Purification for the Start of Spring

We were very privileged the other night to witness a Shinto ceremony at a sacred waterfall where pilgrims purify their spirits while standing under the icy waters. If that doesn’t sound cold enough, it all happens in the early hours of the morning in the middle of winter.

The pilgrims set off from a local temple and walk through the snow in the dark to a mountain shrine. Perfectly quiet and with snow falling it was magical.

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Passing through the gate we followed a little path through the woods up to the shrine itself which sits at the base of the mountains.

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Next to this small wooden building is the waterfall splashing down into a mountain stream.

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Candles were set on the statues, and the pilgrims, who have been fasting for almost a week, went off to change into white garments, headband and straw sandals. By this time it was almost one o’clock in the morning, and wrapped up in all my snow gear I was feeling cold. The pilgrims emerged in their thin garments and proceeded to the waterfall.

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To the accompaniment of conch shell being blown and the incantations of a priest the pilgrims stood in a shallow pool under the waterfall and let the freezing water crash down over them. A very impressive sight. Once everyone had showered the priest took his turn, having already been standing barefoot in a winter mountains stream for about 15 minutes.

The pilgrims disappeared to get changed and then it was up to the shrine. More incantations while the priests made intricate symbols with their hands. A fire was lit and everyone burnt a handful of sticks which carried your personal wishes. Smoke filled the small shrine as the fire roared, yet the folded paper talisman hanging right above the fire did not burn, just danced in the heat of the flames. We later received strips of this talisman to place in our wallets as protection.

After this ceremony it was a trudge back down the snowy path and home to a warm bed.

This purification ceremony (Wikipedia explanation) happens at this time of year as the Japanese calendar moves from the coldest day to the start of spring. The pilgrims cleanse and fortify themselves for another year. It was an amazing experience for us to watch and we were very grateful and lucky to see it (and thankful we could watch from the sidelines fully clothed!)

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