There’s a stark difference between societies today and those in the past, mostly coming in the form of rituals. Today’s societies, or the “modern age” has very few of them, while in the past rituals were an integral part of everyday life. Rituals, in broad terms, are a form of invitation by the society to come together and take part in an event or ceremony that the whole community is involved in.
These past ceremonies and rituals, mainly religious in nature, were celebrating all sorts of things like the start of the New Year, or the birth or rebirth of a deity, or even the remembrance of lost relatives. When looking from the outside, many rituals, past and present, don’t really make any sense. But when you’re part of them, they have the tendency to draw you in and offer you a spiritual cleansing. All societies have rituals, and the Japanese are no exception. Here are ten of theirs, past and present.
10. Purification Rituals
Most of the traditional Japanese rituals are based on the Shinto religion. And the most common of these are purification rituals. The common belief is that people are inherently good and these purification rituals, which are collectively known as harahe, can cleanse the body and mind of all sorts of evil spirits and pollution. Clean water and salt are common purifying agents used for both people and their surroundings. These harahe are performed at the beginning of every other ceremony or ritual in Japan. One of the simplest purification rituals in Japanese culture is the rinsing of the face and hands with pure water before entering any shrine or holy place. The origins of these purification rituals began with the legend of the god Izanagi no Mikoto who washed himself free of corruption before visiting his wife in the Land of the Dead.
One particular purification ritual is the Misogi Shuho, in which people stand underneath a gushing waterfall with cold water in order to wash away any impurities or evil spirits. If a waterfall is not close by, a rushing river, or even the sea will do just fine. Oho harahe is another purification ritual but performed on a grander scale. It takes place twice a year, at the end of June and December, and is aimed at the entire nation instead of the people present. These kinds of rituals are also commonly found in everyday life as well. Just like we would use a bottle of champagne to christen a new ship, the Japanese perform a harahe ritual with the same intention. And as simple as these purification rituals seem, they are integral to the Shinto religion and its worshipers.
Another group of traditional Japanese rituals are blessings. These take place at different intervals during someone’s life. The first of these ritual blessings a person receives is called Hatsumiyamairi and takes place on the 32nd day in a boy’s life or the 33rd day for a girl. The child is taken to a local Shinto shrine by its grandmother, because its mother is believed to be impure after birth. Here it receives the protection of the kami (Shinto deities), after which the baby becomes part of the Shinto family of that particular shrine.
Then, when the children reach the ages of 3 and 5-years-old for boys and 3 and 7-years-old for girls, they take part in a ritual known as Shichi-Go-San or Seven-Five-Three. These ages are representative to the East Asian belief that odd numbers are lucky. And so is November 15, on which the celebration takes place every year. The event is held in order to celebrate the growth and well-being of the children. Lastly, there’s Adult’s Day, or Seijin Shiki. This celebration takes place every year on January 15 and young people who turned 20 last year are now considered to be adults. The rituals here are somewhat similar to those during the Shichi-Go-San where the 20-year-olds go to their shrines and pray for a better future. This is also the time when they wear adult clothing for the first time.
8. Hadaka Matsuri or Naked Man Festival – Okayama
Now that we’ve got some of the boring stuff out of the way, let’s delve into some of the more interesting Japanese rituals like the Naked Man Festival, or Hadaka Matsuri. Every year in February, in the city of Okayama, some 10,000 men, all dressed in nothing more than a loincloth, gather at the temple gates long after darkness has settled and wait for the festival to start. Often times temperatures are around 32 degrees F (0 C), but the flowing sake and beer, as well as the thousands of naked bodies, do keep people warm. They are so warm, in fact, that cold water is often splashed on them. That’s also to purify them, of course.
Nevertheless, after about an hour of waiting in the cold, the lights are all switched off and two bamboo sticks measuring 8 by 1.5 inches are thrown into the crowd from one of the temple’s windows. The men then have to catch them, and then take them outside of the temple’s grounds. The men who do this are considered to be fukuotoko, or lucky men, and will be blessed with a year’s worth of luck. But as you can imagine, this is easier said than done because you can be sure that if you get a hold of one of those sticks then the other 9,999 or so men will try to get it from you.
The festival draws its origins from around 500 years ago when worshippers competed with each other to receive paper talismans thrown by the priest. These paper talismans, called Go-o, were symbols of the completion of the ascetic training by the priests the year prior. And as time went on, more and more people desired those paper talismans, so the festival of Hadaka Matsuri came into being. But since paper was easily torn apart, the talismans were exchanged for bamboo sticks. Today, the Naked Man Festival draws a large number of spectators every year, eager to see thousands of drunk, partially naked men wrestle with each other in the cover of darkness.
7. The Konomiya Naked Festival
Surprisingly enough, Japan has a total of three Naked Man Festivals, and this one, taking place in the small town of Konomiya, is even weirder than the one mentioned before. This festival takes place every year on February 26, and like the one in Okayama, it involves about 10,000 naked men wearing only a loincloth to cover their private parts. This particular festival began in 767 AD as a measure to dispel the outbreak of a plague that was ravaging the region. But unlike the Okayama festival where the men have to catch bamboo sticks, this one involves a completely naked and completely shaved man called a Shin-otoko, or Man of God. Here, the 10,000 men with the ages that are considered to be yaku-doshi, or unlucky, have to touch the Shin-otoko as much as possible, and thus, transfer all of their impurity and misfortune onto him.
Back in the olden days, the man who was to be chosen as the Man of God had to be first and foremost unwilling to take up the role and was seen as a sort of offering or sacrifice. In the days prior to the event, the shrine worshipers gathered with spears and swords in hand and went into a certain direction that was considered lucky that year. And the first person they came across who was not a samurai, a woman, a child, a priest, or a beggar was taken by force and made into the Shin-otoko. Today, however, this particular aspect of the festival is no longer part of the proceedings, and there are a few men who volunteer before the event. One of them will be chosen and all of his hair will be removed with the exception of the eyebrows.
On the day of the festival the 10,000 men will come to the shrine, bringing with them a big bamboo pole covered with many pieces of cloth on which the people who couldn’t attend the festival wrote their names and apologies. When the Shin-otoko emerges, he is guarded by former Men of God so he will not be trampled to death. He only has to traverse the path leading to the shrine, but because of the 10,000 men who all want to touch him for as long as possible, this can take as much as 30 to 40 minutes. Throughout this time, cold water is constantly thrown on the men to both purify and calm them down. Inevitably, this water immediately turns to steam the moment it touches their bodies. After everything is said and done, the Man of God emerges from the shrine carrying a blackened rice cake on his back, representing the misfortune he is now carrying with him, and he will be symbolically banished from the temple’s grounds.
6. The Yoshida Fire Festival
The Yoshida Fire Festival, or Yoshida no Himatsuri, is a two-day-long event starting on August 26 and it’s addressed to the goddess of Mount Fuji, Konohanasakuyahimé-no-mikoto, giving thanks to the mountain for not erupting, as well as to celebrate the end of the mountain’s climbing season. The festival has been taking place for more than 500 years and was celebrated by the families living in the town of Fujiyoshida. The legend goes that the goddess was accused of infidelity by her husband and to prove her innocence, her child had to be born amidst fire. If the child emerged unharmed, it meant that he was divine and the goddess was blameless – which is what happened, per the legend. She then gained the title of protector of all those who are threatened by fire.
During the festival, the souls of the goddess and two other deities are transferred from their usual shrines into portable ones called mikoshi which are then carried through the town by the locals. These portable shrines are carried to the town’s center along a street that is lit with over 70 taimatsu torches that stand for the fire that proved the goddesses’ innocence. On the following day, the mikoshi are returned back to their respective shrines. Now, even though the Fire Festival is not as shocking as the Naked Festivals mentioned above, it is one of Japan’s most unique festivals.
5. The Hamamatsu Kite Festival
Every year from May 3-5, the skies over the Nakatajima coast in the city of Hamamatsu are covered with over 100 brightly colored and beautifully designed kites. The tradition began back in the 16th century when large kites, like the ones used there today, were flown in celebration of the birth of a baby boy to the ruler of the Hamamatsu castle. Even to this day, it is traditional for the residents of the city to fly a kite every time a baby is born in the family – a custom which is known as hatsudako. Every year on May 5, it was customary for people all over Japan to pray for boys’ good health and fortune by also flying koinobori, or carp-shaped streamers. But in Hamamatsu city, this tradition is taken to a grander level with people hoisting these streamers on 33-foot tall wooden poles. The symbolism here is that carps are known to swim upriver and over waterfalls, which stands for one’s hurdles he has to pass in order to advance in his career. Today, the tradition has expanded to include the girls as well.
In any case, at some point during the kite flying ceremony, the sound of the trumpet is heard and then the kite fliers try to cut each other’s hemp strings solely by using friction between the cords – no scissors are involved. This event is known as the “Battle to Cut the Kite String.” In the evening and during the night, over 100 palace-like floats are paraded through the city, accompanied by three-stringed lute and flute bands. This part of the festival was originally intended to welcome the participants that took part in the kite flying contest earlier in the day. There are all sorts of other activities and events taking place throughout the city during this three day period.
4. The Awe-inspiring Cherry Blossoms
Japan is famous for its admiration of cherry blossoms – and who can blame them, really? Every spring, starting from late March until early May, depending on how north or south you are located on the island nation, cherry trees begin to blossom, drawing in crowds of people to delight in simply gazing at them regardless of the time of day or night. This tradition was also passed to the United States when Mayor Yukio Ozaki of Tokyo offered a gift of 3,000 Japanese cherry trees to the city of Washington DC in 1912. In Japan, cherry blossoms, or sakura, are widely celebrated in all forms of art like poetry, literature, or paintings.
The tradition of hanami, or flower viewing, is a very old and ongoing practice that takes place even to this day. Besides representing spring and the end of the cold winter, cherry blossoms also embody the brief and ephemeral character of life. The whole natural process of blooming can take as little as two weeks, and people, with the tradition of hanami, contemplate the concept of beauty through the lens of fleeting existence. There are many places scattered all throughout Japan that have amazing blossom viewing spots, each with their own style and scenery contrasts.
3. The Yokote Kamakura Snow Festival
This more than 450-year-old festival is said to have its roots in the tradition of returning New Year’s decorations to the gods by burning them. It takes place in the evening between February 15-16 in Yokote City, where children build more than 100 kamakura, or snow huts, with little shrines in honor of Suijin, a water deity. Passersby are invited inside where they are offered amazake, a sweet, fermented rice drink, rice cakes, and sweet red-bean soup by the children and who are then engaged in pleasant conversation about the water god, and other more modern (and less ceremonial) topics. There are several sites with these kamakura all over the city where tourists and locals alike can go inside these huts and have a pleasant evening.
But besides the 100 kamakura, there are also several stalls around town, serving all sorts of traditional Japanese festival foods, including the local meibutsu, which is the Yokote yakisoba, a variation of fried buckwheat. Meibutsu is the term used for traditional products associated with a particular region or province in Japan. These can include anything from local cuisine to all sorts of handicrafts. Scattered all around Yokote are countless mini variations of the larger snow huts that have burning candles inside. All of them together, alongside the larger igloos and the hospitable children, make for an amazing and overall tranquil winter night.
2. Chanoyu – The Japanese Tea Ceremony
Chanoyu, or Sado, or simply called Ocha, is the ceremonial preparing and serving of green tea in Japan. The point behind it does not lie in drinking the tea per se, but rather in the preparation and aesthetics of the whole event coming from one’s heart as a form of spiritual discipline. Every gesture and movement is taken into consideration, where the host takes into account everything from the guest’s viewing perspective. Unlike the Western understanding of a ceremony, where there are usually a set of strict rules and rituals performed during a religious event, the Chanoyu has much more flexibility than it would seem at first glance.
Since it’s not religious in nature, the tea ceremony is more of a social event deeply rooted in Zen philosophy. It can be better characterized as a way of life and an expression of becoming more attuned with nature and closer with friends, as well as to find inner peace and tranquility. Each event and season calls for a different set of preparations and utensils that make up the entire decorum. Everything from the ceramics, utensils, flower arrangements, the hanging scroll that describes that particular event, the kimonos, the discussions, and even the tea room and the garden around the tea house are all carefully picked and tailored to suit the ceremony.
Its history goes back as early as the 8th century when the tea plant was first introduced to Japan from China. Also in the 8th century, a Chinese Buddhist monk wrote the Ch’a Ching, a book on how to prepare tea, describing the desired temperature of water and the how to use the proper vessels. It is believed that this book was the basis for the Japanese Tea Ceremony. It is also important to note that since tea wasn’t a native plant to Japan, it was only consumed by priests, nobles, and royalty for the better part of its history in the country. If it was a native plant, however, chances are that the ceremony would never have existed in the first place.
As like with almost everything else in classical Japanese culture, the popular sport of Sumo started as a Shinto ritual. In fact, Sumo is among the oldest of Japanese traditions, tracing its roots back as early as the Tumulus period (250-552 AD). Its name translates to the “way of the gods” and was a ritual performed in order to entertain the gods during various festivals and to ensure a good harvest. Only during the Nara and Heian periods (794-1192 AD) did it began being performed in front of the Emperor, and in the 17th century it began taking on the form we are more familiar with today. This was also the time when Sumo went from being just a ceremony to becoming a full-fledged national sport.
Now, even if Western viewers aren’t too familiar with Shinto traditions, it is almost impossible not to recognize some of the rituals for what they are during a Sumo tournament. Here are just some of them. For starters, at the beginning of each day of the sporting competition, there is a ring ceremony carried out in which every wrestler undergoes a purification ritual for both the body and mind. The matches take place on a clay ring that is covered with sand. This sand, like the salt thrown by each wrestler before their fight, is a purifying agent.
The referee, or gyoji, is dressed in traditional Shinto priest attire and the canopy above the ring is made to resemble a Shinto shrine. The four differently colored tassels hanging from the corners of the canopy represent the four seasons: green stands for spring, red for summer, white for autumn, and black for winter. The purple bunting surrounding the Shinto-style roof symbolizes the drifting clouds and the changing of the seasons. Before every fight, the wrestlers sprinkle salt around themselves, as a means of protection against injury. They will also spend a few minutes lifting their legs and then stomping the ground, thus scaring off any demons or evil spirits.