method of creation suggests, on the contrary, they are extremely complex. The most important thing is to expose an intrinsic ‘structural symbolism’: the formal principle of the ‘coincidence of opposites’ <30> dominates in these structures (fig.11). We are dealing with a model of polarised harmony.

The philosophical significance of the ‘holy seats’

A scientific description of the forms is therefore unusually difficult. Although apparently uniform in material and outline, if we look at their individual characteristics they turn out to be structured in different ways (fig.12). Looking at the main rope, the holy ‘shimenawa’, as one element, we would be talking about a ‘trinity’ <31> (fig.13). The holy rope also has a causal dimension. Its constructive function is clear. It is the concrete means of holding the form together, a prerequisite for the whole and the part, ‘conditio sine qua non’. Question: has the Japanese ‘shimenawa’ developed out of this special position into a general sacred symbol? In any case, the form eludes logical description (moving or not moving?), it is ‘irrational’.

On closer examination however, this irrational form itself becomes the model for a cognitive system. If categorised in terms of polar analogies, forms which are externally quite different, varying more than is required for harmony to exist, appear identical (fig.14). Regional differences (each settlement has its own form) appear to be interwoven into the structural system (all forms are one, as they are structured harmoniously). There is identity despite external differences. Forces of differentiation and generalisation are working together. We notice that the individualising element refers to the pragmatic aspect, the territorial function. In contrast, the structural symbolism supports the irrational element, with its generalisation (or idealisation). In a broader sense, a cognitive model can be seen, which we can use to uncover natural things (tree) according to cultural history (fig.15). <32>

The symbolic significance of the 'holy seats'

Symbolically speaking too the 'holy seats' studied are extremely rich in meaning (fig.16). Two layers of symbolism can be detected, an aboriginal ‘structural symbolism’ arising from the 'fibro-constructive' tradition, and a symbolism accumulated from external sources, recognisable mainly in Sino-Japanese expressions (nichirin, tenkai, inyô) as being influenced by the Chinese, and therefore occupying a secondary position. Thus here too we find some useful models for understanding symbolic thinking.

In religious theory too the symbols suggest a cognitive complex which is to be taken seriously, one which is diachronically based in human living space. Thus the structure of the metaphysical element would need to be rethought in its entirety. <33> It would be, like the Chinese Yin-Yang symbol, a formal principle of the concept of space, to be transposed diachronically into the existential past of human settlement. Hermann KÖSTER suggested something similar in relation to the beginnings of China, in his book on Chinese universalism (1958).

The socio-territorial function of the 'holy seats'

We should not ignore the fact that ethnographical research clearly shows the semantic functions of 'holy seats' in the social and territorial sense. Different villages display different forms. In many cases there is variation in the basic types, in other cases similar basic shapes differ in significant or trivial details. Each sign represents a particular territorial unity, a settlement and the land belonging to it (fig.17). Each sign also represents a specific group in the religious organisation of the village, for example young men (wakarenshě) or groups of older men (zenin) (fig.18). This tends to follow the general principle that a sign belongs to the group which created it. Conversely, the sign represents the territory of the group which meets there.

Important ‘histories’ of settlements can be reconstructed using these signs. (fig.19) Their rituals can be observed: they speak of historical groupings which are often very complex, in the relationships between various neighbouring communities.

Diachronically speaking we see a complex structure, referring back to the founding of a settlement. Interwoven into this are the social, ritualistic and spatial structures of the settlement, forming a complex of functions relating to its origins (fig.20).

Next part
Illustrations and Figure Captions
Back to Homepage