This week we visited our local temple with about 300,000 other revellers for one of the biggest traditional festivals in Tokyo,Oesishiki at Honmonji. The three day celebration culminates in a huge parade of chanting, drumming and matoi spinning men, women and children marching through the streets of Ikegami and up to the main temple. There is a carnival atmosphere as the crowd drink, eat and make merry, their needs more than catered for by the many stalls set up inside and outside the temple grounds for the event.
It’s often said that Japan is not a religious country, yet thousands of people take part in festivals like this each year, with many thousands more turning up to watch. The sound of people practicing for the parade, a haunting loop of flutes and singing, has been drifting over to our house for the last few weeks. Whether you call it religion or not, people certainly seem involved in the life of the temple.
There is a different feel to that involvement though. Whereas religion as I know it from my Western upbringing is to be primarily about meaning and ideas, about a certain abstract representation of the ‘truth’, ‘religion’ in Japan seems to be more about a set of practices, things that are done without too much concern as to what they represent or literal truthfulness. It’s hard to imagine someone rejecting the festival on the basis of it not being provable by science.
Officially, the event is a commemoration of the death of the founder of a particular school of Buddhism, Nichiren, who is buried at Honmonji. However, the implications of this event, what from a Western religious perspective we would see as being it’s true ‘meaning’, seems almost secondary to the actual participation.
That’s probably why some people explain this kind of event as ‘tradition’ rather than ‘religion’. Again though, this is a reflection of our Western way of looking at the world, breaking things down and turning them into concepts with ‘meaning’ in a black and white way, so that ‘religion’ and ‘tradition’ become two different things. In fact, the embodied way that religion is celebrated here, as a group of communal practices that bind the community together in a common celebration is probably much more how religion used to be practised in the West – and so in that sense religion is the same thing as tradition. The meaning is more in the doing itself, rather than what the doing represents.
Hopefully that makes sense but I feel like I’m tripping over my words so I’ll leave it there. Perhaps it’s simpler to say that the festival was a lot of fun. If we’re still here next year then we’re even considering finding out if we can take part, whatever the meaning. The night was pretty much devoid of ‘commercialisation’ and had a sense of transcendence, of escape from the everyday. It’s left us feeling that little bit closer to our local community.
That’s more than I can say about any religious event I’ve ever attended in the UK.