Along with the heat of summer and rainy season, shrines all over Japan host rice-planting ceremonies to pray for a plentiful harvest. Called the Otaue Shinto Service, since ancient times, Sumiyoshi Taisha Shinto Grand Shrine here south of Osaka hosts the largest ceremony in the nation and has been designated as an Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property of Japan.
Put on by the Ondako, a religious association composed primarily of farmers, this association overseas rice cultivation through the year, from planting to harvest, and performs the actual rice planting during the Shinto Service, according to the pamphlet handed out at the service.
During Saigyu, which preserves ancient agricultural traditions, the fields are plowed with an ox before beginning the service in a process called shirokaki. The farmers use a manga, a rake-like instrument that breaks up the soil to prepare the paddy mud for easy planting as traditional dances are performed on a center stage especially erected in the center of the rice field.
Purified rice seedlings handed down from the gods are carefully planted one by one. Planters sing Taue-odori, a rice-planting song that has been passed down for generations among Sumiyoshi farmer.s The cheerful notes provide comfort and mask the hardship of the farmers’ labor, it is said.
Meanwhile, female Kagurame dancers perform “Yaotomemai” or “a dance by eight maidens.” Others dressed in armor perform and carry out samurai rituals, and local children deliver a rice-planting dance. The event is finished with the Sumiyoshi-odori, a dance by children performers called kyodoshi, sing and dance with their uchiwa fans, timed with the completion of the rice field’s planting.
A variety of rice called Hinohikari is used, which is the recommended variety for Osaka Prefecture, and the water source is well water from 100m below ground. It’s cultivated by the Aigamo farming method. An ox is guided around to plow the 2000 meter area of which will harvest approximately 1200 kg of rice.
Tomoyakko lead the procession for the rice-planting service. Walking in step, they move along the designated route performing unique movements known as yakkofuri as they call out to one another.
Otanushi are representatives of the rice-planting service and pour sacred water into the rice paddies.
Yaotome serve as the shrine maidens. Wearing a woven shade atop their head formed from a half-open gold folding fan adorendd in ariticla Japanese irises, they perform the tamai dance.
Ueme carry the rice seedlings, and Chigo are young girls who accompany the Ueme throughtout the ritual followed by the Mitoshime. The Mitoshime are recognized for their exceptional character, appearance and ability in song and dance. The dance of the dragon god is offered as a prayer for rain.
Children are notably a part of this tradition. Many participating in mock fighting and staging of samurai. The Furyumusha samurai commanders lead their troops forward while displaying their authority and force with naginata, Japanese halberds, and war fans.
They sound off with conch shells and war drums to signal the battle’s start. Split into red and white armies, the infantry fight by striking their staffs together in combat. This banging of staffs acts as a charm to ward off pests and insects.
Sumiyoshi Taisha was founded in 211 and is the head of approximately 2,300 Sumiyoshi shrines throughout Japan. Legend has it the shrine was built to give thanks to the kami, or gods, of the sea for the safe return of the Empress Jingu on a voyage to Korea. Travelers, fisherman and sailors pray for protection here, as do worshippers pray for good luck, safety in childbirth and luck in love and work.
It features the Sorihashi arched bridge, sacred trees over 1,000 years old, and architecture unique to the Japanese mainland that doesn’t contain Chinese influences.
An important aspect of agricultural mythologies is its cyclical focus, according to Mythologist Joseph Campbell. Rice is planted by people who are participating in the cosmos that they are a part. They are like the gods, participating in the creation and destruction along side the mystery of life. Rice grows, it is harvested and dies. But it is resurrected and reborn in the next planting and dies in the next harvest. There is no death. Death begets life. And life is a part of death. One continuous cycle.
A comforting ritual. The purpose of mythology.