The End of Summer at Horin-ji


The priests’ prayers before the Noh performance.  Their robes were sumptuous purple and orange silks.  Only one of them wore black silk.

The temple Horin-ji annually holds a Noh performance on September 9th.  I wrote a little about it two posts ago.  Usually Udaka Michishige performs, but two years ago I was too busy with work to go watch, and last year September 9th landed on a weekend, so Udaka-Sensei was too busy to perform.  Finally, I had another opportunity this year and made sure I was able to take time off from work to go to the temple in Arashiyama.

I joined Sensei and a troop of young people who study with him and generally support his activities, including his two sons, Tatsushige and Norishige, who are actors in their own rights, his daughter, Keiko, who carves masks, his daughter-in-law, Haruna, who is also a semi-professional actor, and Natsuko, who also studies mask-carving, but has taken on a leading role in organizing events and working PR for Sensei.  We made an excursion out of the event, for the weather had grown sunny after a few rainy days that had brought an end to the summer heat.

September 9th is a holiday that dates back to China.  It is one of the five sekku 節句 holidays that mark the changing of the seasons.  They all fall on days with when the month and date are the same.  The 7th day of the 7th month is the famous Tanabata festival, in which the celestial maiden Orihime is visited by her lover Hikoboshi from across the milky way if the weather is clear.  People celebrate by decorating bamboo branches with origami and strips of paper inscribed with their wishes.  However, the 9th day of the 9th month, which is called Choyo, has not gained as much popularity in contemporary times and remains a holiday celebrated only in places rich in tradition such as Horin-ji.  However, the Choyo celebration at Horin-ji seemed to glorify the temple’s deep ties to the Asian continent.

Horin-ji is not a vast, stunning temple which impress foreign visitors with its grandness.  Although it is in Arashiyama, a popular tourist destination in western Kyoto, it is probably overlooked in favor of the large Tenryu-ji complex across the river, but Horin-ji is older.  Something I found out about Horin-ji afterwards that I found interesting is that it was originally built by the Hata family in 713.  The Hata family were closely related to the imperial family at the time, although they were immigrants from the Korean peninsula.  They had brought continental agriculture, technology, religion, and culture to the Japanese archipelago and settled in the Arashiyama area of Kyoto, which prospered under their efforts.  Perhaps it is because of this continental connection that Horin-ji still celebrates the Choyo holiday of Chinese origin.

The Noh performance was held right in front of the Buddhist altar as is visible in the video I posted earlier.  The bodhisattva worshiped there is Kokuzo (Akasagarbha), a bodhisattva whose wisdom is said to be as boundless as empty space.  Before the Noh performance, however, there was a service to the bodhisattva, in which four monks of the temple dressed in purple and orange robes (one in all black robes), faced the altar and chanted, the beginning and end of their chant being accompanied by the droning pipes of gagaku or ancient court music.  The altar itself was decorated with countless chrysanthemums, which if I could understand the the priests’ chant correctly are adored by the bodhisattva, but also mark the season.

That may be one reason for all the chrysanthemums, but what I found even more interesting was yet another very prominent connection to the Asian continent, namely that to the right of the main altar in a smaller alcove, a life-sized doll of a boy dressed in “Chinese style” was enshrined surrounded by many chrysanthemums and with fruit and rice offerings in front of him.  This was without a doubt Makura-Jido, the character which appeared also in Sensei’s performance.  The story takes place in China.  A young boy exiled from the imperial court to a place deep in the mountains lives for 700 years by drinking the dew that he collects from cotton placed on chrysanthemum flowers.  In front of the main altar were two rows of large, gorgeous chrysanthemums with colorful pieces of cotton (you can see them in the first picture).

After the priests’ had finished their prayers and all the people gathered had placed chrysanthemums in front of the altar, space was cleared for the Noh dance to begin, for it wasn’t a full Noh, but the culminating dance of the piece “Makura Jido.”  The musicians and chorus appeared and then, in the small doorway on the far side of the altar, a living version of the doll in the alcove appeared, came in front of the altar, and began to dance.  Although I knew it must be Sensei, perhaps due to the spiritual energy in the temple, it seemed like the child Jido was dancing in front of us, but is was all too short.  After the performance, I found a Tatsushige’s student Ben, who happens to be from Belgium, who asked me who had performed, because he had thought it was a young man in his mid 20s.  It was one of the finest Noh performances I have ever seen, because Sensei reached beyond the technicalities of the performance to bring to life the supernatural spirit of his character.

After the performance, chysanthemum sake was served to everyone from the audience.  May all of us enjoy long lives as well.

3 thoughts on “The End of Summer at Horin-ji

  1. I’m really glad you got to finally see it… I remember reading your previous post about this rare opportunity to see a Noh dance performed before a Buddhist altar, the unusual if not unique context/environment, and how you missed out on seeing it last year.

    It must have really been something.

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