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Nara and "Second-Month Service"

It's a rainy morning in Nara, about 6 am here. After a warm, bright, sunny day yesterday, we're in for a cool, grey, rainy day--which is another mood of Japan I enjoy very much. It's a perfect day to sleep in after a late night celebrating the arrival of spring with Buddhist temple fire rituals, but I'll have to leave that to Nora--I seem always to wake up early, no matter what time zone I'm in.


Update: Nora woke up and we decided to go find coffee and breakfast. We have landed at Komeda's Coffee, a large establishment that seems to be the Japanese equivalent of a Denny's. The breakfast offerings are limited; the little tea-party egg salad sandwiches that are ubiquitous here, and "one of a kind hamburgers for bun lovers."

After arriving in Nara yesterday we found our way out of the station, dodging several supplicant deer from Nara Park who have, in the absence of the usual tourist throngs, taken to hanging out around Nara Station looking for snacks.

We checked in at the little one-night room we'd booked at Nara Mini Inn (which is very cute, up to date, and affordable--and has cushy beds--which, admittedly, were a nice change after a week of sleeping on futons and tatami at the ryokan. And it has an actual Japanese bathtub!)


We then proceeded on a quick tour of Nara on our way to Todaji Temple. I never spent much time in Nara when I was in Japan, but I would like to spend more. Once known as Heijō, Nara was established as Japan's first permanent capital in 710, and was the seat of government until 784, when the capital moved to Kyoto. It's a beautiful city of parks, monuments, and culturally significant sites, including Todaji Temple, one of the largest wooden structures in the world, housing the largest Daibutsu (Buddha statue) in Japan. It was built following a time of great difficulty, in which the nation suffered a smallpox epidemic, crop failures, an attempted coup, and the death of Emperor Shomu's infant son. In response, the Emperor commissioned a magnificent temple. To propitiate the deities? To give work to suffering craftsmen and laborers? To lift his country's spirits with a massive works project that would engender pride? The project surely ticked all the boxes, as the structure is still a wonder today.


Todai-ji today is famous for it's observance of the Shuni-e (修二会, literally "Second-Month Service") ceremony held annually in February or March, depending on the lunar calendar.


Quoth Wikipedia: "The ceremony actually comprises an array of ceremonies centered on repentance to the Bodhisattva Kannon and prayers for the welfare of society. Two of the best known ceremonies of the Shuni-e are the Fire Ceremony (otaimatsu) and the Water Ceremony (omizutori)."

(So I've kind of been using the wrong term for what we saw last night, though it does seem to be a generically applicable usage. In any case, we saw the fire ceremony, not the water ceremony, and only a bit of it, as the whole thing spans multiple days and nights over two weeks.)


Anyway, regardless--last night we saw fire. Boy, did we see fire! It seems odd that this ancient wooden structure is famous for a rite in which people run around brandishing flaming torches, but there you go. That's history for you, I guess.

Again, per Wikipedia: "Every night, ten select believers (eleven on March 12) shoulder large pine torches as long as 8 meters and weighing as much as 80 kilograms. Girded with swords and staves, the torch-bearers climb a flight of stairs and run along the balcony of the Nigatsu-dō, showering sparks on the public below. It is thought that these sacred sparks will protect the recipient from evil. The monks also chant, perform ritual circumambulation, and wave swords to ward off evil spirits."


(Nora and I weren't close enough to get showered with sparks, but we did get dusted with ash, which, who knows, maybe that's just as good. And we picked up a singed twig from one of the pine torches--other congregants were also picking them up--and Nora has pressed it into her scrapbook. Lucky? Who knows. But a nice keepsake.)

The crowd was huge (by current pandemic standards) but only a fraction of the numbers that show up in a normal year. The crowd control was executed flawlessly; there's nothing I appreciate more than policemen who laugh and smile and make jokes with the crowd as they help them move along. Perhaps they were just enjoying the fact that the crowds were proportionally smaller than usual. Overall, the tone was somber, solemn--but also positive, hopeful, and optimistic. That's one thing I love about many public religious ceremonies; they put people in a good frame of mind to handle life's crises.


Today, March 14, marks the close of the Shuni-e ceremonies. Per tradition, when the ceremonies are complete and the cherry blossoms have started blooming, and spring has officially arrived.

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© 2020 M.K. Hobson