Friday, 22 June 2012

Slaying snakes for a 1000 years at Kuramadera

June 20th I visited Kurama-dera (Kurama temple) to attend the yearly Bamboo Cutting ceremony. Or, as the matsuri is called in Japanese 'Takekiri Eshiki', which takes place at the Kuramadera, a temple and national treasure of Japan, built high on the Kurama mountain.

Coming from the train at the foot of Mount Kurama, I got served instant happiness. The smell of the mountain, the pine trees lining the slopes, filled my nose immediately and I could not help but smile. The ride up there by train is a feast already, but the walk up the mountain let to even more great views. I come from a flat country, so the mountains fill me with awe every time I am near. The higher I got on Mount Kurama, the more giddy. Or was it just the mountain air?…

It took me quite a while to get to the temple up the mountain, because I just had to savor the view every time I got a glimpse through the trees. And to think I took the Cable train for a bit! (I am, and will be a city girl I'm afraid… although my legs don't bother anymore to count all the meters  they've walked in the past few months!) Anyway Mt. Kurama is 584 meters high, so to reach the temple that's one good climb! Lazy me, I took the short route. Literally. The Kurama railway is the shortest in the country, just 200 meters long. So it takes only 2 minutes. If you prefer to walk, what the temple recommends, you'll need about 30 minutes. A very steep climb that is, you are warned! And then you aren't even finished, there are even many more steps ahead of you. To make it all the more pleasurable, the ceremony is in June, when the weather is very hot and humid in Japan, so go figure. I admit, some malicious pleasure washed over me when I saw the unhappy and panting souls that had chosen the 'righteous' path…

The ceremony consists of two teams of priests who race to slay 'the snake' once again as their predecessor priest Minenobu has done a thousand years ago. The story goes that at Mt. Kurama a snake suddenly appeared in front of the priest and it was slain by using the power of Buddhism. Until this day a matsuri is held to commemorate this event, with a bamboo cutting ceremony to help destroy wickedness and the establishment of righteousness. (An appreciation for water is expressed as well.) During the bamboo cutting ceremony the monk Kurama, dressed as a warrior priest, foretells whether the harvest will be rich or poor, as he demonstrates how fast he can cut the bamboo.

I wasn't at all clear to me that it was supposed to be a race though, I had to find out afterwards when doing research. No less fun even so, it was rather an entertaining and clumsy sight seeing the monks pottering around with the 4 meter long bamboo stalks and which priest would stand where holding it! But when handling the swords…, another thing. You would want to stay on the good side with those priests!

As you might have noticed, the snake in the tale is replaced by long bamboo stalks. These have to be cut in pieces three times, for the 'snake' to be conquered. I have to say I'm quite pleased about the use of bamboo. I wouldn't have wanted to see real snakes cut to pieces. Having to warn Greenpeace and all that would have taken a bit of the pleasure out of the whole thing I imagine.

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