Category Archives: Festivals

Fire Ceremony & Kyōgen Performance at Seiryō-ji on March 15th

Seiryō-ji temple grounds with festival stalls & giant torches ready to be lit!

Seiryō-ji temple grounds with festival stalls & giant torches ready to be lit!

Many temples hold special ceremonies on March 15th to commemorate the Buddha’s death, or passing into Nirvana (Nehan 涅槃 in Japanese). One of the more spectacular and eventful commemorations is at Seiryō-ji temple in Saga. There are a number of reasons why you might want to attend this particular event.

  • On this day only, entry to the temple interior is free.
  • It has a real local festival feel with food stalls set up all about the temple grounds.
  • Traditional Kyōgen comedy performances are held throughout the day.
  • There is a huge fire festival in the evening.

Mewby and I visited Seiryō-ji for last year’s Nehan-e (涅槃会), so here are some pictures from our visit.

Seiryō-ji Temple

Naturally we took advantage of the free entry to the temple interior and gardens. Normally this would cost us 400 yen each, but on this day alone there is no charge!

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Many Buddhist artworks of incredible detail are on display inside the temple. In contrast the gardens provide space for peaceful reverie.

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Take a look around yourself!

Click on this image for a 360 degree rotational view.

Click on this image for a 360 degree rotational view.

Kyōgen Comedies

Two monks carry in a "living" statue of the Buddha.

Actors portray two monks carrying in a “living” statue of the Buddha.

Saga Kyōgen is a form of medieval mummer’s play, performed completely without words and so very easy to understand, even for non-Japanese. Accompanied by drum and gong, the masked performers, use exaggerated miming to convey very simple plots. The play we saw, concerned a visit to Seiryō-ji temple by a beautiful mother and her less than beautiful daughter.

The "homely" daughter is on the left and the mother on the right.

The “homely” daughter is on the left and the mother on the right.

So beautiful is the mother that monks become overly excited in her presence and welcome her warmly. Naturally, the plainer daughter gets a colder reception. Not very subtle I know, but the play does contain some religious satire. Seiryō-ji is famous for its rarely displayed sandalwood statue of the Buddha. This statue is held to be so sacred it is termed a “living Buddha”. In the Kyōgen comedy, the Buddha literally comes to life, turning away from the plain-faced daughter, and actually running off with her mother instead!

The Buddha statue running off with a beautiful lady as a temple monk tries to stop him.

The Buddha statue running off with a beautiful lady as a temple monk tries to stop him.

Naturally, both the daughter and the monks are very upset by this, but not to worry. There is a Japanese expression, 蓼食う虫も好き好き, or “some prefer nettles”, which means that beauty is very much in the eye of each beholder – and so the homely daughter also finds true love in the end!

All's well that ends well for the homely daughter...

All’s well that ends well for the homely daughter…

The Fire Ceremony

Saga no hashira taimatsu, (嵯峨の柱松明) is part of a religious ceremony commemorating Buddha’s passing from this world into Nirvana. The ceremony begins around 8pm and the two giant torches are set alight at 8.30. You need to get there early though, if you want a decent view.

The pine torches quickly catch fire...

The pine torches quickly catch fire…

I’ve read that the condition of the fire can be used to divine the fortunes of the coming year.

Fire fighters are on hand to prevent the fire from getting out of hand...

Fire fighters are on hand to prevent the fire from getting out of hand…

As the fires blaze, monks from the temple parade around bearing lanterns and chanting sutras.

A blazing inferno!

The fires really do reach quite high and send their sparks up to the heavens.


A blazing inferno!

My pictures don’t really do the experience justice, so take a look for yourself!

Click on this image for 360 degree rotational view.

Click on this image for 360 degree rotational view.

Details and directions:

Kyōgen performances are held in the afternoon at 15.30, 17.00 and 18.30. The temple interior and gardens are open from 9:00 until 16:00. The fires are lit between 20.00 and 20.30. To get there, take Kyoto Bus #71, or #72, and get off at Saga Shakado-mae. The temple can also be reached by taking a 15 minute walk from JR Saga-Arashiyam Station. Here is a MAP.

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Hina Matsuri ~ A Magical Doll Festival

The first tier of a Hina doll display bears the Emperor (男雛 O-bina) and Empress (女雛 Me-bina).

The first tier of a Hina doll display bears the Emperor (男雛 O-bina) and Empress (女雛 Me-bina).

Hina Matsuri (雛祭り) is a Doll Festival held every year on March 3rd. It is dedicated to the health and happiness of young girls in each family’s household. Though I have lived in Japan for many years, family celebrations like Hina Matsuri, have never really meant much to me – until now. Now that I am marrying into a Japanese family, I get to take part and experience these celebrations first hand. So a few days ago, I helped set up the  hina dan (雛壇), the platform on which the dolls are displayed. As I took the various dolls out of their boxes and arranged them in the correct order with their various accoutrements I found myself fascinated. Much as a Western family might enjoy decorating a tree together for Christmas, this too is a delightful custom.

a child's eye view

Viewing the Hina Doll display from a child’s perspective, it truly is a thing of wonder.

The Hina doll festival as we know it today, was developed in the mid-Edo period, but it has its roots in something much older. In ancient times people believed that doll-like effigies had magical powers and could take on a person’s misfortune and disease and carry it away. Dolls would be placed beneath a child’s pillow for this purpose and then in the spring, the dolls would be put in straw boats and set afloat on a river. As the dolls sailed off toward the sea, so too would bad luck and illness be carried away. Apparently, this custom is still practiced in some parts of the country…

The Emperor bears a ritual baton (笏 shaku) representing his authority.

The Emperor bears a ritual baton (笏 shaku) representing his authority.

Today though the typical Hina Doll display depicts a Heian era court and is symbolic of a well ordered family. Presumably the Emperor and Empress at the top represent mom and dad.

The Empress bears a beautiful fan.

The Empress bears a beautiful fan.

On the second tier are three court ladies, san-nin kanjo (三人官女). They are holding equipment for serving sake.

three ladies

A lady bearing sake:

lady bearing sake

Below the ladies are five musicians, gonin bayashi (五人囃子), bearing an assortment of drums and flutes.


This young fellow has no instrument because he is the singer, or utaikata (謡い方).

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Below the musicians are two retainers bearing swords, bows and arrows. The Minister of the Left (左大臣 Sadaijin) is a venerable old man.

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The Minister of the Right (右大臣 Udaijin) is much younger.

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On the fifth tier of the display are two trees: an orange tree (右近の橘 ukon no tachibana) and a cherry tree (左近の桜 sakon no sakura). And between these trees are three intriguing figures: the three servants or sannin jōgo 三人上戸. 上戸 is usually translated as “drunk” but why these three honest workers should be drunk I have no idea. They are named the crying drunk, nakijōgo (泣き上戸):


The laughing drunk (waraijōgo (笑い上戸):


And the angry drunk, okorijōgo (怒り上戸):


On the sixth tier a variety of laquered furniture, representing a young girl’s dowry is displayed. Among these treasures is a miniature tea ceremony set.

tea set

The final tier carries vehicles used when carrying a bride away from the imperial palace, such as a palanquin:


And an ox-drawn carriage. In Heian times, an ox-drawn carriage was the favored mode of transport for the nobility.

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And there we have it: seven tiers and fifteen dolls (the numbers are said to be auspicious) that give us a miniaturised glimpse at how Japanese view their own cultural roots. A set like this is too big for most houses these days, so I feel very lucky to see one for myself. If you would like to see some traditional dolls though, the Kyoto National Museum has an ongoing Hina Matsuri & Japanese Dolls exhibition throughout March which may well be worth a look. Our display must be entirely cleared away though, soon after Hina Matsuri is over, for folklore would have it that leaving the dolls out too long, will delay your daughter’s marriage. I fully intend to marry the daughter of this household and so will be happy to help pack it all away. Until then however…

Let’s light the paper lamps!
And decorate with flowers and peach blossom!
Five musicians play with pipe and drum!
Today is so much fun – Hina Matsuri!

You can read the rest of the song lyrics for Ureshii Hina Matsuri in Japanese and English here:

Ancient Football at Kamigamo Shrine


A public domain image of Emperor Jinmu – Stories from “Nihonki” (Chronicles of Japan), by Ginko Adachi.

Tomorrow, 紀元祭 – Kigensai (National Foundation Day), will be celebrated at shrines all over Japan with prayers for peace and prosperity. This is said to be the day when the legendary first emperor of Japan, Jimmu ascended to the throne. If you go to Kamigamo Shrine tomorrow, it is also a good opportunity to see a Heian era game resembling an early form of football called “kemari” (“kickball”). There will also be karate and kendo demonstrations.

The schedule is as follows:

9 – 10:00 am: Kendo
10:00 am: Hoisting of the Hi-no-maru national flag and singing of Kimigayo (the national anthem)
10:15 am: Karate demonstration from local children
11:00 – 11:50 am: 蹴鞠 – Kemari kick-ball. Players dressed in colorful Heian era costumes attempt to keep a deer-skin ball in the air.

Image taken from Kamigamo Shrine website. Click to visit the site.

Image taken from Kamigamo Shrine website. Click to visit the site.

For more details check the link (Japanese only):

Maiko at Yasaka Jinja

Maiko at Yasaka Jinja Setsubun (Medium)Maiko, Kyoto’s apprentice geisha, at Yasaka Jinja today celebrating Setsubun.

First they do a little dance

First they do a little dance

Then they throw their lucky beans

Then they throw their lucky beans

Both the maiko and the crowds were awfully excited about those lucky beans...

Both the maiko and the crowds were awfully excited about those lucky beans…

Setsubun is celebrated at Yasaka Jinja every year in both the 2nd and 3rd of February, though the festival proper is on the 3rd. To learn more about the traditions associated with Setsubun read John Dougill’s marvellous blog: Green Shinto.

Toka Ebisu on Inside Kyoto

#20 Maiko from the Miyagawa district

Maiko from the Miyagawa district meet the people at Toka Ebisu festival

My article on the recent Toka Ebisu Festival is now up on Chris Rowthorn’s Inside Kyoto site. Toka Ebisu is the first big festival of the year in Kyoto, and in my report I take an in-depth look at some of the traditions and rituals that are associated with it. I also explain why Ebisu, the god of good fortune, is such an excellent role model for the good citizens of Kyoto. With ancient shamanic rituals, mochi-rice pounding, maiko meet-n-greet events, and a giant frozen tuna (!) this popular local festival has a lot of diversity. Read all about it here: Toka Ebisu!

Entry to Ebisu Shrine at night

Entry to Ebisu Shrine at night

Toka Ebisu Festival Schedule – January 8th – 12th

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Kyoto’s first big festival of the new year is Toka Ebisu and it starts this week! Ebisu being the god of good fortune and prosperity in business, thousands of local people will descend on Ebisu Shrine to pray for success in their work and business endeavors. The streets leading to the shrine are crowded with food stalls selling typical festival foods like taco-yaki, kara-age, ringo-ame and the like… Meanwhile the shrine itself does a roaring trade in good luck charms and lucky bamboo grass!
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Below is a schedule of the main events to see during the 5 day festival: January 8th – 12th.

January 8thShōfuku-sai (招福祭) – Fortune Beckoning Festival
9:00: Ebisu Shrine opens
10:00: Hoekago Parade (宝恵かご社参)
Actresses from Eiga-mura are borne in litters to Ebisu Shrine. Later they will distribute branches of lucky bamboo grass to local businesses.
14:00: Yudate Kagura Ritual
A purification rite in which bamboo grass is dipped in boiling water to sprinkle it over the crowd.
14.30: Mochi-tsuki Kamiwaza
A rice pounding ritual with priests and shrine maidens in attendance.
23:00 Shrine closes

January 9th – Yoi Ebisu-sai (宵ゑびす祭) – “Ebisu Eve”

9:00: Ebisu Shrine opens
9:00: Shōfuku Maguro Hōnō (招福まぐろ奉納) – Dedication of lucky maguro tuna
10:00: Hoekago Parade (宝恵かご社参)
14:00: The festival continues with regular kagura dance performances
The shrine will be open until late.

shrine 3January 10th – Toka Ebisu Taisai (十日ゑびす大祭) – The Grand Toka Ebisu Festival
11:00 – 12:00: Toei Actresses give out branches of lucky bamboo grass.
1300 – 14:00: Toei Actresses give out branches of lucky bamboo grass.
14:00: The festival continues with regular kagura dance performances
The shrine will be open until late.

January 11th – Nokori Fuku-sai (残り福祭) – “Remaining Fortune Festival” 
14:00 – 16:00: Maiko from the Gion district will give out lucky rice cakes and branches of lucky bamboo grass.
shrine 420:00 – 22:00: Maiko from the Miyagawa district will give out lucky rice cakes and branches of lucky bamboo grass.
Midnight: The Shrine closes.

January 12th – Tetsu Fuku-sai (撤福祭) – “Retreating Fortune Festival”
9:00: Ebisu Shrine opens
20:00: Final kagura ceremonies
22:00: Ebisu Shrine Closes

Directions: Ebisu Shrine is on the west side of Yamato- Ooji Street, south of Shijo. Here is a map.

Gion Festival: Where Spirituality Meets Sustainability – A Talk by Catherine Pawasarat


Gion Festival images from Catherine Pawasarat

This from John Einarsen,

Did you know that the Gion Festival is one of the world’s oldest and most successful experiments in spiritual sustainability? This year the Great Ship Float (Oofune Boko) destroyed by fire in 1864 is being relaunched along with pre- and post-festival processions on July 17 and 24. Let spiritual teacher, environmental journalist and Gion expert Catherine Pawasarat guide you through the intricacies of the festival’s fascinating spiritual legacy and its latest iteration bringing together 1100 years of tradition with contemporary Japanese technology and sustainability practices.

Day: Sat, 12 July, 2014
Time: 17:00-18:30
Location: Impact HUB Kyoto. Access details and map here:
Entrance Fee: 1500 yen per person

Catherine Pawasarat is the creator of Catherine’s lifelong love affair with Kyoto began right after she graduated from Columbia University in 1989. With over two decades living in Japan as a journalist, writer, editor and intepreter, Catherine lived in the heart of the Gion Festival neighborhood. Her reporting on the Festival has focused on everything from the role of women in the festival to the heritage textiles that first piqued her interest in one of the world’s oldest living cultural legacies.

See also: Gion Festival – The Best English Language Resource on Facebook!
Gion Festival in Literature & Memory

Bean Pelting, Devils & Fiery Charms – Setsubun in Kyoto!

Setsubun is an old festival for seeing out the hardships of winter and welcoming in the spring, symbolized in the ritual act of throwing beans at mask clad devils… 鬼は外福は内! (“oni wa soto! fuku wa uchi!” – “devils out, and good luck in!“) people cry while pelting their lucky beans till the demonic forces beat a retreat. There are a variety of sites around town where you can join in with devil dances and bean throwing ceremonies which I shall list below.
Yoshida Shrine (see the poster above) holds the biggest Setsubun festival in Kyoto. The festival lasts for three days from the 2nd to the 4th. Highlights are the driving out of the evil spirits from 6pm on the evening of the 2nd and the fire festival from 11 pm on the 3rd. A huge bonfire is lit with piled up amulets, papers and charms – and when I say huge I mean it. It really is quite dramatic. As with most festivals there are 屋台 (yatai – food stalls) galore lining the route to the shrine, so there’s plenty to eat and drink. See details at the Yoshida Shrine website (Japanese):
To get there take Kyoto City Bus #206 and get off at Kyodai Seimon-mae. Here is a MAP.

Other Setsubun locations:
Yasaka Shrine
img_setsubun01Here you get to see Maiko and Geiko throwing the beans! Bean pelting and traditional dances will occur at various times on both the 2nd & 3rd of February as ladies from different districts come to perform. Times on the 2nd are: 1pm, 2pm, 3pm and 4pm. On the 3rd the times are 11am, 1pm, 3pm and 4pm.
To get there take Kyoto City Bus #206, and get off at Gion. Here is a MAP. Website (Japanese):

001Heian Shrine
February 3rd: From 12pm there is a Kyogen traditional comedy performance and bean pelting from 3pm. Sweet sake served free all day.
To get there take Kyoto City Bus #5 and get off at Kyoto Kaikan Bijutsukan-mae. Here is a MAP. Japanese/English website:

50setu_oni1biki_BRozan-ji Temple
February 3rd: Here you can see devil dancing from 3pm and bean pelting from 4pm. Old charms will be burned in a bonfire from 5pm.
To get there take Kyoto City Bus #205 and get off at Furitsu Idai Byoin-mae. Here is a MAP. Japanese website:

If you know of other Setsubun events around town, please list them in the comments! Here’s a video of Yoshida Shrine’s raging inferno to get you in the mood:

Kyoto Tanabata Festival

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Last weekend Mewby and I visited some of the Tanabata festival events now ongoing along the Horikawa and the Kamogawa rivers. Tanabata is the annual star festival celebrating “the meeting of the deities Orihime and Hikoboshi (represented by the stars Vega and Altair respectively)” (see more on Wikipedia!). The festival is celebrated on July 7th according to the modern calendar, but Kyoto celebrates by the old lunar calendar and so these events take place between August 3rd and 12th.

We went to see some of the illuminated artworks along the Horikawa last Sunday. They have many pieces fashioned from bamboo and light which are open to various interpretations.

A kind of Milky way tunnel of love…

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And a host of bamboo wish trees…

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We were very glad we got there early before it started to rain and it got really crowded. I recommend doing the same and avoiding this sort of kerfuffle:

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There’s also a number of craft beer stalls and ice creams on the arcade on the west side of Horikawa Street but if you really want food get yourself to the Kamo river!

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There you will find all kinds of tasty food stalls selling regional dishes from across the country. I particularly recommend the Alt craft beer from Akita. I had a couple of those. They also have a Yuzen dyeing demonstration in the river…

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Anyway, the festival by the Kamo is a really fun summery event and one we both really enjoyed. I’m sure we’ll be back this weekend.

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Check the Kyoto Tanabata  Festival website for more details. Other events on currently are:

Myoshinji Temple Light Up (August 9th-10th)
Kyoto Gojo Pottery Festival (August 7th-10th) – which Mr. Robert Yellin recommends visiting from dusk till 10pm.
Shimogamo Used Book Festival (August 11th – 16th)
and the rather spooky Rokudo Mairi (August 7th – 10th).

Many thanks to Sanborn Brown for keeping us all informed via his excellent Miyako on Two Wheels blog.

Kasagake at Kamigamo on October 16th

Deer-skinned horse riders deciding their turn by lottery

John Dougill writes,

There were traditionally three styles of horseback archery carried out for the entertainment of the kami. The most well-known is Yabusame, in which galloping riders shoot at a fixed target. Much rarer is Kasagake, to be performed this Sunday at Kamigamo Jinja. The other style involved firing at live dogs: thank goodness, it’s no longer practised.

Entry Procession

There is mention of Kasagake being carried out at Kamigamo Shrine some eight hundred years ago. Previously it had simply been a martial art, designed to improve battle skills. Legend has it that it began with Emperor Jimmu who used his helmet as a target. It was adapted as a shrine entertainment, and then died out.

Horse rider procession

In 2004 Kamigamo revived the ritual, and it is carried out by the Takeda-ryu school of horseback archers. Among the riders are descendants of the Kamo clan, who settled the Kyoto basin in pre-Heian times. The event begins and ends with the banging of a drum, following which a procession of colourfully costumed officials gather for a purification ceremony. The head rider then performs a Heaven and Earth ritual, by circling his horse first to the left and then to the right to summon yin-yang forces, before aiming a symbolic arrow upwards and downwards to ward off evil spirits.

Opening ritual - shooting towards the ground

There are ten riders in all, separated into two groups. Unusually for such an event there are women riders and the order of the riders is decided by lottery. On the first run through the riders fire at three targets at shoulder height. On the return run they fire at two targets set near the ground. The number of hits is recorded and announced over the tannoy. Once the results are in, the best five are put through into a second round, when the targets get smaller. Amazingly, this means that at a fairly high speed they fire at something little bigger than a saucer.

Winners and losers on their way back

Inui Mitsutaka

As part of the shrine’s outreach to foreigners, it provides an English-language commentary along with the Japanese, performed by Inui Mitsutaka who worked for a while with the International Shinto Foundation in New York. There’s much here that tells of the values of Shinto. The celebration of tradition. The entertainment for ancestral deities. The treasuring of skill and precision. Confucian and Taoist influences are evident, while the white horse on display brings to mind the importance of the animal as an emissary of the kami. They say Buddhism in Japan is a religion of the living concerned with death. Shinto on the other hand focuses on dead spirits but is concerned with life. Here in the galloping horses is a case in point.

The sacred white horse at Kamigamo (only to be seen at festivals and holidays)

The festival begins at 13.00.  Details about the shrine and how to reach it can be found here:
Tel 075-781-0011
Fax 075-702-6618
Nice short of video of it here,

Text and images by John Dougill. John Dougill is the author of Kyoto: A Cultural History. His current project, In Search of Amaterasu’s Mirror, is a study of Shinto. You can read his previous articles for Deep Kyoto here, and his blog Green Shinto at