It’s summertime, the festival season in Japan. On Shiraishi Island, the festival season is already in full force, with a number of Shinto festivals and celebrations to start off the summer. These are traditions from hundreds of years ago.
One reason we have so many celebrations is because our island is host to so many gods. There must be more gods per square meter here than most other places in Japan. We’ve got mountain gods, sea gods and assorted guardian gods, who all protect us. And all these gods get their own ceremony. For an island of just 700 people, the god-to-person ratio is pretty good. And with the population decreasing so rapidly, as individuals we should be getting more coverage, so to speak.
Most recently, we celebrated the Benten-sama festival for the goddess who lives on an outcropping of rocks off the beach called Benten Island. Such small islands are a common sight in any part of Japan on the sea. They’re all called Benten Island, and have a shrine honoring Benten-sama, who lives in all of them. Build a shrine and she will come.
The five most famous Benten shrines in Japan are at Kamakura, Miyajima, Lake Biwa, Nara and near Sendai. In addition to these, there are dozens of smaller shrines dedicated to the goddess, such as the one on our island. Most Benten islands will have a Benten-sama festival, performed near the summer solstice, when the tide is the lowest of the year, making it possible to walk out to the island.
Legend has it that the goddess on our island was picked up in the sea by fisherman and brought here in hope she would bring good, safe fishing.
Benten is one of the seven gods of good luck who came on a boat from China. Her husband is Bishamon, also one of the seven gods of good luck (perhaps they met on the boat?) and is a god of treasure. He wears armor. Benten has eight arms and wears a crown on her head with a white snake in it. In one hand is a bowl of jewels and a sword. She also carries a bow and arrow and a “biwa” (Japanese stringed instrument). Can’t miss her.
Benten’s real name is Benzaiten (sometimes called Bezaiten), and she is the goddess of water — all kinds of water: seawater, fresh water, drinking water and presumably watercolor paints. She is a purifying goddess who protects people and places and is believed to have the power for learning, studying, making good art and bringing good luck as well as protecting music, speech, wealth and fortune. It’s no wonder that almost everyone prays to her.
Our Benten-sama festival was a small affair with a handful of neighbors and a couple of poodles, but preparations started days ahead with cleaning of the shrine area and posting of colorful banners. The Buddhist priest arrived in a wrinkled silk robe and chanted a few sutras while jingling his staff. Everyone sat on the rocks overlooking the water, entranced by the priest leading the “o-baa-chans” in the “Hannya Shingyo” sutra while the rest of us occasionally joined in for the chorus, which, like the refrain of a song, is the only part we know.
When the ceremony was finished, we were offered sake from a giant sake bottle, of a brand that I recognized only because, like the rest of the islanders, I have one of these bottles next to my toilet. No, we’re not water closet alcoholics; these sake bottles are recycled and filled with poison to pour down the non-flush toilets to kill the odor and keep the flies away. I hoped no one had confused the bottles.
At the end I talked to the Buddhist priest in his wrinkled robe. He admitted he had been very busy with so many festivals and celebrations lately. Just a few days earlier, he had walked around the entire island chanting to the insects, warning all the bad ones to leave the island.