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A Dramatic Ceremony Draws Laughter and Gasps
Every year on April 2, a very peculiar ceremony is held at Rinnoji Temple in Nikko. “Clean it all up, every last grain!” is the order given to participants as they eat their way through a large bowl heaped with rice. This is the Gohan-shiki, or rice eating ceremony. A name like that suggests that this is a fun, quirky festival perfect for a big eater such as myself, but in fact this ritual originated from Shugendo (mountain asceticism) practices that have been observed in the Nikko mountains since ancient times.
The ceremony is conducted twice, at eleven in the morning and two in the afternoon, in the main hall at Rinnoji, the Sanbutsu-do. A procession of monks led by a yamabushi (mountain priest) blowing a trumpet shell enter the hall, followed by the monks who dispense the rice. A heavy wooden door closes behind them with a noisy creak, and the ceremony begins.
Although it is April, the interior is chilly and only faintly lit by candles. The atmosphere is solemn, with ceremonial chanting of sutras and ritual burning of holy cedar-sticks. Flames from the fire flicker and throw light on the Amida Nyorai image enshrined in the hall. It is a truly mysterious spectacle.
The initial rituals end and the lights come on, instantly transforming the scene. Ceremony participants dressed as samurai enter, and at last it is time for the main event, the “rice-forcing ritual”.
First come the monks who force the rice on the participants, dressed as yamabushi and bearing large cups of sacred sake which they aggressively press on the participants, telling them to “make sure you drink this dry”. As if that weren’t enough, their exaggerated motions when they pour the sake draws laughter from the spectators. Next, large black bowls heaped with rice are brought out, and again there is laughter. The bowls are known as “sanshomeshi” sansho being a measurement equal to 30 cups of uncooked rice. The rice is thrust in front of the participants’ faces, who are threatened with the words: “This is an offering from the Kumano Sansha Gongen [avatars of the Kumano shrines]. Show some respect and eat it!” Upon being further threatened with shouts of “Don’t hold your head high!”, the participants instinctively prostrate themselves, foreheads scraping the floor, and then—oh, no!—the bowls of rice are placed on the backs of their heads! There are even more laughs from those watching—it is an amusing festival after all. As if to deliver the final blow to the participants, who are now incapable of moving, a cry goes up “We’ll have you eat one bowl, then two, then 75! You see if we don’t. No mercy!” 75 bowls? Unbelievable!
Next to appear is a tray heaped with the famed vegetable delicacies of the Nikko mountains. Prickly ash pepper, chili peppers, daikons… Is this some kind of torture by hot food? This stuff is fine as an accompaniment for rice,but still…
In case you’re wondering what merit there is to being pushed around and bullied in this ceremony, well it seems that the belief amongst the participants and attendees is that this ritual creates long-lasting good luck for your family, preventing all misfortune and bringing good fortune instead. Something I’d be very thankful for. The ceremony finally comes to its conclusion when a headpiece made of rice straw is placed on the participants’ heads.
Just so they don’t keep the good luck all to themselves, after the participants leave the hall they take part in a ritual to share their good fortune with others. This is not just a sideshow, but an important part of the proceedings that brings the Gohan-shiki to a close. It’s charming to see the ceremony participants help the monks who had previously been their tormentors distribute offerings from followers and believers to all the visitors.
I was also eager to get my share of good luck, and stayed near the front, but decided to withdraw because of the danger a crowd of unimaginably enthusiastic women posed to my newly-purchased camera. Good luck is not always something that is bestowed, sometimes it’s necessary to make a grab for it. With this thought I gave the only piece of good luck I’d managed to obtain—some assorted candies—to a foreign child standing nearby, and set off for home.
Nikkosan Rinnoji Temple, Gohan-shiki Ceremony
One of the ancient rites that started at the temple during the Heian Period (794-1185) after it was founded by the monk Shodo Shonin. This ceremony forcing people to eat rice is held every April at Rinnoji Temple. The row of participants receives offerings from Sansha Gongen and the three gods of fortune—Daikokuten, Benzaiten and Bishamonten— and pray to ward off evil, and for their homes and families to prosper.
How to get to Rinnoji Temple
Take the Spacia Express on the Tobu Nikko line from Asakusa Station and get off at Tobu Nikko Station. Or take the Tohoku Shinkansen (bullet train) to Utsunomiya, then change to the Nikko line and get out at JR Nikko Station. From Nikko Station it takes ten minutes on the Tobu bus Sekai Isan Meguri (Tour World Heritage Sites).
Take the Tohoku Expressway to the Utsunomiya Interchange, transfer to the Nikko Utsunomiya Doro, exit at the Nikko Interchange onto route 119 and proceed for about 2.5 kilometers..
Illustrations and Text : Itaru Mizoguchi