|Festive events to be found in the Ara River Basin|
Festive events still existing in Chichibu
The 13-kilometer-square Chichibu Basin, which shares its borders with four Prefectures, including Tokyo, is surrounded by mountains. These peaks form watersheds and water from the slopes of Mount Kobushidake feeds the Chikuma, Fuefuki and Ara rivers.
The River Ara, which begins life on Mount Kobushidake as a tiny stream, makes its way through moss-carpeted virgin forests, collecting water as it descends the watershed towards a V-shaped valley and thence to the plain on which the town of Yorii stands.
The surrounding agricultural land is divided up into areas, and also watered, by the numerous streams which flow into the River Ara. Each of these areas has its own characteristic natural conditions, resulting from the surrounding geography. Each of them has its own tutelary deity and its own festive events. Consequently, such events can be enjoyed at any time and anywhere in the Chichibu Region.
All the festive events associated with Mount Buko, whose god rules over the entire Chichibu area, are under the jurisdiction of the Chichibu Shrine, which is dedicated to the principal tutelary deity of the Chichibu region.
The events begin in Spring with the Rice Planting Festival, which welcomes the God of Water, and end in December with the Chichibu Night Festival, the highlight of the season, which sends the God on his way back to the mountain. For the local people, this event marks the completion of one yearÕs work on the land. They then began to prepare for the coming winter and to wait for the following Spring.
In Japan, every god has his own festival. There is no god without his festival in Japan. The Japanese wordgkamih, used in the Shinto religion to refer to a god, shares its root with gkumuh (hiding) and with gkumah (a corner). It can also refer to a source of water and, thence, to the source of life.
The term gshrineh refers as much to the site on which the shrine itself stands as it does to the building itself. Originally, a shrine would have been a square piece of land enclosed within a sacred straw rope, suspended from bamboo poles placed at each corner. It would have been created during a festival in order to welcome the God, and only the God was permitted to enter it. It is considered that, prior to the early part of the 10th century, most shrines had no permanent building, but were rather sacred areas of forest into which entry was limited.
A god, even though he may be invisible, watches over our lives. When we face trouble in our lives, we turn toward our god. But the god does not stay close to us and so we await (gmatsuh in Japanese) his arrival. When he arrives at the shrine, we feel blessed and entertain him. This is origin of the term Matsuri (festival).
Unlike Judaism, Christianity or Islam, Shinto is not a monotheistic religion. Its deities may appear in many forms. People enjoy entertaining their gods and, in so doing, receive energy enabling them to continue their lives.
Regional tutelary gods
Regional tutelary gods are honored at four shrines in Chichibu, Hikawa, Katori and Hisaizu, all of which are located in the basins of the Ara and Tone rivers. The Japanese refer to the gyaoyorozu-no-kamih - eight million gods - (the number 8,000,000 often being used to imply infinity) who dwell in every form throughout the universe. People decide which is the most important deity for them and that god then becomes the guardian and tutelary deity of their village. Naturally, the deity most needed by those developing the land is the God of Water.
A tutelary God has a broad territory. At different times, people face a wide range of problems - epidemics, floods and drought, which can bring about shortages of crops and even of drinking water. As society continues to develop, people pray for prosperous business.
With the syncretization of Shinto and Buddhism in Japan, people have felt able to pray both to the gods and to Buddha. Expectations of their increased power caused people to invite all powerful gods, including evil stars, believing that they would become their tutelary gods if they are entertained warmly, and led to an increase in the number of sessha-massha (shrine temples) dedicated both to the gods and to Buddha.
Gion veneration, which originated in the Gion district of Kyoto in ancient times and which spread into the Kanto region, is one example of how people honored the god gGozutennou (Gavagriva)h, tutelary deity of the Jetavana monastery (Gionshouja) in India, through the use of lavish floats.
An order issued during the Meiji Era eventually called for the separation of Shinto and Buddhism, prohibiting the celebration of Buddhist events in Shinto shrines, as well as the use of Buddhist words like Gozutennou and Gion veneration. The Gionsha and Gozutennou shrines were transformed to honor Susanoo, the Shinto god, and were renamed. The Gionsha Shrine in Kyoto was renamed Yasaka Shrine, after the name of its location.
However, shrines dedicated to Gozutennou are still to be found in many places throughout Japan, indicating that the beliefs and festive events of Shinbutsu-shugo (a mixture of Buddhism and Shintoism) are deeply rooted in Japanese culture.
Nevertheless, it is hard to understand why people still wish to honor the god Gozutennou or Susanoo, who brings epidemic. It is because people try to entertain this powerful god and ask him to become their tutelary god. This is the reason why people honor these gods in such an enjoyable and exciting way, with numbers of festive floats.
Religion born in the Japanese countryside
In former times, small roadside shrines were to be found everywhere. The elderly prayed at them reverently and children slightly bowed their heads when they passed by. Gods of water dwelled at many water-related places.
A god of water watches over drinking- water and the water used in daily life. There is a god of irrigation water, a god who will prevent flood damage, a god worshipped by those concerned with water transport, waterwheels, fishing and so on.
There are many others. The God of Water is to be found in proximity to the god of paddy fields, near fields and on the banks of irrigation canals. Mikumari no Kami (Heavenly-Water-Divider) is at the head of the river, the tutelary God of Water for daily use resides in wells and public drinking fountains. A god is worshipped at places along a river where there is a high risk of flooding.
It is because these Japanese gods are not all-powerful that Shinto has come to be syncretized with Buddhism. Shinto has no tenets as such and continues to flourish because people honor its gods. Thus, people struggling for survival in the mountains of Chichibu could pray to their gods whenever they wished. Shinbutsu-shugo (a mixture of Buddhism and Shintoism), which was created and developed in a Japanese environment is friendly to people.
Now, water pipes laid on agricultural land in the mountains and improvements in river management have dramatically reduced the frequency of floods along the middle reaches of the River Ara. The festivals dedicated to the God of Water have disappeared from those places where stable, safe and secure societies have been established, leaving only those events that have never been dedicated to gods. At such events, however, no message from Mother Earth is to be heard.
The land of Japan supports our lives and we cannot be separated from it. The festive events still to be enjoyed in Chichibu have an important lesson for all of us who live in Japan.