The Japanese have a long history of customs and traditions. Respect for these ancient rituals is instilled from birth onwards and is prominently visible and tangible in society. Japan offers many rituals and countless festivals celebrating nearly every occasion you can think of. Some of these practices have been founded thousands of years ago and although they have evolved over time, the essence of the ceremonies is still the same.
To understand what their culture stands for we have to explain very briefly the belief of the Japanese people. The Japanese do not identify themselves with one sole religion but rather extract various components of different religions and beliefs and fuse these together. We like that, it is a form of religious freedom many other institutes can learn from. Shinto, one of the oldest ‘religions’ in Japan is still practiced by 83% of the people today in some form and mainly focuses on a profound respect for nature. Different Kami, or nature gods, are associated with different objects and each has its own ritual or prayer, whether this concerns a rock or the wind for that matter. Additionally Buddhist wisdom and many of its rites are observed as well. Funeral ceremonies for example are mainly (93%) Buddhist in nature while weddings are mainly Shintoist.
The Great Purification
All these traditions and ceremonies center on purification of body and soul from spiritual and earthly dust and on celebrating and offerings to the gods. In reality this means they practice a lot of water rituals or harae to cleanse themselves from negative and evil energies and they celebrate this afterwards with a Matsuri, or festival.
Rituals & Festivals
Oho-harahe This is one of the most important and sacred ceremonies of the Shinto religion. It occurs every 30 day of the sixth and 12th month of the year and its purpose is to purify and cleanse body, mind and soul from pollution, sins and calamities.
Misogi Misogi is part of the Oho-harahe and involves standing under a body of ice cold streaming water to expel evil spirits and negative influences. You’re probably lucky if your soul doesn’t jump out of your body, but it might be worth a try if you have a brave mind…
Hadaka Matsuri or Naked men Festival The origins of Hadaka Matsuri date back hundreds of years to a time when some region of Japan was plagued by misfortune and disease. The people believed a naked body would absorb these evils and therefore one not so lucky man or Shin – Otoko per village was chosen. By touching his body, all misery and misfortunes were absorbed (if only life was that simple!) and the man was dispelled from the village for life. (how cruel after saving humanity!) Nowadays it is considered an honour to fulfill this role and grown men in loin cloths (what a sight…) fight each other to find the Shingi or lucky stick, hidden in the cold mud. This Shingi is your golden ticket and good luck and prosperity fall your way for the rest of the year. Not 100% convinced this tradition should be exported to the rest of the world but it sounds like a blast nevertheless.
Hanami Matsuri This is a very positive and happy Matsuri (festival) which celebrates the start of spring and the delicate beauty of the falling cherry blossoms from the Sakura tree. It is also known as the flower watching festival. The cherry blossoms are seen as a symbol of life’s transitory nature and that beauty is only short lived. So is life, so make the most of it. Families and friends gather under the cherry trees, have picnics, drink sake and party till it’s dark. Now this is something we are willing to do actually, but we have to admit there is a huge soft spot for sake involved. More info about Hanami? Visit our HANAMI blog post.
Shogatsu or New Year is celebrated all over Japan. Houses are cleaned, new clothes are worn and special foods are prepared to enter the new year. At midnight people visit a temple to witness the gong ritual. This gong is rung precisely 108 times to drive away that same number of human sins.
Chado or the way of tea, is the ancient art of the Japanese tea ceremony. And don’t be fooled to think you can observe this custom without practice; it’s a highly developed form of art that requires years of practice at special institutes that will teach you the different techniques. Performed by a woman wearing a special kimono who is familiar with calligraphy, ikebana or flower arranging, ceramics, incense and a wide range of other traditional art forms. And you shouldn’t be impatient by nature because a proper ceremony can last for hours.
Obon There are obviously many more wonderful traditions and customs to highlight here but we finish with Obon. The sentiment that underlies this annualfestival is so beautiful and universal that we feel it should be observed worldwide. Obon, or the Japanese Lantern festival, is a Buddhist event that commemorates one’s ancestors. It is believed that each year during Obon, the ancestors’ spirits return to this world in order to visit their relatives. The ritual is one of healing and celebration; to welcome these ancestor’s back and appease their souls by lighting lanterns everywhere or setting them adrift down the river. The flickering of the light in the lantern symbolises the soul. It is a tribute to how we are all connected through generations and that we should treasure this bond. We instantly feel the need to light a candle and appease the souls missing in our lives. Why don’t you join us?