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O-eshiki Festival of Lights

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By Vicki L Beyer

In September 1282, a frail and ailing Buddhist priest is crossing the Musashino Plain when he becomes too ill to continue. His companions take him to the nearby home of one of his most devout followers, Ikegami Munenaka, the local daimyo. The priest is Nichiren, founder of the Lotus Sect of Buddhism.

Over the next 3 weeks, despite rest and care, Nichiren’s condition continues to deteriorate. Propped against a pillar in Munenaka’s home, he actively preaches to those who come daily to see him. But he is dying and he knows it. He designates which of his most trusted disciples are to lead the sect upon his death and consecrates a new temple on the top of the hill above Munenaka’s house.

On October 13, 1282, propped against a pillar in Munenaka’s house and reciting the mantra he introduced, “namu myoho renge kyo,” Nichiren passes to Nirvana. According to legend, a cherry tree in the courtyard outside the house bloomed in mourning. Even today, in the courtyard of Munenaka’s house — now Daibo Hongyoji Temple — there is a cherry tree that blooms in mid-October.

That cherry tree is not the only thing remembering the life of Nichiren every October. From October 11 through October 13, the Ikegami area — now a Tokyo suburb — hosts the O-eshiki ceremony in memory of Nichiren. As part of this ceremony, representatives from many of the Lotus Sect’s 5,000 temples across Japan participate in the “Mando” parade of 10,000 lanterns that takes place from 6:30 p.m. to midnight on October 12.

Each group enters a float that looks like a pagoda with streamers of paper flowers — symbolic of those cherry blossoms — trailing over it. The pagoda structure of the float has decorated paper sides and is lit from the inside. The members of each group wear a happi coat identifying them to their group. Some of them also carry “matoi,” Edo-period fireman’s poles, topped with a distinctive figure with white straps hanging from it. Periodically, when there is a pause in the parade, the matoi bearer performs a dance, raising and spinning the matoi, sending the straps flying.

The parade begins from two locations in the “village” of Ikegami and proceeds down Ikegami-dori from opposite directions, joining together at “Shin Sando,” the new temple approach. From there, they make their way to Honmonji, even carrying the float up the 96 steps leading to the temple atop the hill. The entire parade route is lined with spectators and the usual vendors of festival foods, getting more and more crowded in proximity to the temple itself.

Once inside the courtyard in front of the main temple, each group gives its best performance of drums, bells, whistles and dancing. It then goes into the temple for a special blessing while the next group takes its place front and center.

After completing this ceremony at Honmonji, most groups take their floats out the back/side gate and down the other side of the hill to Ikegami Daibo, where they participate in a more subdued ceremony on the site of Nichiren’s passing. On their way down the hill, they pass a beautiful red stupa, the only one of this design in Japan. The stupa was built here on the site of Nichiren’s cremation in 1830 and most recently restored in 2010.

Some people refer to October 13 not as the day of Nichiren’s death but as the day of his birth. Certainly the festival atmosphere of the o-eshiki is anything but mournful. Rather, Nichiren’s adherents are celebrating his life and his achievement in reaching Nirvana. The colors, sights, sounds and smells are all uplifting and well worth experiencing.

Whether you can make it to Ikegami for the o-eshiki, the area is also worth a visit at another time (ie, in daylight) for a deeper look at its history and architecture.

Ikegami, for centuries a fishing and farming community, is now just another Tokyo suburb. It’s a pleasant neighborhood that has retained its village feel as well as its history and its strong connection to Lotus Sect Buddhism. It is dominated by the hilltop Honmonji, which is surrounded by a number of subordinate temples scattered around the base of the hill, including Daibo Hongyoji, as well as guardian Shinto shrines.

In spite of its 730-year history, most of the buildings of Honmonji, including the main temple, were built after World War II. The site was badly damaged in the fire bombings of March and April 1945, with only three of the temple’s structures surviving. One of those surviving structures is the main gate at the bottom of the hill. Another is the kyozo, a building housing a rotating library containing Buddhist scriptures, which was built in 1784 and sits to the left of the main temple. The point of the ability to rotate the library was that doing so was regarded as the equivalent of having recited all the prayers it contained. Alas, while the doors of this building are often open, the library can no longer be rotated.

The third of the surviving pre-war structures is the temple’s 29.4 meter pagoda, down a lane through the cemetery to the right of the Nio-mon gate at the top of the stairs. This jewel, built in 1608, is the oldest pagoda in the Tokyo area. On the eaves of the lower level of the pagoda are carvings of the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac — three on each side, according to the points of the compass with which each is associated.

The cemetery itself is a peaceful place to wander, with many interesting graves including that of Rikidozan, a professional wrestler in the 1950s and early 1960s and a mausoleum in the shape of an igloo belonging to a nurse’s guild. Toward the back of the cemetery, to the right from the pagoda, is a walkway leading to the roof of the Ota Kumin Kaikan, a public hall that hugs the side of the hill. From this rooftop you can enjoy expansive views across the Tama River valley. If you’re lucky, you can even see Mount Fuji.

Although the main temple building is not particularly historical, the temple and the courtyard in front of it combine to create a serene atmosphere. The courtyard is bounded by a belfry and a museum/treasure hall on the left. On the right is the fountain for pre-worship ablutions and a building where incense and other accoutrements of worship are available. Behind this building is a small stone marker commemorating American sailors who died when the U.S.S. Oneida sank in Tokyo Bay in 1870 after being struck by a British steamer. Many fishermen from Ikegami assisted in the rescue and recovery operations and then made arrangements for this marker commemorating the 125 men who could not be saved.

The other sights not to be missed on a visit to Ikegami are down the hill from the left side of the Honmonji temple — the red stupa on the site of Nichiren’s cremation and Daibo Hongyoji, where he actually died. Like Honmonji, Daibo Hongyoji is not a single temple but a complex of temple buildings. The main temple is attractive, but nothing out of the ordinary. More interesting is the Gorinju-no-ma, the building where Nichiren died, which is behind and to the left of the main temple. Ordinarily (ie, when the o-eshiki is not happening) it’s possible to go inside to see the pillar where Nichiren sat propped as he breathed his last. The pillar is easy to spot because it’s covered in brocade. At the back of the building you can also relax in comfy chairs and enjoy the view of the pond and traditional garden. Sitting overlooking the garden, it’s easy to imagine this place in Nichiren’s day.

Getting there:

Ikegami is a station on the Tokyu Ikegami Line, running between Gotanda and Kamata. It is 20 minutes from Gotanda and 3 minutes from Kamata.

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