Okunitama Shrine in the western Tokyo suburb of Fuchu sits at the end of a long, broad shopping street lined with towering zelkova trees. After passing under the massive, ten-meter-high concrete torii gate, one sees two smaller shrine structures, two gorgeous wooden gates, a covered sumo ring, and an elegant temizusha (hand washing basin). Here, commercial bustle fades behind as a long history of Shinto worship stretches ahead.
I live just a bike ride away from the shrine and enjoy its busy rhythms. In September, the Chestnut Festival is quiet and folksy, with several hundred charming paper lanterns slowing everyone down for an evening stroll along the main approach to the shrine. In November, excited children wearing ceremony apparel add color to the shrine’s grounds for shichi-go-san (the family celebration of children reaching the ages of 7, 5 and 3). In January, nearly 500,000 visitors come to the shrine over a five-day period to stand in very long lines before observing their rites of hatsumōde for the new year.
The shrine’s official website sets its age at approximately 1,900 years, when six regional shrines came together to establish a single place of worship to various kami (gods) that had been formerly residing in disparate areas of what was then known as Musashi Province. To celebrate this point of unity in the shrine’s history, there is a festival during Golden Week called Kurayami Matsuri (Darkness Festival). After plenty of preparty carousing leading up to the big day, the culminating events take place on the evening of May 5, when eight mikoshi (portable shrines) depart dramatically one-by-one through the gate of the main building, carrying the deities into nearby neighborhoods.
In the Nara Period (710-94), the Darkness Festival was known as an utagaki, a type of courtship song festival closely associated with harvest or planting rites and the general spirit of fertility. Village youth from miles around would gather at the shrine for worship and to find partners for the night. By the end of the Meiji Era (1868-1912), the focus on fertility had faded. In its place, a nakedness festival, hadaka matsuri, brought together local men wearing fundoshi (white loincloths).
I first read about the festival in an essay by Donald Richie in his book “Public People, Private People,” which offers short portraits of those he met in Japan. Richie was in Tokyo following World War II and, after driving out to Fuchu to take part in a night of worship at the shrine, wrote about the experience in an essay titled “Tadashi Nakajima: Festival of Darkness,” after a young farmhand he met there.
Richie writes that he arrived at dusk when “all the young men … came walking through the dying light, making for the central shrine where the great kami, the deity of darkness, waited.” He notes that the men “were barefoot, wore only loincloths and sometimes a towel twisted around the head.” He knew their purpose was sacred and observes that “this was a Shinto ritual toward which they were moving, a ritual that purified, and here one must be naked.”
Richie continues, finding himself walking among these men, these streams of worshippers “like rivulets trickling into creeks, then merging to form a river.” As they approached the main torii, their numbers were so great the walk became a jostle. Then the city lights were switched off. In the complete darkness “there was then a sudden tightening of all these limbs, as torsos crushed together like cattle roaring through a gorge.”
They eventually entered the grounds in front of the shrine’s worship hall and met with other rivers of men that had entered from different gates. Richie describes, “the sudden grip of alien skin and muscle … a single mass crammed into this narrow vessel.” He describes being afraid, floating, feet no longer on the ground.
In the “tight network of bodies, swaying but supporting,” Richie saw a metaphor of community: “There was no more fear of falling … I no longer fought for my inch of earth. I lay back and with this came support as more and more of those swaying bodies accepted more and more of me. Or so I felt. But at the same time I knew, an ear suddenly against my cheek, that I was in turn supporting them. And then … and then, I suppose, I must have slept.”
Eventually the night ended, the sun rose, the bodies resumed contact with the earth. Richie walked back to his jeep and drove home, changed.
I’ve been to various events of the five-day Kurayami Matsuri, but never once witnessed a scene like the one Richie wrote about. I’ve seen giant, deep-sounding taiko drums, men sitting on top as they were wheeled through the streets. I’ve seen horses with ceremoniously dressed riders galloping up streets crowded with spectators and portable stages on wheels with masked dancers and high-pitched drummers moving through the same crowds. And lanterns! I’ve seen so many hand-carried lanterns lighting up the darkness.
Despite these experiences I’ve long remained curious about what happened to the 1947 loincloth overnighter. My curiosities remained unanswered when, in the winter of 2017, I learned that my car mechanic, Yasuyuki Kato, is a festival insider, an official member of the Yazakicho neighborhood, belonging to the group of men and women who carry one of the eight mikoshi on the final, sacred night of May 5.
Garments such as patterned happi coats and tenugui (hand towels) tied around foreheads mark people’s neighborhood identities, linking them to one of the eight kami. Kato loaned me a Yazakicho happi coat and invited me to participate in the celebrations during Golden Week, including that final night when the kami emerge at sundown from a rarely seen sanctuary.
Weeks before the festival, I attended a planning meeting with Yazakicho neighbors. Sitting on zabuton cushions at crowded low tables on the second floor of a community gathering house, we seemed to be gathered partly for business but mostly for drinking, laughing, smoking and storytelling. It became clear that the only all-night event would be on May 5 when we would assemble a team of strong, able bodies to carry the mikoshi through the streets after sundown. There was no mention of an event resembling Donald Richie’s life-changing night in the darkness.
On May 5, I arrived midday at the Yazakicho headquarters, a few tents in a parking lot with tables full of food and drink that had sustained the crew through several days of partying. After some joking about drinking too much, we tended to the ceremonial horse that would be used that evening to transport one of the shrine’s priests on a sundown journey to visit an outlying shrine post. After, we gathered our bamboo poles and prepared for a 30-minute street purification walk called michikiyome, featuring dozens of noisy bamboo sticks percussing in unison on the black surface of the road. The sound would scare off anything impure so that later, in the dark, the kami could travel in the mikoshi without fear of contamination.
Later, those of us who wore the neighborhood happi coats were admitted to the sacred grounds of the inner shrine to watch the sun set, a moment which marked the onset of darkness and triggered a faux-dramatic storming of the sanctuary gate by mikoshi carriers from all eight neighborhoods eager to fetch the kami and begin the night’s revelry.
One by one all eight mikoshi emerged. There was chanting and mikoshi spinning in front of the shrine’s main hall, then careful maneuvering to get beneath a low gate that opened to streets packed with worshippers from the far reaches of Tokyo and beyond.
Hours later, in the deep dark of the night, all eight teams brought their mikoshi to a resting barn some blocks from the shrine — a prime piece of real estate used only once a year for these few hours of kami repose. Most of us went home for a short sleep before gathering again at 4 a.m. to wake the kami for a final ride in the light of dawn, returning them to Okunitama Jinja where they would wait another year to celebrate the Darkness Festival.
Richie ends his essay with an admission that he knew the festival had changed shortly after he participated in 1947. He claims that “authorities were cleaning things up.” His tone is nostalgic for the night on which he learned that each kami “is happy only when people return to their real state, when humans again become human, when we are as we truly are. And this can occur only in darkness and in trust.”
He writes that “hundreds of years of history were brought to an end, the chain of generations severed.” He thinks that he “had attended, become a part of, the very last” of the Darkness Festival. I saw that he was wrong. All sorts of Fuchu neighbors, including my car mechanic, remain part of the chain of generations, unsevered, contributing to the shrine’s 1,900 year history, becoming human in darkness and in trust.