April 13, 2009
Hotarubi no chakai is a special tea gathering that is held in June amidst the glow of live fireflies at Kyoto’s Shimogamo Shrine (also known as Kamomiya Shrine). “Hotaru” means “firefly”; “bi” means “fire “or “glow”; and “chakai” means a “tea gathering.” This magnificent event shows the essence of Japanese tradition. One of its aims is the preservation of Tadasu no Mori, “The Forest of Justice,” which surrounds Shimogamo Shrine. About 600 fireflies are released over a stream called Mitarashigawa as invitees to the tea ceremony enjoy their tea. A reservation is required to attend the ceremony, but many other fascinating programs are open to the general public.
This event starts at 5pm with a purification ceremony and a prayer to the shine god or “kami,” one of millions of gods that are worshipped in the Shinto faith. Shimogamo Shrine enshrines two Kami: Kamotaketsunomi no Mikoto and Tamayorihime no Mikoto. Also there are about twenty long-established stands selling specialities from 1pm. They include yatsuhashi, a popular Kyoto souvenir, and mitarashi dango, a common rice dumpling seasoned with sweet soy source; it is eaten all over Japan, but originated here.
17:00 – Purification ceremony and a prayer to the kami
18:00 – Koto performance
19:20 – Ouchou Mai
19:50 – Koto performance
Around 20:00 – Release of the fireflies
20:20 – Dressing of Junihitoe and Ouchou Mai
Purification ceremony and prayer to the kami
I arrived at Kamomioya Shrine right at 5pm. Entering from the west gate, I found that priests, guests, and a crowd had gathered in the center of the shrine grounds. Shrines are a place where people pray to kami, therefore this event, which was a dedication to the kami of the shrine, started with a prayer. The prayer was recited with a performance of gagaku (Japanese classical court music) after everyone was purified. Every person there offered a prayer by bowing his or her head down.
When the sun was about to set, a koto performance began within a hall at the center of the shrine. The koto was accompanied by a shamisen (three-stringed banjo) and shakuhachi (vertical bamboo flute). It also included singing, thus enhancing the feeling of these traditional aesthetics of Japan.
Ouchou Mai was a dance performed in the Heian period (794-1191). The dancers were dressed in stunning junihitoe and held court fans. Their movements were gracefully slow, with gagaku music playing in the background. Junihitoe is a type of kimono that is made of many gorgeous layers. Since both junihitoe and gagaku were created in the Heian period, along with many other cultural forms, the significance of the Heian period is recognized and appreciated by the Japanese in events such as this.
Dressing of Junihitoe and Ouchou Mai
Next, a dancer appeared on the stage in a plain costume. This was a demonstration of how to put on a junihitoe. Many people are curious about how one is worn, and so this event is a rare chance to see this kimono being put on. Dressing in junihitoe takes two people who are both proficient at the job. In total, nine layers were put on the dancer. The process is a repetition of adding layers, but it is important to retain a good shape by using red strings to hold the garments temporarily, and not tighten too much. The measurements of each garment are perfectly designed so that they appear as beautiful layers. After all the layers were put on, the dressers handed the dancer a set of papers for various uses and a court fan. That completed the dressing of junihitoe and the Ouchou Mai was then performed again as an ending to the night.
Searching for Fireflies
The firleflies are released over the Mitarashigawa. A cage holding fireflies was placed on a small pier at around 8pm (the big cage and some other smaller ones were on display in other places on the shrine grounds until the awaited time). At the time of the release, the site was completely filled with crowds, making it impossible to get close to the fireflies. Therefore I headed back when all the programs were finished. Tranquility had fallen with the darkness, and there were just a few people lingering. The fireflies had dispersed to their favorite places. Some went to bushes by the stream and others flew into the surrounding forest. My impression of the event gave me a sense of pathos and an appreciation for these little firefly lives; many different feelings were reflected in their glow.
About the shrine
Shimgamo Shrine, one of the oldest shrines in Japan, is located just to the north of the confluence of the Kamo and Takase Rivers in north-central Kyoto. The history of this shrine dates back to prehistoric periods. The earliest reference to the shrine is a repair of the fence in 2 BC, suggesting that the shrine had existed even before that time. Since then, the shrine has played a central role in the religious lives of Kyotoites, and has served as a guardian of Japan and Kyoto. The importance of the shrine was especially significant in the Heian period, since prayers for the success of the capital were held there. This shrine has often been described in literature, including an appearance in the Tale of Genji. Today, Shimgamo Shrine has been registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The shrine contains 53 buildings that are all recognized as Important Cultural Properties. A number of events also take place there throughout the year, including the 1400-year-old Aoi Matsuri festival, which is celebrated on May 15th and is one of the three great festivals in Kyoto.
About the event
Hotarubi no chakai is held in the beginning of June. This year it was held on June 13th, the 19th time it has been held. The connection between the shrine and tea began in the Kansho period (1441-1446) and tea ceremonies with fireflies were common until the Meiji period (1868 – 1912). In later days, however, those events ceased as the shrine was nationalized, and the fireflies became extinct in the surrounding forest because of pollution in the 1940s. But people recently started to clean up the area and release firefly larvae. Consequently, the number of fireflies began to increase in the forest, and so the tea ceremony was revived in 1991, after about 100 years of absence.