Tue, Feb 4, 2020

Hashira-matsu Saito Shinji: Centuries-old yamabushi ritual carried on in Iiyama

Japan’s beauty in the eyes of CIRs

Susuki grass set alight
By Leianne Chen / CIR for Iiyama, Nagano Pref.

Situated in the north of Nagano Prefecture, Iiyama is a small countryside city surrounded by mountains. With stunning green fields in summer, and picturesque snowscapes in winter, Iiyama prides itself in having four distinct seasons. Iiyama is also home to many temples and shrines, earning the nickname “Snowy Country’s Little Kyoto.”

Deeply tied with religion, Iiyama’s Mt. Kosuge is one of the three most sacred places in northern Nagano for shugendo (Japanese mountain asceticism-shamanism). Established more than 1300 years ago, mountain ascetics called yamabushi stayed on the mountain for spiritual training, creating an area now known as Kosuge village. Many of these historical sites still stand in the village, and traces left by those in the past can still be found here today.

Entrance to the path to the inner Kosuge Shrine

To preserve the history of Kosuge village, locals participate in an annual summer festival held by the Kosuge Shrine. Once every three years, a unique ceremony known as the Hashira-matsu Saito Shinji is held. The year 2019 was especially remarkable because the ritual that only happens once every three years coincided with the first year of the new Reiwa era.

Matsumiko and matsuko-wakashu compete to set Susuki grass alight.

Registered as one of Japan’s important intangible folk culture properties, this ritual is a race to set Susuki grass on top of pillars alight (top photo).

Two 4-metre tall pillars made of tree trunks and branches are placed in front of the lecture hall of Kosuge Shrine. The western pillar represents an abundant harvest, whilst the eastern one represents peace and tranquility. Two boys aged between 5-7 are selected to become matsumiko, an important role for the Hashira-matsu Saito Shinji ritual.

Matsumiko and matsuko-wakashu wait at the starting line.

Although it is only for one day, a lot of effort and hard work is put into this short event. A week before the festival, locals gather to make the pillars used in the ritual. Participants are split into two groups. One group assembles the body of the pillar, whilst the others soften wild vines by hammering it before tying it around the pillar. A ceremony is held the night before the ritual to pray for the safety of the matsumiko and cleanse their bodies in preparation for the festival. After this ceremony, they hike for an hour up into the inner Kosuge Shrine, which is elevated 900 metres up Mt. Kosuge, to stay the night.

Branches are tied together to make two pillars.
Locals work together.

On the day of the festival, a group of men carry a 400-kilogram omikoshi, a portable shrine, down a steep 66-step staircase from the Shatosha (a shrine used as a worship space for the village) to the lecture hall of Kosuge Shrine. There, the deity of the shrine can watch over the festival and more importantly the Hashira-matsu Saito Shinji ritual.

Men carry omikoshi down a steep staircase.

A drawing is held in the morning to decide which pillar the matsumiko will represent for the ritual. With the help of young festival participants called matsuko-wakashu, they climb to the top of their respective pillar and compete to set the Susuki grass at the top alight with a piece of flint. Once the fire is lit, they race down the pillar and are carried to a resting stone 150 metres away from the lecture hall. The pillar that the winning matsumiko represents becomes the prediction for the following years. This year’s winner was the matsumiko representing the western pillar for abundant harvests.

This ritual has continued since the Nara period (710–794), and was carried out by yamabushi as part of their spiritual training.

As this is only held once every three years, locals take pride in protecting the history and tradition of the Hashira-matsu Saito Shinij. Mt. Kosuge is a particularly notable area in Iiyama where traces of its unique history can be found throughout the village. We encourage you to take a stroll through Kosuge village, or a hike up to the inner Kosuge Shrine, to experience Iiyama’s legacy.

(Photos courtesy of Leianne Chen and Shinshu-Iiyama Tourism Bureau)

(Cooperation: Council of Local Authorities for International Relations)

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Leianne Chen

Leianne is from Melbourne, Australia, and graduated from Monash University with a Bachelor of Arts in Japanese studies. She is working as a Coordinator of International Relations (CIR) in Iiyama, Nagano Pref. Leianne likes taking photos of food and the majority of her work includes translating documents, promoting regional tourism and hosting cultural events for locals.

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