Where the gods ensure an annual win-win-situation
Once every New Year the little town of Ōiso (大磯 / おおいそ) is celebrating its Sagichō (左義長 / さぎちょう) – a fire ceremony, that is not only grand, but also particularly salutary. On the one hand it ensures divine protection for the next twelve months, on the other hand it also takes care of sufficient nutrition. A guided tour on 11 January 2016 provided by the “Deutsche Gesellschaft für Natur und Völkerkunde Ostasiens, OAG” was a welcome opportunity to have a look for myself.
Ōiso is located on the shores of the Pacific Ocean at the Sagami Bay (相模湾 / さがみわん), right in the middle between Odawara (小田原 / おだわら) in the west and Fujisawa (藤沢 / ふじさわ) in the east. This location is not only a very convenient one, but also one that provides a particularly pleasant climate. So pleasant that – more than 100 years ago (in the Meiji- and Taishō era – i.e. from the last quarter of the 19th century to the first Quarter of the 20th century) – it was a preferred area for weekend- and summer villas of the rich ones (especially politicians). These villas were so gorgeous, that “palaces” was deemed the more appropriate designation. But those days are long gone. When also the fishing business (that provided the main source of income for centuries) declined after World War II., Ōiso transformed itself into a more residential city providing affordable housing for those working in Tōkyō and Yokohama, but not being able to bear the cost of living there.
With its about 30,000 inhabitants, Ōiso is one the more placid towns in this area. It still retains some of the gorgeous palace-villas of its grand past, e.g. the residence of the great Japanese prime minister of the Meiji ear, Hirobumi Itō (伊藤博文 / いとうひろぶみ), the one of postwar prime minister Shigeru Yoshida (吉田茂 / よしだしげる) and the one of the famous writer Tōson Shimazaki (島崎藤村 / しまざきとうそん) – which can still be visited. But they are not subject to this little posting.
Of the other very few places of touristic interest, I would just like to pick two:
To begin with, there is the late orphanage of the city at the “Sawada Miki-Memorial” (澤田美喜記念館 / さわだみききねんかん) just across the railway station. It is the “Elizabeth Saunders Home” that was founded around 1948 by Miki Sawada (a Mitsubishi heir), and was established to take care of the bi-national ophans (mostly from Japanese mothers and US-American fathers), which were in a particularly lamentable situation, as they were discriminated rudely by the Japanese society. The ophanage was built on the estate of the founder of Mitsubishi, Yatarō Iwasaki (岩崎弥太郎 / いわさきやたろう) which had been confiscated by the government during WWII (in lieu of tax payments). After the war Miki Sawada had bought the estate back for 4 million Yen – she had sacrificed her personal possessions for that. The name “Elizabeth Saunders” is in memory of one of the main sponsors of the project, an English lady that had passed on her assets in 1946.
While walking through Ōiso, sooner or later one has to cross the old Tōkaidō (東海道 / とうかいどう), which was the most important road of the country during the Edo era, connecting the old capital and imperial city of Kyōto with the new capital and the residence of the Shōgun, Edo (today’s Tōkyō). Just next to the Tōkaidō you will find the Shigitatsuan (鴫立庵 / しぎたつあん), an enchanted old, traditional building, slightly lower than today’s street-level. It is one of the three most important Haiku-Dōjō (俳諧道場 / はいかいどうじょう) – “place for haiku poets” – of the country. Quite a number of notable poets and writers have lived here since its foundation in the late 17th century.
Also the name of this area, “Shōnan” (湘南 / しょうなん), is said to have been forged here – in remembrance of a particularly charming region in Hunan, between the rivers Xiao, Xiang and Yangtze in China (the “Eight Views of Xiaoxiang” are world famous).
But let’s talk about the actual reason for this posting:
And that is the Sagichō (左義長 / さぎちょう), a fire ceremony that is carried out every year around January 14 and that is believed to provide the people Ōiso with divine protection from any kind of sickness. The ceremony itself has Chinese-Taoist roots. And it all starts with the erection of 9 eight meters tall “cones” made of straw that are also adorned with the new year decorations of the houses of the nine districts of Ōiso (originally there were only seven districts, but as neighbouring villages had been suburbanised, also the number of participating districts had to be increased).
For those who are interested in such details, here are the names of the nine districts of Ōiso:
- Sakashita (坂下 / さかした)
- Hamanochō ( 浜ノ町/ はまのちょう)
- Ōdomari (大泊 / おおどまり)
- Nenokami (子の神 / ねのかみ)
- Nakajuku (中宿 / なかじゅく)
- Sengenchō (浅間町 / せんげんちょう)
- Ōkita (大北 / おおきた)
- Sannōchō (山王町 / さんのうちょう)
- Chōjamachi (長者町 / ちょうちゃまち)
Those huge straw-cones are being lit in the early evening hours and are transforming the whole beach into a mystic place. One of the rituals is being observed by almost all of the visitors: They bring along mochi balls on a wire sling attached to bamboo poles which are a couple of meters long. These mochi balls are being roasted over the open fire. “Mochi” is usually destribed as “rice cake”, but is actually a rather sticky rice paste that is being produced by pounding a particularly sticky kind of rice into paste which can be molded in any desirable shape. The mochi used for roasting has not particular taste, but it is said that its consumption esures health for the rest of the year. And since we are in Japan, where also the eye is entitle to have some enjoyment with food, these mochi balls are usually strung in alternating colours – white and pink (i.e. red) – the typical colours for festive or happy occasions in Japan.
The undeniable highlight of the festival is, however, the “tug of war” – not just for the divine spirits’ blessings, but also to cast out evil spirits. The latter ones have been captured in small shrines (neatly tied with ropes). For the tug of war men, scarcely dressed with “fundoshi” (褌 / ふんどし) (a traditional waistcloth), jump into the icy waters of the Pacific Ocean and try to pull a sleigh off the beach. On the other end of the rope another group of men is trying to prevent that by pulling the sleigh further onto the beach. Depending on the outcome of the fight, the gods will grant plentyful fishing (if the team in the water wins) or a bountiful harvest (if the team on the beach wins). In any case: It is being ensured that the tug of war is an annual win-win situation.
One can watch this tug of war not only on the beach of Ōiso, but also in the streets of the city, where the groups seem to have lots of fun with the occasional dry run. It goes without saying, that the fighting spirits are being supported by ample rice wine (酒 / さけ).
How to get there:
From Tōkyō it is probably the most convenient to take the trains of the Shōnan Shinjuku line (湘南新宿線 / しょうなんしんじゅくせん) from Shinjuku (新宿 / しんじゅく) to Ōiso (大磯 / おおいそ) – there are a lot of connections that bring you there without changing trains (journey time about 1 to 1½ hours).
You can save a little money, if you take one of the regular trains of the Odakyū line (小田急線 / おだきゅうせん), from Shinjuku as well – in this case you have to change trains at least once in Fujisawa (藤沢 / ふじさわ), from where you’ll have to take the Tōkaidō line (東海道線 / とうかいどうせん) (journey time about 1½ to 1¾ hours).