March is a time where many are enjoying the first signs of spring. It is also a time to celebrate one of the oldest Buddhist festivals in Japan. The festival encompasses multiple unique events, covering the first two weeks of March.
Omizutori occurs at Todaiji Temple in Nara, one of the most famous temples in the country. The name means “water-drawing” and it’s often used as a blanket term for the longer Shuni-e ceremony. This is a two-week long service that includes a repentance ceremony, a fire ceremony, and a water ceremony. The idea is to remember Buddhist teachings, cleanse sins, and pray for the well-being of society. It also serves as a time to welcome a new spring season. The preparations for the festival are very strict, as some monks do not even speak or leave their posts. The repentance ritual itself is held in private, and eleven specially chosen monks perform the ritual six times a day. The evening ritual is the longest, lasting three hours.
There are many versions regarding how the festival was started. In one version, the founder invited thousands of gods to the ceremony. One god was fishing at the time and arrived late. To make up for his tardiness, he offered scented water, which began pouring forth beneath his feet. As a result, water is said to spring from the well at Todaiji once every year.
Another story tells how the founder came across divine beings performing a ritual to wash away sins and ask for repentance. He was so in awe that he decided to teach it to the humans as well, even though it would be a difficult task.
Some might think it unusual to have fire at a water festival, but this is one of the most exciting and anticipated events. The ceremony takes place at a sub-complex within Todaiji, called Nigatsu-do, or The Hall of the Second Month. It refers to the second month of the lunar calendar, which roughly coincides with March. For two weeks, giant torches blaze on the hall balcony at night. While the size and number of the torches differ each day, there are usually 10. The display usually lasts around 30 minutes, with the exception of the final night. On March 14, the ceremony runs for 5 minutes, but a truly spectacular display makes up for it. Huge crowds gather to offer their prayers and enjoy the view. The embers from the flames bestow good fortune and a safe year to those below.
Finally, the “true” Omizutori event happens on the night of March 12. Located in front of the temple is a well that is usable only once a year, in reference to the legends. At night, the monks travel with torches and draw water from the well, which is then offered to the Goddess of Mercy and the general public. Also, it is said that the sacred water has healing and restorative powers. Additionally, there are two pots storing the water; one containing water from the previous year, and one containing water from all previous ceremonies.
Being able to experience these ceremonies and rituals is a truly memorable thing. Consequently, thousands of visitors arrive each year to witness the spectacular fire displays and receive the blessings from the water. The middle and later days of the event are especially popular, and crowds can grow to enormous sizes. If you’re interested in seeing the torches up close, then make sure to arrive early and get some fortuitous embers for yourself.
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