Matsuri

Matsuri

Matsuri are the fundamental activity in Shinto. Indeed, a book recently published as an introductory text for people training for the priesthood is called “Jinja and Matsuri”. In contemporary Shinto, most matsuri are extremely ritualised and solemn, but some involve mobs of people running around the town with a giant wooden penis. There is a standard form, but personae have a great deal of freedom in designing matsuri.

Conceptually, a matsuri welcomes a honoured visitor, the kami. The people provide food, read a carefully-written speech of welcome, and offer entertainment, before the kami leaves again. The people may also ask for assistance, or thank the kami for previous aid. These elements all appear to go back to the very earliest times of Shinto, when the kami were not believed to dwell permanently in jinja. Instead, they were welcomed to the sacred space for each matsuri, and bid farewell again when it ended. A standard matsuri still includes the arrival and departure of the kami, even though, these days, the kami is typically believed to be present in the jinja at all times.

Before the matsuri starts, all the people and things that will take part must be purified. This includes both literal cleaning, and harae, or ritual purification. Harae is another central concept in Shinto, so it will get its own post at some point, when I am deciding how, exactly, to work it into the game.

The food and drink for the kami are offered right at the beginning. The food is called “mikë” (mee-keh), and the drink, which is always sake, Japanese rice wine, is called “miki” (mee-kee). The mikë always includes rice, water, and salt, but can also include any other kind of food. Many rituals have special traditional mikë, but it can be literally anything, including a box of chocolates. It is rare to offer the meat of mammals, although this is thought to be due to the influence of Buddhism rather than an original part of Shinto, but fish is common, as are birds. Any food should be high-quality, because it is being offered to a respected guest.

The speech of welcome is called a “norito”. Norito are written in ninth-century Japanese, which is different enough from contemporary Japanese to be hard to follow, without being completely incomprehensible. There are particular phrases that are held to be especially appropriate, and the norito are supposed to follow a fixed structure. However, they are also supposed to be written specifically for each matsuri. A matsuri that has been held every year for centuries normally has a traditional norito as well, but if you ask for a matsuri, the shrine priest may write a special norito for it. That said, most priests own at least a few books full of example norito, because writing norito is not an easy job. “Norito” is often translated “prayer”, and this is not too bad. The norito is addressed to the kami, and it should be written for the situation. However, many prayers in the Christian tradition are much less formal than norito.

The standard form of entertainment is sacred dance, or “kagura”. This dance can take many forms, and is thought to have originated in shamanic possession. It is common for the dancer to wear a mask, or to carry bells, and the music is normally based on traditional Japanese court music, or “gagaku”. This music has very different conventions from Western music. Drums, various kinds of flute, and the koto, a stringed instrument, are the most common instruments, and sometimes people sing. These days, most kagura is performed by miko, female assistants at the shrine, but the most traditional kagura is performed by priests, residents of the area, or members of a particular family.

A matsuri, as you can see, has plenty of room for creation within the basic structure. The mikë, norito, and kagura can all be designed to fit the situation. Creating a matsuri will be one of the central activities in Kannagara, and possibly the most common use of the rules for creation. Those rules will be the topic of the next few posts.

2 thoughts on “Matsuri

  1. About sticking to the Japanese terms: II think I’m a Japan affin person, and I’m having trouble remembering the Japanese terms. Your casual gamer might have an even harder time with it.

    I know why you don’t want to translate them, and you gave a pretty good reason for it, but still, as I said, I’m having trouble remembering them. If I’m then only one, then that’s just me and nothing to worry about, but if you hear it from other people too, well …

    Generally speaking, I would want this to be either a game with easy mechanics to concentrate on the complex, unfamiliar background, OR a game with complex, unfamiliar mechanics but a background being spoonfed to me. Well, me personally I would probably go for easy mechanics + easy background 🙂 but making both difficult will probably be too hard on even the most expert RPG gamers …

    1. Christian,

      Thanks for the comments. I’m finally getting time to respond to them.

      I think it will be hard to remember the terms from just reading them on the blog. I hope that it will be easier to remember them when they are introduced in play, and personae deal with them as a central part of the game. The fact that Ars Magica players have no trouble remembering the Latin used there gives me hope that this will work.

      As for the mechanics/background combination, this is one of the games I want to make, so they are the way they are. We’ll see whether it’s commercially viable a bit later in the process. If not, I have ideas for using similar mechanics with a more familiar background, so I’ll see how that flies.

      Thanks,
      David

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