As Japan's first systematic capital in 710, Nara is home to a number of religious ceremonies and rituals which people have preserved for many centuries up to the present day. Spring is the season, particularly for must-see religious ceremonies and rituals that take place in Nara. Join one or more of Nara's spring rituals and experience the deep religious culture of Japan.
Solemn prayer for the world peace unceasing for 1260 years
Shuni-e (Omizutori) at Nigatsu-do Hall of Todai-ji Temple
"Spring will come when Omizutori finishes." People often say this in Nara say at the end of a cold winter. People like to see small signs of the arrival of spring, but spring hasn't officially arrived until Nara's famous Omizutori, officially called "Shuni-e", at Todai-ji Temple which ends in the middle of March.
Shuni-e is a common ritual held at many Buddhist temples in Japan in spring, but Todai-ji Temple's is Japan's most famous and most dynamic with the longest history. Shuni-e originally began in the Nara period (710-794) to pray for the peace of nation. Amazingly, Shuni-e of Todai-ji Temple has continued since its beginning in 752, even during the big war periods in Japan's long history – thus making this the 1262nd Shuni-e in 2013.
In the night from March 12th to March 13th around 2:00 in the morning, priests descend repeatedly from the Nigatsu-do Hall by torchlight to draw water from a well at the base of the temple hall. It is this event that is actually named Omizutori ("Water Drawing"), so the entire two-week event has become popularly known under the same name.
Following the water drawing event, the mysterious Dattan ceremony is performed inside the Nigatsu-do hall. During this ceremony, horns are blown, bells are rung and priests swing around burning torches inside the wooden building. This is the origin of the torch lighting convention which is now synonymous with Omizutori.
Omizutori is performed at Nigatsu-do Hall, a sub-complex of Todai-ji Temple, on the slope of a hill. Just after sunset on every night from Mar. 1st through 14th, giant torches, ranging in length from six to eight meters, are carried up to Nigatsu-do Hall's balcony and held over the crowd. The burning embers that shower down from the balcony are thought to bestow on to the people below a safe year.
On most days, 10 torches are brought up and carried across the balcony one after another. On the 12th and 14th, however, the procedure is slightly different. On the 12th, all 11 torches appear in turn, including the giant torch. On the 14th, the last day of Omizutori, the event lasts only about 10 minutes, but all ten torches are brought up to the balcony at the same time, making for a particularly spectacular sight (note: it is extremely crowded!), so most spectators may not be able to settle down in front of the hall, but instead, are kept continuously moving past the hall in a queue.
Although torch lighting is the most famous and attractive to the audience, there are many rituals and preparations that are undergone before the main torch ritual. Buddhist priests have to go through many formal procedures to complete this amazingly majestic ritual. Omizutori is a form of praying for peace, not limited to Buddhists in Nara or Japan, but for the whole world.
Todai-ji Temple Nigatsu-do Hall (map A, A-5, pg 7): The torch lighting ritual is from 19:00 on Mar. 1-11 & 13 (10 torches), from 19:30 on 12th (11 torches with a giant one), from 18:30 on 14th (10 torches); Tel: 0742-22-5511; www.todaiji.or.jp/
March 30-April 5
Spring ceremony with colorful flowers and fire
Hana-e Shiki Flower Ceremony at Yakushi-ji Temple
Hana-e Shiki is the Shuni-e ritual of Yakushi-ji Temple. In 1107, the imperial empress was ill and her husband, Emperor Horikawa prayed for her recovery at this temple. Thanks to his ardent efforts, the empress recovered and she commissioned to offer 10 kinds of colorful artificial flowers for the deity of Yakushi-ji Temple.
For these 7 days, many ceremonies and traditional Japanese performances are offered (tea ceremony, drum show, flower arrangement, ancient music and dance, etc.). One of them is Buddhist sutra chanting in the main hall where deities are surrounded colorful artificial flowers. On the last day (April 5th), special fire ceremony is held. After the sutra chanting, monks throw lit torches high in the air to finish the ceremony, which is spectacle.
Yakushi-ji Temple (map B, pg 7): Sutra chanting: Every day from 13:00,14:30,19:00; Tea ceremony: 10:30-15:00; See pg 12 for access details to Nishinokyo area; Tel: 0742-33-6001; www.nara-yakushiji.com
Yamabushi spring festival in cherry blossoms
Hanaku-e Shiki Ceremony at Kinpusen-ji Temple
Kimpusen-ji Temple stands in the sacred Yoshino Mountain (southern Nara) as the head temple of Shugen-do, one of the esoteric sects of Buddhism. The Hanaku-e Ceremony is held in the peak cherry blossom season on the mountain (cherry trees are regarded as a sacred symbol in Shugen-do).
Females dressed like Yamabushi (mountain monks of Shugen-do) set a big bon fire ablaze and conduct a ceremony (this is usually the men's role). On the same day, a unique rice cake pounding event is held. The rice cakes are distributed to people on the following days. On the 11th and 12th, people dressed in the Yamabushi and Edo-period costumes make a procession from Chikurin-in Temple to Zao-do Hall of Kinpusen-ji Temple.
Kimpusen-ji Temple (map E, pg 7): A procession departs from Chikurin-in Temple at 10:00; See pg 12 for access details to Yoshino area; Tel: 0746-32-8371
Warding off misfortunes and get happiness with heart-shaped fan
Uchiwa-maki Fan Scattering at Toshodai-ji Temple
On the day of the event, 1,500 of pretty handmade heart-shaped fans are scattered from the balcony of a temple hall to the audience. The origin of this heart-shaped fan comes from a story of one of the head monks, Kakujo, in the Kamakura period (12-14th century).
When monks were training, a mosquito bit Kakujo. His disciple tried to kill the mosquito but Kaujo stopped him and said, "Giving my blood to a mosquito is a part of Buddhist training in order to cherish life." Nuns who heard this story were very impressed and presented a heart-shaped fan for Kakujo. Getting a fan is believed to ward off bad fortune and keep people away from illness.
Toshodai-ji Temple (map B, pg 7): Fan scattering from 15:00; See pg 12 for access details to Nishinokyo area; Tel: 0742-33-7900; www.toshodaiji.jp/