Thursday, April 1, 2010

Iwasaki Kanzeon Taisai in Nikko

Last Sunday, against my better judgment, I let myself be talked into a trip to Iwasaki. Not very far, but considering the temperature outside, and the nasty weather in general that day, I am not surprised I have a raging cold now. Yes, I know, I know, cold weather doesn’t cause colds, viruses cause colds, but it sure makes life a lot easier to have cold weather to blame.

So yes, Iwasaki. Technically within Nikko city limits, practically – in the middle of nowhere. I’m not going to bother with giving directions, because, really, who cares… If you’re visiting Nikko, you have better things to do that look for a little temple in the boondocks. And even if you drive on that dinky country road a couple of times a week (like I do on my way to Imaichi), chances are you won’t notice a little temple hidden in the woods.

People going to the lower temple

Ah yes, the temple! Iwasaki Kannon (岩崎観音). It’s actually two temples – the main one at the top of the stone steps, and another one up on the rock above. Getting to the upper part is a hike. After a couple of meters, the steps end, and you are climbing over exposed tree roots, hoping not to fall down and lose your teeth. Not a pleasant experience, especially when it’s drizzling and the soil turns to mud.

The natives mentioned that the metal staircase (more like a metal ladder, actually) leading to the upper temple is a very recent addition. Previously you just grabbed what you could – branches, roots, and prayed you’d make it to the top and not end up in a ravine somewhere.

On Sunday people made the trek up to see a tiny Buddha statue (Sho-kannon: 正観音) - it’s really tiny – about 5 cm tall, and housed in a gold cabinet. Normally, it’s revealed to the public every 33 years, but since the inner sanctum (Okuno Inn 奥の院) was being renovated, the tiny Buddha made an unscheduled public appearance after only 30 years.


But the little Buddha was not the only reason I came up to Iwasaki. Every year on the 4th Sunday in March, the temple celebrates Iwasaki Kanzeon Taisai (岩崎観世音大祭;いわさきかんぜおんたいさい), a festival of sorts. With lots of eggs involved.

If you want to have a child you attend this festival, go up to the priest sitting at the temple and get one egg. You say a prayer, take that egg home and get busy making babies. The deal is that after you produce offspring, you bring that offspring to the temple along with two eggs, which you give to the priest. You only give the eggs, though you could try giving the kid too, if parenthood is getting to you. Now you understand why there were hordes of children everywhere.

The egg-giving priests tried their best to push one on me, and I did my best to avoid it. Instead, I let myself be talked into drinking a cup of hot amazake, which is one of those things I’d rather not do. But still, it was a better alternative than being stuck with a kid-bringing egg.


Praying for a child

Amazake looked vile. It’s a traditional sweet, supposedly low-alcoholic drink made from fermented rice. And this amazake tasted awful. But hey, it was either drink it or get an egg, and so I chose to chug down a cupful of warm nasty, which twenty minutes later made me sick to my stomach.

This egg festival is supposedly over 400 years old, and judging by the crowds and all the kids running around, it’s going strong and the magical eggs seem to be working.


The highlight of the event was a setsubun-style mochi (and snack, and tissue paper, and coin) throwing.
When did that tradition start? A lot more recently than 400 years ago, that’s for sure. But when exactly? Nobody knows.

To see more photos please go to this post on our other blog - Tochigi Daily Photo.

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