April 14th – Sanno Festival in Otsu

On April 14th, I found myself and some other carls trying to navigate our way through the JR lines to a town called Otsu on Lake Biwa. Marie-Louise had found out about a festival in its last day at Hiyoshi Taisha Shrine. We managed to arrive at the beginning of the descent from the shrine, around three in the afternoon or so. Future carls who may be reading this, please go to this festival! 

We were welcomed very warmly. Many locals seemed proud and happy to see outsiders taking interest in their festival. More than a few folks asked us where we were from, and a brave boy ran up to take a picture of us as we admired the mikoshi.

On the day we went, the Sanno Festival took the shape of a procession leading from Hiyoshi Taisha Shrine to the lake. Seven large and heavy looking mikoshi were carried by teams of the town’s men. The mikoshi act as vehicles for the kami riding inside and occasionally the teams of men would vigorously shake the shrines, apparently to amuse the riding kami. On the sidewalk, an older man and a young woman beat drums. After the men carried the mikoshi a short distance, they loaded them into the backs of trucks, where they were driven to the lake and loaded onto a barge. (This part isn’t easy to keep up with or necessarily something everyone watches.) On the barge the priests held a ritual, Awazu no goku (Offering of Awazu).

We found a beach on Lake Biwa where we could see the barge being pushed across the lake. It was a nice way to spend the afternoon, watching the water and enjoying a little relaxation. Some of the men who carried the mikoshi down the mountain were at this beach as well, and were friendly enough to bring us to the wharf when the boat carrying the miksohi docked.

When the boat docked, the men began to carry the mikoshi off the barge and immediately loaded them into trucks so they could cross the busy road that was behind us. After crossing the busy street, one of the mikoshi was removed from the truck and carried by the men up the hill towards Hiyoshi Taisha Shrine. A truck carrying schoolgirls in traditional clothing who were now beating the drums followed, and this new procession was lead by men carrying burning bundles of bamboo which were tossed aside, into the gutter, before we entered the forest.

We didn’t realize that the road to Hiyoshi Taisha Shrine was less uphill and more up-mountain. By the time we reached the shrine, I think we were on the mountain proper, surrounded by a mountain river and trees bigger than any I’ve seen in Minnesota.  We watched as the mikoshi was stored in a small building on the shrine grounds and a small ceremony was held to welcome the kami back home. After that, everyone slowly filtered back down the mountain streets to their homes, and us back to the train station.

Some shrines and temples in Japan now rely on the tourism industry to support themselves. Since the overwhelming majority of Japanese citizens do not identify as religious and do not outwardly give any indication of religion, it can leave some religious sites feeling devoid of genuine interaction. It’s hard to understand the complex relationship between Japanese religions and Japanese cultures/communities from only a visit to Meiji Shrine or Kinkaku-ji. (Not that these places aren’t important. I just found this event was a richer experience to fuel my understanding.)

Witnessing this part of the Sanno Festival, where I think we were the only non-Japanese tourists present, was one of the most genuine experiences I’ve had so far on the trip, and one that helped me see how a local temple and local religion still acts as a cornerstone of the community. The men carrying the mikoshi chanted in time with the priests’ fans, sometimes finding a friend in the crowd to yell to in a display of what I assume was some sort of shared experience or connection. It was something recognizable but unnameable. When it was all said and done and we were waiting to cross the street back to the JR station, we stood behind one of the mikoshi carriers, still in the ceremonial clothing. He was sitting on the sidewalk next to his wife, with a daughter on either side. It was a tender moment, and one that I think accurately captured the blending of traditional Japan and modern Japan in the context of a family and a community.



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