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Holy Water

The August 15th issue of Jinja Shinpō included a substantial article about the Gion Matsuri in Kyoto. This is one of the largest and most famous matsuri in Japan, with roots going back over a thousand years, and it happens over the course of July. It is the main matsuri of Yasaka Jinja, and the centrepiece, as far as most people are concerned, is two processions of elaborate floats, called “yamaboko”. I have written about it before, because it had to be radically altered to respond to the pandemic — most notably, by cancelling the processions of floats. The main motivation for this article was that the matsuri was held almost as normal this year, but I want to pick up on a specific point that was mentioned, concerning holy water. (You might have guessed that from the blog title.)

The water in question is called “shinsui”, which means “kami water”, and it comes from a spring that feeds a pool below the jinja’s main sanctuary. That pool is said to be the home of a blue dragon. (If you thought blue dragons lived in deserts, you’ve been playing too much D&D.) It might be significant that “blue dragon” is “seiryū”, which is homophonous with a word meaning “pure flow of water”; it almost certainly is significant that a blue dragon is one of the four beasts guarding the cardinal directions, with responsibility for the east.

This water was used in several ceremonies during the period of the matsuri, to purify the mikoshi and the yamaboko, but the most interesting was held on July 14th. This ceremony was held on the day of the full moon, which the article noted is when the sun, earth, and moon are in a straight line, and was timed to take place around the precise moment of the full moon. The ceremony took place at Shinsen’en, a garden in Kyoto that was the site of the original matsuri that developed into the Gion Matsuri. The blue dragon holy water was offered, and the priests recited the Ōharaëkotoba before pouring the holy water into the sacred well in Shinsen’en. (“Shinsen’en” means “kami spring (of water) garden”.) They then took water from that sacred well, and later poured it into the sacred well back at the jinja.

This is a very interesting matsuri, from its choice of timing to the connection between the two sites, and including the focus on sacred water. There are a couple of points to note about it.

First, the article suggests that this was the first time it had been performed. One of the uses of the holy water within the matsuri is explicitly described as being the first time that water had been used for that (purifying the yamaboko), and the description of the ceremony says that it was performed “this year”, which rather suggests that it hasn’t been performed every year for the last thousand. It is quite possible that the chief priest of Yasaka Jinja made up a new ceremony and incorporated it into an ancient matsuri. That is fairly normal.

Second, I am aware of no similar ceremonies, and certainly none that rely on the alignment of the sun, earth, and moon. Ceremonies on the night of the full moon are not uncommon (for practical reasons), but the actual moment of the full moon was apparently during the day in Japan. (I have conflicting sources on this — the journalist writing the article may have misunderstood something.) This is also fairly normal.

I may have mentioned, once or twice, that Shinto is quite diverse and that its practices are always changing. That is true even in the most famous matsuri.

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