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Hewing Wood and Drawing Water

Early in their reign, the new Tennō performs the Daijōsai, one of the most important rituals in Shinto. I’m not going to write about that here, although I did write two essays about it, which you can now buy from Amazon through this handy affiliate link.

The rice offered at the Daijōsai is grown in two sacred fields, with many ceremonies. But I’m not going to write about those ceremonies, either.

The sacred fields are chosen through an ancient divination ceremony. I’m not going to write about that.

I’m going to write about the ceremonies involved in preparing the wood used in the divination ceremony. That is, I will describe the rituals to prepare the wood used in the rituals to choose the fields where the rituals to produce the rice to be offered in the ritual are performed. It’s rituals all the way down.

The process began with the priests in the Imperial Household asking Kashihara Jingū in Nara to arrange for the wood. That jinja then asked two other jinja, Amanokaguyama Jinja and Ikoma Taisha, to actually supply it. The account I am using was written by the chief priest of Amanokaguyama Jinja (in the November 16th issue of Jinja Shinpō), and in this case the rituals at Ikoma Taisha may have been quite different.

The wood in question is called “hahaka”, which is the old name for a tree now called uwamizuzakura, or “Japanese bird cherry” in English. The first ceremony, on January 12th 2019, was held at the tree, and branches were cut from it as part of that ceremony. The branches were then cut into the required shapes, which are fairly simple lengths of wood, but with bark along one surface — there is a photograph. I suspect they are harder to get right than it looks. They were cleaned, dried, and placed in a sacred location. Then, early in the morning of March 15th, a purification ceremony was performed.

Later that same day, the wood was taken to Kashihara Jingū, where it was presented to the kami of that jinja (Jinmu Tennō, the legendary first Tennō), along with the wood from Ikoma Taisha. On the 28th of March the wood was taken to the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, and purified again at a sacred location outside the Shinkaden, one of the sacred buildings in the palace. The priests who had come to bring the wood were then allowed to pay their respects at the Three Sanctuaries of the Imperial Palace (a rare privilege, as far as I can tell), and it was stored until the divination ceremony was performed.

In the run-up to the Daijōsai, I did write on this blog about the ceremonies involved in preparing the linen that is offered as part of the ceremony. There are also a number of rituals involved in building and demolishing the halls in which the ritual is performed. I am not sure whether there is actually a specific ritual for drawing water in this context, but at Jingū, in Isë, there certainly is: the well itself is a jinja, and the water used to prepare the offerings is drawn in a daily ritual.

It would be fair to say that the basic idea in Shinto is that nothing should come close to the kami unless it has been prepared through rituals that ensure its purity. That idea, however, is almost impossible to put perfectly into practice, and in most cases it is not.

I have a Patreon, where people subscribe to receive in-depth essays on various aspects of Shinto, about once per month. If that sounds interesting to you, please take a look.

2 thoughts on “Hewing Wood and Drawing Water”

  1. Thank you for this page! I stumbled upon a youtube video featuring yourself, highlighting Shinto in Japan, and was instantly enthralled. Your page does an incredible service to us westerners who may not otherwise have an opportunity to learn about this essential part of Japanese culture.

    1. Thank you! I’m glad to hear that you are finding the material interesting. I should note that I also have a Patreon: more content, and support for me while I work on it. Take a look if you are interested. In the meantime, enjoy the posts here. Thanks again for the comment.

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