Japan Trip 2023 – Day Twelve

May 15th

It is disturbing to wake up in the early hours of the morning to find Tanwyn not there. Takes some time to fall back to sleep.

Is midday now, making a cup of tea and going to rest for a while before heading out again, this time for takigyo.

Breakfast was very good, no natto, but an additional bowl of soup: vegetable, tofu and mushroom, served in one of those cast iron flame pots, to go with the miso soup.

The proprietor was so pleased with their ability to make a vegan breakfast, that they asked permission to take a photo of it. I guess very few, if any, past guests have ever chosen this option, clearly offered on their website.

At breakfast it was explained that the festival on Okunoin mountain was this morning. This is for a powerful mountain kami, believed in this region to have been responsible for, among other things, the creation of Japan. This certainly seemed worthy of attending. It was, however, an hour’s walk away, up some very steep slopes. I was told some parts needed the use of chains to assist with the climbing.

In addition, it was pouring with rain.

As we now have Ofuda from here, it seemed wise to visit the festival. On Tanwyn’s sage advice, I left the camera behind – too difficult to keep dry, photography may not have been allowed and it would be a hindrance on the climb. So what few photos I did take were done on the phone.

Walking through the cloud filled forest with the rain pelting down, from somewhere ahead could be heard the sound of a conch shell being blown. It was magical.

Where the path splits to go up to Okunoin is a giant cedar tree with an outstretched branch, known as the Tengu’s chair. Breathtaking tree.

Entrance to the path up the mountain

Just up from here was a small shrine with the conch blowing monk. He did his business and disappeared up the path, as did a couple of other individuals, I assumed were also on their way to the festival.

I made an offering and headed up after them.

After a while, with none of them in sight, I began to question whether I had taken the correct path. Every now and then from above and ahead, the conch shell could be heard, but no people seen.

Eventually, I came across one of the others who had stopped for a cigarette.

On I went. The warnings about steepness were not exaggerated. Nor was this a path by normal Japanese standards. Little more than a watercourse covered in tree roots in most places. And it did, indeed, take an hour to reach the top.

The chains were more to stop one falling rather than help with climbing

Only a dozen people in attendance, five of these priests and two others there just to film. Again, not what you would expect when you hear the word matsuri.

Most of the time was spent waiting while the priests prepared the small shrine building, barely big enough to fit more than three of them at a time. They cleaned, put up shimenawa and organised the offerings.

While they did this, I climbed the final few dozen metres to the very top of the peak.

Marker at the top of the mountain

Here was a very small shrine, being cleaned and offerings made by one of the priests.

Back down to the main event and it turns out one of the priests is one of the owners of the shukubo, the son of the dead takigyo priest, so I assume they have continued in their father’s footsteps.

Once the ceremony began, it soon became clear that we were not there to watch, but rather to participate, (all except the two with cameras). Not understanding anything the priest running things was saying, I simply copied along. I had initially thought the conch monk was going to be in charge, but he was just the conch guy, and after that he was done, just another participant like the rest of us.

Prayers were read, we were all blessed with a branch/wand, shrine doors were opened, (inside, among many other items, were two of the peculiar Mitakesan wolf guardians), offerings of various kinds were laid out.

Then each of us was individually directed to enter the shrine with the priests, where we were handed a branch with shide to offer to the shrine – two bows, two claps, one deep bow.

It was just assumed we all, including me, knew what we were supposed to do. It is possible I was the only one there who had not done this before.

More prayers, the offerings were cleared away, doors closed, final prayers and it was done.

Sake was handed out in tiny cups, a priest gave a speach, no idea what about, something to do with years and significance, I think. We drank our sake.

Food offerings were distributed to us. I was given a block of soap like mochi and a banana.

The rain stopped on the way home.

I truly felt honoured to have been able to participate, there was no special dispensation made for the Westerner, I was simply accepted into the ceremony as one of the participants.

Very, very nice.

Forgot to mention that as part of opening and closing the inner doors, the priest involved intoned, very loudly, a sound/wail highly reminiscent of an emergency vehicle’s siren. Quite a powerful and moving thing to hear.

Just back from the Takigyo and looking at the written instructions I was given before we set out. They bear only a passing similarity to what we actually did. While the priest doing this obviously took it all seriously, there was a business like air of let’s do this, get it over with and not waste time. Perhaps just an exponent of von Clausewitzian economy of force.

There were three of us in the group: myself, the priest and a woman who joined in as we were leaving for the waterfall. I will admit to being initially impressed when, when she stopped to use the toilet on the way, he just kept marching down the track, yelling back at her that she could catch up. But it was apparent later that she was a regular practitioner and knew the drill.

Was about a half hour walk through the forest to the waterfall and the route we took from the priest’s shukubo to the shrine and forest entrance was a new one to me; one that was even more steep than my normal route. I did not think that possible.

It is a stunningly beautiful forest and the waterfall site even more so.

On arrival, the other person was sent off to a makeshift change room, while the priest and I changed in the open: loin cloths and white coats.

We went through the preparatory exercises and breathings. Similar, but different, to what I was familiar with.

Then, coats off for myself and the priest, we took turns to enter the waterfall, we each went in three times, for about ten seconds a time, at the priest’s timing.

It was necessary to lean back into the rockface to get the full flow of water onto the head and body, as it did not drop directly onto the head, but came down a steeply sloping cliff. Was cold enough to cause pain to the top of the head. Once we had each been under three times, there was a short set of exercises and breathing and we were done.

Dried, changed and the walk back out.

A thoroughly enjoyable experience, well worth doing. I have not the words.

Now, soon, my beer will be gone and my allocated bath time will be here.

Kai Cho

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