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Maintaining Matsuri

Matsuri can be difficult to maintain. Unlike buildings, which will stand there for at least a few years even if no-one does anything to look after them, a matsuri needs people to perform it. Those people need to know how to perform it, and need to have the necessary items. Naturally, this makes more elaborate matsuri more difficult to preserve, as there are more things to learn, and more items to prepare and maintain. On the other hand, a more elaborate matsuri is also more interesting, and people may be more enthusiastic about maintaining it.

The frequency of a matsuri also makes a difference. A matsuri that happens every day needs to be very simple if people are going to keep performing it, particularly if the jinja cannot support a dedicated full-time priest. Even if the jinja can support a single priest, a daily matsuri cannot take too much time and effort, because there are many other things to do.

If the matsuri is too infrequent, the problem can be equally severe. With matsuri that are held every twenty years, such as the Shikinen Sengū (Grand Renewal) at Jingū, there is a real risk that people will not be able to remember how to perform the matsuri when it comes round again. Of course, the Shikinen Sengū costs over 55 billion yen, about $500 million, so it is really not practical to try to do it any more frequently. Some people argue that Jinja Honchō exists to make sure that the Shikinen Sengū continues to happen, and while I think that is exaggerated, the maintenance of that matsuri is certainly one of Jinja Honchō’s major aims. Even with this much institutional backing, maintaining the necessary skills is not easy.

One part of the Shikinen Sengū is dragging tree trunks from which the main pillars of the sanctuaries will be constructed, to the jinja precincts on wagons or sleds. Another is using the same wagons or sleds to drag white stones to the precincts, so that they can be put on the ground around the new main sanctuaries before the kami is transferred. When people handled wagons in their every day lives, this was probably not a problem, but things are different now.

Forty four years ago, a year after the 1973 Shikinen Sengū, a new matsuri was introduced to deal with this problem. On the day of the Kan’namësai, in October, people drew offerings of that year’s rice, gathered from across the country, to the jinja on the wagons that would be used for the tree trunks and stones. This matsuri continues today (it happened a week or so ago), and means that people have experience of handling the wagons, and keeping them in working order.

Smaller jinja have similar problems, but with far fewer resources. Modifications to the details of matsuri are common, so that fewer people are needed, or so that more people can participate. For example, a mikoshi (portable jinja) might be carried on a truck, rather than by hand, or the matsuri moved to a long weekend so that people can travel to attend. Even so, the maintenance of matsuri is a big, and ever-present, problem for jinja across Japan.

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