Spring is just around the corner—which is not much consolation seeing as how it snowed here yesterday—but anyway, it is.
Which means that before it actually arrives, I should make sure to dispense with whatever unfinished Winter’s business might still be lingering next to the heater, cluttering up the house, trying to stay warm. Prime candidate—in my life, at least—would be the photos I took of dontosai—a festival celebrated in my northern Japanese city of Sendai, in mid-January (you see what I mean about lingering?)
The photos can be found here—animated in a slide show and set to Dave Brubeck’s “Tokyo Traffic”.
As you can gather from the depiction above, the basic idea of dontosai is for certain people (brave or fool-hearty, depending on who you talk to) to strip down to flimsy loin cloth and straw sandals and walk briskly for a kilometer or more through temperatures that plummet into the lowest of single digits, with the aim of visiting a local shrine. They usually do so in teams—most often comprised of co-workers, members of the same social circle, or school club. The purpose of this exercise is purification, which is achieved in numerous ways. The first is the spare outfit—(counter-intuitive to Westerners, perhaps, but . . .) the less one wears, the purer they are. The second is the smoke of a bonfire that grows through the day. And the last is the blessing of a Shinto priest. If these pilgrims are really doing it right, they carry lanterns and hand bells that they ring in unison as they walk, and keep slips of folded white paper between their lips, so as to avoid speaking. And, if they don’t succumb to (modern) temptation, they actually
don’t wear sneakers and socks and do
walk the one or two kilometers from their workplace (with their fellow teammates), rather than accept a bus ride (from a sympathetic boss or secretary) as far as the police barricades just below the long, wide concrete steps of Osaki Hachiman Shrine. Alas, as we live in an age where time is short and conserving energy (not to mention work hours) is highly valued, fewer and fewer participants tend to cover the entire distance by foot as they once did.
The bonfire at the top of the stairs is fueled by objects that visitors toss—generally New Year’s decorations made of pine and straw that have been affixed to car’s front bumpers or else have stood in homes (much like Christmas wreaths in the States). These offerings are generally supplied by participants wise enough to come in coats and scarves and mittens and boots and caps. They file up the long stairwell, then surround the mound of flaming decorations and seek to become “cleansed” by the thick blankets of billowing smoke. And after standing at bonfire’s edge until their skin feels as if it might peel off, they toss their detritus onto the fire, and then head over to the Shrine to toss some coin near the altar, rattle a large metal bell attached to a multi-colored rope (in hopes of awakening the slumbering gods), bow, then clap their hands twice, then bow again in prayer. Legend has it that this ritual will be good enough to garner success in one’s business affairs for the coming year. That or good health.
And if neither eventuates then either the legend isn’t correct, or else you prayed wrong.
After that—mission accomplished—and with the fire’s glow quickly dissipating from one’s cheeks and feet that are nearly ice-cube cold, it is time to beat a quick exit home. Some attendees, who have brought fruit, vegetables and sake will leave that on the way out, to appease the Gods; others will pay for fortunes which they then wrap around the branches of trees. The rest will pick up something to eat—one way of staying warm. The options are seemingly limitless; for, lining both sides of every walkway leading up the southern approach to the grounds and out the eastern exit are scores of stalls selling yaki imo (baked sweet potato), yaki-soba (stir-fried noodles), tako yaki (octopus dumplings), grilled soy-basted corn on the cob, frozen chocolate-cover bananas, candied apples, cotton candy, and bean paste-filled pancakes. More delicacies, in fact, than one has room to accommodate. Try though we might.
So, if you haven’t ever been, and you end up in northern Japan in mid January one year, why not give dontosai a try. Come to observe, to be part of a collective, to share in an annual phenomenon, to become purified by smoke and fire; to do something wild that you’ve probably never done before.
Oh, and to get numb through to the bone, and then try to eat yourself into a profound, satisfying thaw.