Benten Shrine Ceremony

I mentioned in I Love Japan Redux that my local village has quite a number of events and various excuses to get us all together in one place doing something, working or playing, sometimes both.

This past weekend was our annual Benten Shrine ceremony.  In addition to every village having a community center, most also have a dedicated shrine.  Ours honors Benten, the goddess of the arts, dance, music.  That works for Masumi and I, in that she’s an accomplished pianist and opera singer, and I write pulp fiction.

Two weeks ago we cleaned up the area in preparation for today’s informal get-together — cleared a lot of undergrowth, removed weeds from the hedge rows, generally tidied up.

Then on Saturday, at 11 am sharp — Japanese are never late! — we assembled in the cluster of trees at the top of the hill where the shrine sits. 

It’s nothing very spectacular, a modest but adequate shrine — we’ve gotten no complaints from Benten or any of the other Shinto deities.

A monk had traveled all the way from either Tokyo or Osaka to say prayers and conduct a short service.  His sect is allied with water. 

I guess because the Benten shrine is next to the water, and historically our section of town is sometimes threatened by flooding, his special blessings have direct relevance. 

As he chanted incantations, waved special tree branches, and a prayer paddle, the rest of us stood, watched, listened, bowed several times. I have no idea what’s going on at these things.  I just go with the flow.  It’s all quite pleasant, solemn but not tense.  Fortunately, I got no flashbacks to my Catholic experience growing up.  Otherwise, a strait jacket would have been required.

Each family contributes snacks to the ceremony.  The offerings sit on special wood stands every household owns, called a さんぼう — pronounced sanbou — and these stands are placed around the Buddha figure at the head of the shrine.  Since the snacks are left in their bags, though さんぼう are small, each one holds a decent amount of cookies, candy, pastries, even cups of instant noodles and soups. 

After the brief ceremony, we experienced the high point — especially for the kids — of the whole event.  Once the ceremony conducted by the monk was complete, the さんぼう were removed from the altar and all of the contributions of edible treats were piled on a table.  The kids lined up in front, adults behind them.  Most had a plastic bag in hand and ready. 

The treats were then thrown wildly to the attendees and everyone scrambled to catch and grab what they can.  It’s sort of a Shinto Halloween without costumes.

Once all the treats had been given away, the adults were treated to shots of sake and strips of dried squid. 

I know I know.  You Westerners are thinking ‘Dried squid?  Yuk!’  All I can say is it took me a while.  At first some of the snacking here seems downright weird — as if jaw breakers, licorice, beef jerky, Pop Rocks and other crazy stuff we 外人 (gaijin) eat aren’t weird, right? — but I’ve developed a solid taste for most everything Japanese, after coming and going for ten years.  The truth is that dried squid is actually rather delicious!  It’s like salty rope.  Salty rope?  Doesn’t that put your salivary glands in overdrive just thinking about it?

The whole celebration took about an hour.  Lots of smiles, good will, warm feelings.

I think it got Benten’s seal of approval.

Do I hear music?

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