Wednesday, February 05, 2003


JICHINSAI


February first or fourth were proposed to us by the local Shinto priest as auspicious days for the Jichinsai ceremony of blessing the land on which the house is to be built. We chose the former date, the ceremony to be held at one o'clock in the afternoon. But the priest had stipulated that it shouldn't be raining or snowing.

On the day, we in Kyoto received a phone call from the priest at about 7 am; he said that it was snowing only lightly in Shiga and it seemed ok; was everything in progress, we told him it was. When we got to the village at about noon, having left the house at around 9:30 and taken the long route because of snow in the mountains on the way (we only have two-wheel drive, automatic, useless in snow), as soon as we turned off route 161 onto the road up to the land we encountered about 25~30cm of snow, mostly slush lower down, but becoming pure and relatively untrammeled by the time we reached the school.

Just up the hill beyond, up which our wheels slithered and slid, we left the van at the roadside and unloaded the god-goodies we'd picked up in the small town on the way. These included a large bottle of high-class local sake, dried seaweed, long green onions, pumpkin, rice, salt, tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbage, nori, dried squid and strawberries. Gods love this stuff. We lugged these up the rest of the way through fallen and falling white silence, a truly grand, appropriately magnified stillness, the mountains impressive in their ermine robes. When we got to the tunnel beneath the highway, I noted that no vehicles had been by in the past hour or two; it was now after noon. I left Echo with the stuff in the tunnel, out of the steadily thickening snowfall, and went up the rest of the way to see if anyone was there. Nobody but snow, about 40cm deep. Snow of a quality absolutely perfect for snowballs, which I verified personally for some time.

Echo and I were later standing in the tunnel, figuring that the priest must have cancelled and that maybe we should go back down to the village and call him, when a small, spiffy and obviously 4WD van came purling up the road over the drifts. It was the priest. He stopped in the tunnel. We talked. He was strongly in favor of no Jichinsai today, since the snow was falling in a heavily anticeremonial fashion. Echo said that the architect, the contractor and the materials man would be coming, some from quite far, and it was too late now to call it off, so could he do something simple maybe. He said ok, chugged on up. It would just be the three of us then, I figured, assuming that the others had cancelled; they'd have to be crazy to come out here in this, like me and Echo and the priest.

When we got to the place, the snow was falling in big white feathers, softly onto a down of silence. Every once in a while there was a muffled thump as it avalanched from the cedars. The priest opened his van and took out snow shovels, gave me one, marked out a circle in the snow and he and I began to dig. The ceremony had to be held on bare ground: the earth connection was essential. Still, with the snow falling like this I didn't have much hope for an earth connection of any magnitude; the snow was piling up on the priest's shoulders. He wore white cotton robes with a brown vest and a high woolen hat. Out in the air the Lake was invisible; nothing but a blur of whiteness out there: what a sight it would be from the front windows!!

After we'd dug out a circle, the priest began to unload the ceremonial paraphernalia. First the wooden altars, which he set up so he faced north in the center of the circle, and which were immediately covered with a centimeter of snow, that Echo brushed off every now and then to make room for the next centimeter. Then out came the dishes, into which went salt and rice, and the bigger dishes into which went carrots, peppers, eggplants, onions, pumpkins, dried squid, seaweed, strawberries etc., and then the flasks, into which went the sake. All were soon buried in snow.

While all this was under way, out of the white dimness came the contractor, carrying four wooden stakes, a heavy sackful of something, and two bottles of sake; and knowing exactly what to do. The priest pointed to a place on the ground and the contractor emptied the sack there: instant sandpile. Then he proceeded to drive the stakes into the ground at four points on the edge of the circle, marking off a square inside the circle. To these stakes he tied the bamboo fronds the priest had put out earlier; to these fronds he led rice-straw rope around the square; the architect, who had also emerged from the whiteness bearing two bottles of sake, which he put on the altar, began to hang strips of white cut-and-folded paper (also prepared earlier by the priest) from between the strands of the ropes, all these little adjustments making an admirable essentially instant and very naturalistic outdoor ceremonial chapel.

All this while, the sky was a palpaple thick whiteness. The snow was falling harder and harder as we stood there while the priest, under cover of the back door of his van, donned his red crane-covered gray silk ceremonial robes (it was painful to think of them getting drenched), put on his tall lacquered wicker hat, took his wooden ceremonial wand in hand, stepped out into the circle to begin the ceremony, and the snow stopped, and the clouds in one part of the sky separated into a little blue circle and the sun shone full down upon the scene. I swear to this. I said to myself this guy's got connections. He began the ceremony, moving crisply in ritual, each motion part of a complex cosmic hypermetacosmogeometry, the priest the while reciting incantations leading to a soft monotone that grew in power until he was shouting at more than full voice into the sunny silence of the trees; then, taking out from his robes a large folded parchment, he began to read what sounded like a list of all the gods he was calling, and the list went on and on, and somewhere in the middle of it all I was startled to hear my own name, and that of my wife; some sort of cosmic application form.

About this time another car came out of the whiteness and parked with a blast of the horn at the roadside. It was the materials man. He trudged on up through the deep snow just as the priest had blessed all the things on the altar and was beginning to lead us through our portions of the ritual: the architect took the ceremonial scythe and made three rice-stalk-cutting motions above the pile of sand; then I used the ceremonial spade to dig three spadefuls of sand; then Echo did the same; then the materials man; then the contractor dug a hole in the top of the pile with the ceremonial paddy hoe and buried the small box (wrapped in white paper with an inscription on it) the priest placed in the hole. The priest then did some more incantation, which led to a reversal of the long howl that had summoned forth the gods and now, in reverse, sent them back to their places, and ended the ceremony. He gave the contractor the little box and told him that before construction he should bury the box under the northeastern corner of the house. He then stepped out of the circle, and the sun went in, the sky got dark, and it began to snow heavily again. I swear to this too.

And so it continued to do the rest of the time we were there. The word 'miracle' was heard among us. Afterward we all had a cup of the holyized sake and Echo divided the vegetables between us and the priest. We got the dried squid, he got the strawberries. All then set off down the hill in the vehicles, but I preferred to walk, to be alone in this vast action of snow, this immense concatenation of white silence, every step a splendid one. Part of the way down I heard, as crisply as though directed to me by the snowflakes and heightened by their lacy quiet, from the soul of the whiteness the call of the hawk, arrowing out through the vast powder of the sky. There was no answer but a gentle falling everywhere.


(First published, in slightly different form, in Kyoto Journal's Inaka double issue.)
[Meant to post this 1995 journal entry yesterday, on the anniversary, but got sidetracked by my haramaki (see previous post). RB]

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