A short trip way back to Shinto’s arcane roots

by Sumiko Enbutsu

In the depths of winter, when their barren fields yielded no blooms to adorn their altars, Japanese farmers traditionally fashioned flowers of wood to celebrate the New Year. To make their festive flora, they cut leafless branches and carved the white wood inside in a variety of ways. Tangled curly slivers — long ones resembling catkins and short ones like lilies — were called kezuribana (shaved flowers). Combined with twigs decorated with dumpling balls of rice flour, these were offered with devotions to the gods of farming and the household, and to ancestors to receive their blessings.

Celebrated on Jan. 15, the charming festival known as Koshogatsu, or Little New Year, is different from the official Jan. 1 New Year. By the old lunar calendar, Jan. 15 coincided with the year’s first full moon, which was deemed an important occasion on which to pray for a good harvest in the coming year. Farmers observed Koshogatsu with great gusto, performing various magical rites or building a large bonfire. The once prevalent celebration is now rarely held except in remote villages.

The origin of the carved-wood flowers is unclear. Written sources from the Heian Period (794-1185) mention that they were used on ceremonial occasions, and not necessarily just at the New Year. Their close resemblance to cultic sticks used by the Ainu of northern Japan suggests they may have derived from the shamanistic traditions of Northeast Asia, and possibly functioned as a sacred staff in Shinto rituals before the use of paper became common. To this day, isolated tribes in northern Borneo reportedly use similar wooden sticks in rituals associated with their slash-and-burn agriculture.

Nowadays, one of the few places it is possible to see these rustic celebrations is in the village of Higashi-Chichibu, Saitama Prefecture — on Jan. 15 only. To get there, take a Tobu Tojo Line express train from Ikebukuro to Ogawa-machi, being sure to confirm your train’s destination as many stop before Ogawa-machi. From there, take a 02 bus to the stop called Kaiya, or go by taxi for around 3,500 yen. On arrival at Kaiya, check the bus schedule for your return (the top table, the left-hand side for Monday through Saturday, and the right-hand side for Sunday and holidays), allowing about two hours for your visit.

From the bus stop, walk ahead on the same road and take the second right to ascend, bearing left on a winding road to the hamlet of Asahine. Stay on the main road and keep going up. After about 20 minutes, you will pass by thick growths of bamboo on both sides of the road and shortly come to a fork, where you should go left.

Then, when you see a humble roadside shrine up some steps on your right, it will be your first encounter with the special offerings of Koshogatsu. The little shrine is dedicated to Tenno-sama, a guardian god to ward off evil spirits, who is quietly honored on this day with pure-white cut paper and offerings of wood and rice.

Continuing on, you will find more quaint offerings at another shrine with time-mellowed wooden doors, and in a small cemetery behind it. The stone bas-relief deities look on with pride at their flowers and dumplings, while the cemetery is even more touching. The weathered tombstones are each given a wooden offering, and though these are only simple, bearing a few quick cuts, not one of the ancestors is forgotten. Farther back in the shade is a tiny shrine dedicated to the god of the mountain, with a set of offerings placed in front. What you are seeing is an aspect of the indigenous worship from which Shinto is derived; a humble reverence for nature and ancestors, tinged with love and appreciation of their blessings.

The generous donor of the lovely offerings is Hiroyasu Isoda, who lives in the handsome farmhouse with a white-walled kura (storage shed) to the right of the shrine. By walking around a small field, you may visit him and his wife, Mizuko — but remember that Koshogatsu is a family event only to be viewed with their gracious consent.

Approaching the Isodas’ house, notice piles of chopped wood in the front yard, with a spoonful of rice gruel on the top. A pair of logs have replaced the gate pines used for the Jan. 1 New Year, and the rice gruel is the ritual food for the Little New Year, instead of mochi rice cakes. Notice also the carved wood and dumplings hung at every entryway to the house, kura, barn and outside lavatory.

The altar of the god of the New Year is set up across the top corner of a room, repositioned every year to accommodate the different direction from which this god is believed to come. The humble altar is almost stoic, emanating a strong energy from the unadorned wood.

The guest room has a tokonoma (alcove for a scroll and ikebana) decorated with one large tassel of carved wood and a small whole tree festooned with rice dumplings in various auspicious shapes, such as a mortar, pestle, bush warbler and cocoon. In still another room a large shelf overhead supports many altars dedicated to the sun goddess, regional deities and Oshira-sama, the goddess of silk farming, all enlivened with the offerings of Koshogatsu.

Because of the historic importance of silk farming in Chichibu, Oshira-sama receives a special offering, a branch of freshly cut bamboo, decorated with 16 wooden flowers resembling Easter lilies, the number associated with the 16 legs of the silkworm. Though all the other offerings of the Little New Year are taken down the next day and ritually destroyed, this special offering and the large tassel at the tokonoma alone are kept until the next year.

However, all good things come to an end, so after bidding farewell to the Isodas, it’s time to backtrack to the bus stop.

Both Ogawa and Higashi Chichibu are famous for fine-quality washi paper and boast fine museums (though these are closed on Tuesday, the day on which this year’s Koshogatsu falls). Close to the station, Futaba restaurant (open 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 4-8 p.m.) serves Chushichi-meshi, rice with a delicately flavored soup poured over it, made to a popular late 19th-century recipe.