This page was developed to expand awareness of local events by sharing them with as many people as possible. These types of stories are also captured on a bi-monthly basis in the Reiho Fuji. We hope that reading them will bring you more familiarity with our local community and compel you to join local events and activities. The people of Fujiyoshida would love to share their much beloved traditions with you! Additionally, we'd love to hear about your experiences. Please share them by contacting Mr. Robin Lawrentz with your stories and pictures:
Rice Pounding Event at Meisho Hoikuen in the Mukaibara area of Fujiyoshida
Meisho kindergarten and nursery is located in the Mukaibara area. It is a very quiet and historic part of town within the Asumi district. It has a unique feel as you walk through the narrow streets of old houses leading up to its hillside location of the Mannenji Temple grounds. Like many parts of rural Japan, this is an aging community, which brings it much charm and peace. What happens inside this lively preschool is quite the opposite! Children, ranging from ages one to six, are joyfully involved in many daily activities. Above the quiet neighborhood, Meisho Kindergarten bellows out the lively sounds of Japan's youth.
On this day, they were wrapped up in the excitement of their annual motchitsuki taikai, or rice-pounding festival. Every student brought one of their parents to join in this long-standing tradition. Their exitement built as they anxiously awaited their turn to whack the sticky rice with a mallet that a group of dads helped manuever. Dependant on their strength and ability, each child got between two and ten solid smacks at the gooey glob of mochigome (special rice used to make rice cake) while the other children loudly cheered. As it slowly hardened and smoothed, it was taken to a table where a group of mothers rolled, cut, seasoned, and distributed the beautifully created rice cakes to the eagerly anticipating children. With their tiny plates and little cups of green tea, they said their pre-meal greeting and dug into the delicious taste of their labor. Although mochi is eaten regularly and could be purchased almost anywhere, there is something very different and special about making it by hand and eating it as part of a special occasion.
In Fujiyoshida, every kindergarten holds annual rice pounding events along with many shrines, temples, and neighborhood gatherings. In the past, these occasions were common at the individual household level. They can be held at any time of the year, but the most common (in the local area) is at the end of the year. Especially during the winter months, fresh mochi products line store shelves and make for a great snack or meal.
Mayudama Events at Dai 4, 5, 6 Preschools
As one of the many New Year's traditions, many Japanese practice the custom of mayudama. In the local area, preschools make this one of their well anticipated annual events. This is done shortly after the New Year and is meant to bring prosperity and good health for the upcoming year. Locally, this tradition has special meaning due to the region's textile industry. The mayudama resemble a silkworm cocoon and this act was used to pray for a good year of silk production. Customarily, dango (rice dumplings) and mandarin oranges are also eaten with hopes for good health.
These dumplings are kneaded, dyed, and formed into ball shapes. After boiling them for a few minutes, they are stuck onto branches and become a very unique and colorfully adorned display. These displays are typically placed in the household for a few days before the mayudama are taken off the branches to be baked and eaten. This still remains a fond and important tradition in Japan. At the preschools, many of the childrens' grandparents join the fun. Seeing generations of families directly involved in passing honored traditions to young children is a special part of Japanese society, especially in rural societies where elders play a large role in upbringing their grandchildren.
During the so-called years of calamity or "yakudoshi," many people make special efforts to practice mayudama in hopes of fending off the bad luck associated with these years.
Fujiyoshida City's Annual Winter Party
Far from being unique to Japan or its culture, the City Hall's International Affairs Desk along with local English Teachers and foreign residents have created our own local tradition. For the past 24 years, we've rented out space at a community center, coaxed someone to be Santa, and planned a few hours of fun childrens' activities. This event caps participation at 30 children and it fills fast. Along with their parents, siblings, and dozens of volunteers - the room is packed with about close to 100 people. Highlights of the event include games, songs, crafts, and a special chance to receive a gift from Santa Claus!
Along with having fun and sharing an important part of western culture, this event gives local children and families a chance to interact with foreigner residents in a casual setting. For us foreigners, it presents a good opportunity to come together and do something enjoyable for the community. It's always a day full of fun and meaningful activities and great way to create international exchange.
The party is typically held the second weekend of December.
The School Festival: By Jun Nakajima
Its almost 8:00 at night. This is not the end of the workday; it is actually the beginning of a very long night. It seemed like every night was like this for many weeks prior the school's festival. Everyone supporting each other in order to successfully accomplish a shared goal. This is what I saw...this is what I was a part of...and now, it’s a priceless experience I will never forget.
Every year, the entire school gets together to present different cultural performances, this is known as the culture festival or bunkasai. Each class practices a special performance to perform for the entire school, family members, and honored guests. Students do everything from singing, hip-hop dancing, acrobatics, lightshows, all the way to taiko performances and traditional dances. They spend many long hours working to perfect their routine. The home room teachers also take part in the performance and join the students in order to create an even more exciting stage for the audience. All the hard work, effort, sweat and energy can be seen and felt through these presentations.
Around the same time, the sports festival or undoukai also takes place. The school divides into groups and compete against each other for pride and victory. Prior to the event, the students come to school early and stay late everyday. They practice each event over and over, hoping to win the title for their team. Some of the activities include; group jump-roping, mukade (caterpillar race), tsuna-hiki (tug-a-war), and relays. There is also what a "mass game" where all students, display a huge show made successful only through every student's participation.
After the festival ends, a large bonfire is lit in the center of the school ground and all students and teachers join for some good-ole' folk dancing. Following the dance is a time when all students can bond and reminisce of the times they had together. This being the last year for the third year students, it can get really emotional and moving. Many have tears in their eyes, excited but sad knowing that next year they won't be with the same peers. This is even more reason why these festivals play a huge role in these student’s hearts. It is an unforgettable bond and memory that’s shared amongst each soul, taken with them through all the different paths to come.
Kita Guchi Hongu Fuji Sengen Shrine and Shintoism - by Andy Smith
Shinto is a subtle, behind-the-scenes, naturally unifying force of the Japanese community. It plays a large role in defining the Japanese culture. Shinto is Japan’s native religion; a set of beliefs and practices that developed naturally from rural life and sustained by community involvement. Shinto is sometimes referred to as “Japanese Buddhism,” but many Japanese would hesitate to call Shinto a religion. The local shrine is something that always exists as a matter of fact in Japanese life. Shinto is basically nondogmatic, nondoctrinal, and is mostly de-centralized. Kami /kami-sama (gods/spirits) dwell within all natural things including rocks, trees, rivers, animals, and people. Shinto is a way of worshiping and respecting nature and maintaining harmony within society, but just what is Shinto, and how does its presence affect the Japanese society and consciousness?
Kitaguchi Hongu Fuji Sengen Jinja (North Fuji Head Sengen Shrine) is nestled in a cedar forest at the top of Fujiyoshida city in the historic Kamiyoshida area. The shrine marks the start of the traditional climbing trail to the summit of Mt. Fuji. The main shrine was built almost 500 years ago in 1615, but it’s location under Mt. Fuji was originally established as early as 110 A.D. Kitaguchi Hongu Fuji Sengen Jinja (Sengen Jinja) has been the focal point of community at the North side of Mt. Fuji for almost 1900years.
Two unique and awesome aspects of Sengen Jinja are its 18m (60ft.) tall wooden torii gate at the entrance of the shrine, and the “goshinboku” or sacred grove of trees that include two gigantic Japanese sugi (cedar) over 1000 years old that stand guard of the shrine at each side. Konohanasakuya-hime is the name of the kami-sama mainly worshiped at the shrine, who is said to be the goddess/spirit of Mt. Fuji. In total, about 10 people work at Sengen Shrine on a daily basis, including 4 Miko-san (巫女shrine maidens), 5 Kannushi (神主caretakers or priests), and 1 Shoshi (書士, scribe).
According to WATANABE Yoshimi, scribe at Sengen Shrine, anyone can make prayers directly, but the Kannushi will also act as an interpreter and mediator on behalf of visitors to the shrine to the shrine’s kami-sama. Kannushi are free to give advice to visitors, and can decide to accept or reject requests for prayer. “For example,” explains Watanabe-san, “a type of prayer request that we often reject is when someone requests that we pray for their child who passed away. Some Japanese people do not know that in Shinto, children are considered Kami-sam a (spirits) until the age of 7, so unlike Buddhism, if they die, their spirits do not require prayer.” Compared to Buddhism, Shinto focuses less on the afterlife, and is more centered on ideas of harmony with nature and society in this life.
Recently arrived Kannushi at Sengen Jinja, OZAWA Terunobu, believes Shinto is a personal belief. “The hardest part about my job is finding the best way to interpret my beliefs about Shinto to others. It involves the kami-sama (which has many different ways of interpreting).” Ozawa-san continues, “I enjoy being (working) here because I am close to the kami-sama, and my beliefs match (with the shrine).”
Miko-san, WATANABE Nami, says that Shinto is a normal part of daily Japanese life. “It’s just something that is always present,” she says. For example, before a meal, one says “itadakimasu,” which means “I will humbly receive (this food).” This statement comes from Shinto ideas of harmony with nature that require proper respect for the animals that gave their life, and the people who worked to make the food. Perhaps the most important aspect of the Shinto Shrine is the Ujiko, or shrine parishioners. Ujiko is anyone who is born within the shrine’s local area. Sengen shrine’s local area includes the historic Kamiyoshida district and part of the Shin-Nishihara district. People born in these areas are automatically placed on the shrine’s registry and become ujiko, but far from an imposition of faith, being registered is a natural part of the Japanese community.
Ujiko, and Japanese and foreign visitors alike visit Sengen Jinja because it is the historic start of the Mt. Fuji’s historic Yoshidaguchi climbing trail, and pilgrims and climbers have for over 1000years come to the shrine to offer their prayers for a safe climb up Mt. Fuji. Sengen Shrine offers “tozan-anzan” omamori (charms) that keep climbers safe. However, the shrine holds a much deeper place in the community as a place to purify oneself or family. Shrine scribe Watanabe-san says, “common visits to the shrine occur when ujiko buy a car, a child is born, or they are yakudoshi (unlucky year).” The daily workings of the shrine include writing and stamping of family name placards that are placed at home at small family shrines found above doorways in the main room of many Japanese homes. The family name is written on the placard, which is then blessed at the shrine, and families will replace it every year for good luck.
Shinto is basically nondogmatic and nondoctrinal, but it does have four basic precepts or affirmations: 1. Tradition and Family. 2. Love of Nature. 3. Cleanliness. 4. Matsuri (community festival). Sengen Shrine hosts two large Matsuri every year. The first, celebrated at most every local shrine in Japan, is Hatsumoude, held every New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day when ujiko visit the shrine to pray for a successful new year. The second, unique to Sengen Shrine, is the Fire Festival and Susuki Matsuri held every year in conjunction with the closing of Mt. Fuji’s official climbing season in late August. The night of the Fire Festival two omikoshi (portable shrines) are paraded through the city, and over 80 3-meter tall taimatsu torches are lit, turning the main street of Fujiyoshida into a virtual sea of fire. The Fire Festival is meant to appease the spirit of Mt. Fuji so that the volcano will not erupt for another year, but it also pulls the Fujiyoshida community together, not just for festive revelry, but for also for dedicated preparation so that the festival succeeds with no injuries. A group of 15 local men, called sewa-nin, organize and take care of the Fire Festival preparations and event. The 15 sewa-nin change every year, and are a continuing tradition; having endured the unique initiation in the form of weeks of preparation for the festival, they become teachers for the next group of sewa-nin the next year.
The shrine is a sacred place, marked at the entrance by the torii gate, and shime-nawa (ropes with white paper symbolizing purity). Visitors should first purify their hands and mouth with the water at the spring, then climb the stairs and make their prayer at the shrine. Taboos while at the shrine include wearing funeral clothes, visiting the shrine within 50 days of a death within the family, visiting the shrine with open wounds, bringing pets, and being disruptive of the peace.
The essence of Shinto is often unclear due to its nondogmatic, nondoctrinal, de-centralized nature, but For Fujiyoshida, Sengen Shrine continues to be closely connected to daily life as a quiet place to reflect and pray, to celebrate birth and marriage, and to gather with the community. Sengen Shrine Kannushi, Ozawa-san, states “I hope the shrine’s traditions will continue (for a long time in the future.)”
Rice Planting and Harvesting - Fuji Gakuen Students
As part of a program to help students gain an appreciation for nature and the food they eat, Fuji Gakuen Junior High School students set out to plant rice stalks in early May and gathered again to harvest it in October. In December, they celebrated the cultivation and harvest with a big rice pounding and mochi eating event. Although much of the rice production has become mechanized, these students did it all by their bare hands and simple tools. The program brought local farmers in close contact with students to share a custom that dates back to the earliest local societies. This is a unique program that enjoys community support and allows the students to gain first-hand experience and appreciation for an often overlooked aspect of their everyday life. And, above all, the students and teachers enjoyed it. Many memories of muddy hands and feet, sore backs, bugs, and labor were mixed with the fulfillment of seeing their planted rice grow and sprout into what ultimately became delicious mochi. Teachers are hoping to start the process all over again with a new group in late spring.