どんど焼き – Burning Of New Year’s Decorations

Once again the planets have aligned and allowed for me to join the Kaminishi Elementary School for another special event.  I’m not sure why so many events fall on Wednesdays, but of course I’m not complaining.  This time around the teachers and students joined with members of the community to take part in dondoyaki.  I know of no equivalent to this tradition in the western world, but it is basically an event where all of the New Year decorations are burned.  Not streamers, confetti or novelty hats, but rather the traditional decorations that are places on or near building entrances and those at the family shrines.  The symbolism of the event is that you are ridding yourself of the past and moving forward, for to cling to things gone by is to remain immature.  This is generally done on January 15th, but I’ll let the delay slide.

After we all piled into some teacher’s van and drove over there, things were already underway.  The bonfire was  lit and a Shinto priest was there in full dress to bless the event.  The clearing where it took place had a number of religious statues and other stone  carvings., making it a great location for such a religious event.  Once he had finished his preparations, he took his leave and returned to the shrine.  Some of the townsfolk, ever dwindling in number, readied their own things and made a small sake and food offering to the event.  This is a very common sight within the home or at any festival.  The students meanwhile began tossing large strips of paper on which they had written the Japanese equivalent of a New Year’s resolution.   Soon black beans were being roasted on the fire and several more of us were preparing mikans by stringing them onto wires that dangled from bamboo poles.

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Once the poles were ready, the kids and townsfolk gathered around the fire to get the mikans roasting.  It wasn’t much different than roasting marshmallows I guess, but because of the thick skin, we had to shove it into the hottest part of the fire.

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The idea behind this  was that by roasting these mikans, the vitamin C inside is released.  When we eat them, we hope the Vitamin C will ensure us good health for the coming year.  I didn’t much care for the warm, smoke tasting slices, but when I thought about how this simple act would protect me for an entire year I couldn’t stop myself from shoving them down my gullet.

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The next while was spent with the kids playing around.  Next to the clearing were some stone steps that climbed up to a small shrine.  After clapping twice with their prayers, they would zig and zag down the slope until they arrived back where they started.  Along this path there were a number of Jizo statues where they would pause for a short bow before running on.  Jizo is a popular divinity that is said to save the souls of unborn children and those that die before their parents.  These statues can be seen along roadsides, cemeteries, and basically anywhere.

I followed behind the kids to record them on the route, but my bounding along made the video pretty shaky.

After the students each did this a number of times, and I twice, the teachers called us down to do a late Setsubun celebration.  Myself and a couple others were assigned the demon roles, so we put on our masks while the kids pelted us with the black beans.  My ceramic mask definitely protected my face from the siege, but those that struck my hands really did sting a bit.  The kids weren’t holding back at all but they ran out of ammo and it was eventually over.

The final bit of the event included one lady there giving out small presents to students in honor of Valentine’s Day.  This lady spoke some English very confidently, and very poorly.  She had a lot of Energy but her demeanor suggested that she was somehow drunk before noon.  At least, she was acting similar to the one other time that I met her, when she most definitely was.

Some video of a delightfully quirky her.

Now that it was time to head back to the school, the students lined up to give their rehearsed appreciation to the community members for setting everything up.  I was of course more than pleased with the experience and also the opportunity to do something interesting like this while on the clock.  The event itself was a mishmash of about 4 different customs and traditions, but it was all quite genuine and very worthwhile.

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