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Taking the Kami to the People

Jinja Shinpō continues to carry interesting articles about the ways in which different jinja across Japan have responded to the constraints imposed by COVID-19. Last week, there was an article about a Yasaka Jinja in Hakui City in Ishikawa Prefecture, on the Japan Sea coast.

The jinja was founded in the late fifteenth century, with the sharing of the kami from Yasaka Jinja in Kyoto. Thus, it is closely connected to prayers for the end of epidemics, and has an annual Gion Matsuri, like the one in Kyoto, only at a much smaller scale. In most years, there is a mikoshi parade and shishi-mai (lion dances), but this year those had to be cancelled, because of the risk of infection.

The chief priest, however, did not want to basically cancel the matsuri. Obviously, he planned to carry out the ceremonies before the kami, but he also wanted to do something for all the ujiko. So he sat down to think about what he could, and could not, do.

The matsuri itself was held at the jinja as usual, but with only nine of the sōdai in attendance.

Then, the chief priest invited the kami into a mitamashiro (another name for a yorishiro, a temporary vessel for the kami), which was on a handmade trolley. One member of the jinja’s youth group (who could be anywhere up to fifty — “youth” is a relative concept) carried the head of a shishi-mai costume in front of the priest, opening the mouth and snapping it closed to purify the road, while the chief priest pushed the kami round on the trolley.

The kami was taken round to every ujiko household, and quite a lot of the ujiko apparently paid reverence to the kami in the normal way, and were waiting in front of their homes for it to come round to them. (As the matsuri at the jinja started at 1 pm, I am guessing that the jinja has a fairly small number of ujiko, in a fairly compact area.)

The trolley was called, by the chief priest, a “shinzadaisha”, which means “kami seat trolley”, and looking at the photograph it was quite simple, with brocade curtains around the base of the trolley and white curtains and a shimënawa around the space where the kami was seated. Judging from the wheels, it wasn’t a shopping trolley, but rather one that you use to move things around a farm or warehouse.

As the chief priest pointed out, this is conceptually the same as a mikoshi, but it can be pushed around the area by a single person. Thus, this might be a way for areas that are suffering from depopulation to maintain the custom of the kami processing around the area at the main matsuri when it becomes impossible to move a mikoshi.

Personally, I think this was a really good idea, and more generally I think this is one of the interesting, and unpredictable, side effects of the pandemic. A lot of priests are thinking carefully about what is really essential to matsuri, and what they can cut or replace. I am not sure that everyone will agree on the answers, but the fact that every priest across the whole country has had to face this problem might well create more flexibility for priests trying to create local solutions.

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