A festival of aristocratic Shinto

by Nold Egenter

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For all those who want to gain an idea of the aristocratic life of early Japan Nara city is the place to get familiar with. The impressive arrangements of its ancient temples and shrines and many marvellous treasures in its museums outline important traits of the high civilisation reached with the aristocracy of the Nara period. However, only few know, that there is another way to expose oneself to the atmosphere of court life in ancient Nara. It resembles a time machine: the annual revival of ancient festivals. The high class Shinto shrine of Kasuga performs its 'On-matsuri' annually in December. Besides its ancient cult performances, it shows also a revival of classical music and dances. Certainly the nocturnal dances and pantomimes are fascinating. Suddenly coming out of the darkness of a forgotten past, these ancient figures and movements in the flickering light of torches are a ghostlike experience. But there is something even more surprising in this time machine view. All this luxury nocturnal ceremonial of the ancient Nara aristocracy is performed not simply as an open-air show. It is cultically interpreted and focussed on a primitively constructed sacred hut. This is set up each year anew to temporarily house the deity of the ancient Fujiwara clan. Did they, in ancient times, have a 'Jean Jacques Rousseau' type of consultant at their court? Who designed this strange festive architectural anachronism?

the Kasuga shrine at Nara
and the ancient Fujiwara clan

The Kasuga Shinto sanctuary at Nara is located in the east of the city at the foot of the impressive Wakakusa-yama. The load bearing wooden structure painted in red and the white fillings in between are typical of an ancient shrine style strongly influenced by China. The Shinto sanctuary is part of one of the most ancient shrines of the central provinces. Together with the Naiku at Ise and the Ishiwakamizu Hachiman in the south of Kyoto, it was one of the three most important cult sites where the tutelary deities of those times were venerated. Similarly as in the case of the Naiku at Ise where since ancient times the family or clan deity (ujigami) of the imperial line is dwelling, the sanctuary of Kasuga represents the ujigami of a family as least as important in Japanese history. The deity of the Fujiwara clan has its place there.

The famous clan of the Fujiwara amounts to Nakatomi Kamatari (614-669). He was a figure of exceptional dynamism and played an important role in the troubles of the 7th century. The centralisation of power under the absolute monarchy introduced by Shotoku Taishi (574-622) then focussed on an important decision: which religion would be state religion, Buddhism or Shintoism? It was Nakatomi Kamatari who, together with the prince Naka no Oe, the future emperor Tenji (who reigned from 662-671), politically solved the problem in the Taika coup detat. It swept the protagonists of Buddhism out of their power and - on the occasion of the proclamation of the Taika reform (646) - laid the foundations for a centralistic monarchy based on the model of China.

It is probably due to this important Fujiwara figure that the unique form of compromise between Shintoism and Buddhism was established. It implies an intimate intermingling of very ancient traditions of local character and the perceptual expansion of the elites' in those times into large spaces, a fundamental structural trait found in all phases of Japan's history. In the year of his death (669), Nakatomi Kamatari received the name of Fujiwara, which was a great honour because it made him the originator of a new genealogical tree. Particularly in the second half of the 9th century, the Fujiwara line gained influence on the imperial court and managed to consolidate its high positions through a refined family and marriage policy. The Fujiwara line influenced the political life and the culture of Japan until the middle of the 12th century. The golden age of the Heian epoch carries its name.

Thus as few shrines in Japan, the one in Kasuga is intimately related to the early history of the country. Sited among the ancient Buddhist temples in Nara, and, like these institutionally intact, it is an important source still vital today. This can be felt vividly at the occasion of the 'On matsuri', the main festival of the Kasuga wakamiya shrine which is a secondary sanctuary among the four set up in the ancient shrine district.

For unknown reasons the deity 'Ame koyane no mikoto' and her shrine were divided in 1136. According to the 'bunrei' system of Shinto, any sanctuary can be subdivided into any number of secondary sanctuaries. Its descendant (miki, divine child) 'Amenooshikumo no mikoto' receives a separate shrine at the place where it stands now in the forest, to the south-east of the main constructions. Since this date the 'On matsuri' is annually performed.

A religious ceremony

The 'On matsuri' is subdivided into three essential phases. First a temporary sanctuary is erected (o kariya, venerable temporary roof) on a flat part of the outer ritual precinct at the entrance to the shrine. Then there is a ceremony which is performed at night in the forest. It consists of a procession performed in a very mysterious atmosphere: the head priest transports the symbolic representation of the deity (mishotai) from the permanent shrine to the temporary ritual construction. There the symbol of the deity is set up behind the reed mats. This installation of a temporary sacred place is related to various ceremonies of official Shinto (lecture of prayers, sacrifices etc.). These cults form the frame for the third part of the event, a manifestation of more profane character, showing multiple aspects of history and tradition.

Numerous visitors, having come from near and far, are entertained for more than two days and two nights. The festivities open with a very colourful procession, (matsushita no o watari) in which specific figures lavishly costumed according to traditional styles are bowing in front of the illustrious divinity. Further, there are various folkloristic, aristocratic and feudal presentations. They are all basically offered to the deity, and are not primary for the visiting spectators. They reveal the cultic origins of such types of 'entertainment'.

History as a preserved tradition

Among such presentations we find the 'yabusame', an ancient type of military sportive and competitive training. It consists in shooting arrows at a sacred target, usually while riding on horseback. There are also open-air sumo-fights reminding of ancient ritual traditions related to territorial disputes. Dances and songs (azumamai) of the old eastern provinces are presented. Further, 'kagura', the extremely stylised dances of the most ancient historical Shinto, are shown. No less impressive are the rural pantomimes (dengaku) danced by rural figures representing farmers. These pantomime traditions were popular in the time of Kamakura. Very likely they developed from agrarian dances related to the fieldwork cycle (ta asobi, ta ue matsuri). And finally 'saru gaku', a popular form of entertainment with dances and songs, is performed.

These popular forms contrast with rather elitarian types of entertainment with gorgeous outfits. Prominent in this sense are the mask dances (bugaku) showing strong influences from China. Further, the 'kagaku' presentations showing courtly figures clothed with splendid brocade textiles and moving to the music of the court orchestra. Kagaku music is still strongly reminiscent of its Chinese origins. Dances and their corresponding masks and other utensils were developed in the 6th century by the court according to prototypes observed on the continent. They were continuously handed down through the centuries, thus preserved and annually presented at the occasion of this festival in honour of the venerable deity and her sanctuary. From a later age, but not less impressive, are the presentations of the No theatre, which are also part of the programme. They fascinate the spectators with their symbolic language for a whole night. In the flickering light of the torches the masks and figures are much more impressive than on the stage of the urban No theatres. To a great extent they manage to preserve their original demonic atmosphere.

In short, the festival provides some sort of a review of traditional and historical forms of the arts of entertainment. Practised in different epochs and in different social strata, they are all of a high quality and - important - expose their originally cultic character.

The architecture of the temporary sanctuary

But, as we have indicated initially, there is a very surprising element in this festival, the 'primitive' sacred hut. The presentations we described, particularly those of bugaku as well as those of No theatre are of a highly aristocratic and feudal nature. Since they basically have a cultic meaning, we can understand why they are performed in the open air. The precinct is axially focussed on the Fujiwara sanctuary. Shinto cults are generally performed in the open air. But, what is the meaning of this crudely built temporary cult hut? In the very refined architectural environment of the Kasuga shrine, the primitive sacred hut is provoking. It produces an extremely anachronistic effect in its setting.

The temporary sanctuary is constructed with large wooden logs. These are cut down freshly every year in the holy forest around the shrine precinct. The logs are left with their bark. The roof consists of pine branches distributed over the surface like in a forest cabin. Sticks protruding over the roof (chigi) allude to the ancient Shinto shrine style. The high floor and the stairs which lead to this elevated surface are covered with simple mats. The interior space is small, just enough to set up the instruments for the cult. There are no doors, but a simple reed-curtain indicates open or closed.

What does this tendency towards natural simplicity mean? Compared with the high refinement of timber construction achieved in the Nara period, this temporary sanctuary is surprising. Have people become negligent? Did this sanctuary somehow degenerate because it is only a temporary shrine in contrast to the established permanent shrines?

Not at all. The hut is also called karimiden which means 'temporary and sublime hall of cult'. It is highly venerated. There must be other reasons why it is built annually in this 'primitive' way. Evidently, it is the element of 'origins'. Its primitivism alludes to the deep structure of time. Consequently, the architecture is of highest value because of its allusion to the origins. It expresses the dignity of old age. Similarly to the periodic reconstruction of the shrines in Ise, it must also obey ritual purity. Thus the criteria are definitely not those of negligence, but there is a deep respect in view of an antique tradition and a fidelity towards something original. Romanticism? What is the real reason? It seems that, like in the case of myths, old age was an important component in prehistoric and protohistorical cultic constitutions in the sense of legitimation.

This allows us now to understand this surprising sanctuary as an accumulation of two contradictory criteria. A historical element of early Buddhist temple architecture is synthesized with structural 'primitivism'. Certainly the massive construction with its thick walls, the interior space provided for sacred objects and the opening at the front can be compared to the architecture of the nearby Buddhist temples influenced by Chinese prototypes. But there is a distinctive anachronical element. The 'sublime hall of cult' shows traits of an epoch where the instruments, which later permitted an extremely refined architecture, were missing.

In other words, does this festival reveal to us, particularly through this ritual hut representing the temporary seat of the clan deity of the Fujiwara family, an important element which is also basic in the architecture of the imperial shrines at Ise: a form of construction which deliberately alludes to prehistory? Evidently the Japanese, who showed a tremendous potential to adapt to modern times in fantastic ways, have in the domain of their highest ontological values, nevertheless remained true to their own age-old traditions.

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