Things to do / Traditional festivals

Shrines and temples carry on with less pomp and more circumstance

For the sake of public health, many events, including art exhibitions and stage performances, have been canceled or postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak. Religious festivals are no exception.

Throughout Japan, a wide range of festivals organized by shrines and temples are carried out every year to bring communities together and pray for auspicious outcomes such as good health, prosperity and peace.

While some places of worship are choosing to cancel their events, others are opting to continue with religious ceremonies, but with only priests and necessary staff present.

On April 13, it was announced that the Tenjin Matsuri, an annual festival that takes place at Osaka Tenmangu Shrine, will be held on July 24 and 25 without its usual highlights of fireworks, boat parades and mikoshi (portable shrines).

Similarly, Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto decided to cancel many proceedings ― Yamaboko Junko and Mikoshi Togyo parades featuring elaborate floats and portable shrines, to name two ― that usually occur as part of the Gion Matsuri, a summer festival that was first celebrated in the ninth century.

Instead, these festivals will be pared down to just the most important Shinto rituals, which will be carried out by priests away from public view. Therefore, prayers to the divine will still be made to ward off evil — or in this year’s case, the coronavirus.

The Kansai region is not the only area that will see places of religious worship shrink the scale of their festivities. Meiji Shrine in Tokyo will put the focus of its grand spring festival (May 2 and 3) on a closed-door ceremony of urayasu-no-mai, a sacred Shinto dance performed by women and based on poetry written by Emperor Showa in hopes of world peace. This year, the kagura (sacred music and dance) will be performed not only as a prayer for peace but also for calm without the fear of COVID-19.

Meanwhile, the Great Buddha Hall at Todaiji temple in Nara, which houses the world’s largest bronze statue of Buddha, will be closed to the public from April 24 through May 31. You can, however, still experience the rituals carried out at the temple from a safe distance via the video-sharing platform Niconico, which has been livestreaming the inside of the hall since April 19 (https://bit.ly/2SfXB6v). There are sutra recitations that start every day at noon to pray for a speedy end to the ongoing pandemic and a quick recovery for those affected, as well as peace for those who lost their lives. (Yuki Yamauchi)

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.