By Bill Roberts
Once upon a time, Susanoo no Mikoto, brother of the Sun Goddess, slew an eight-tailed dragon and rescued a beautiful maiden named Kushinadahime, and her parents. To show their gratitude the parents offered their daughter’s hand in marriage to Susanoo no Mikoto. (Who wouldn’t want their daughter to marry a hero from the divine family?)
And so it came to pass that Susanoo no Mikoto married Kushinadahime, built a grand palace and brought peace to the land. To celebrate the event he composed a beautiful poem. They would have lived happily ever after except Susanoo no Mikoto was a better poet-warrior than he was a ruler. Administering his new land wore him down.
Like any good wife, Kushinadahime knew what it took to help her husband relax. She played music for him by plucking on a bowstring with an arrowhead. She also fastened the bowstring to the bottom of a wooden tub and beat it with a stick.
And so we see the mythical beginnings not only of Japanese poetry but also of the two-string yakumokoto and the bow drum. Poetry, the two instruments and the myth itself are at the heart of the Utamatsuri, or traditional poetry festival, which may be the most colorful and dramatic of all Oomoto rituals. I attended an Utamatsuri on Nov. 16, 2002. It was held to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Oomoto branch in Tokushima on the island of Shikoku.
The ancient Japanese would gather to recite or chant poems as a form of entertainment. The festivals were often held at a shrine, on top of a mountain, beside a river or in the market place. Perpetuating this Japanese folk art is another example of how Oomoto melds traditional arts with spiritual practice.
Onisaburo Deguchi, the Co-Founder of Oomoto, revived the Utamatsuri in 1935. In his lifetime, Onisaburo wrote thousands of the 5-line, 31-sylable tanka, which is the Utamatsuri’s poetic form. Many Oomoto followers write tanka and submit their work to a monthly journal. For years, Oomoto has performed an Utamatsuri each August as part of its Summer Festival, held in Kameoka to celebrate the anniversary of Onisaburo’s birth.
The festival in Tokushima was the first one held at an Oomoto branch. As an indication of the importance of the event, Mme. Kurenai Deguchi, the Spiritual Leader, was present.
The Tokushima festival was held outdoors on the Oomoto grounds. The air was full of expectancy as a couple of hundred people took their seats. It was a balmy night with a cloud-mottled sky just a few days before the full moon. Shadows danced on the makeshift stage surrounded by pines.
As dusk settled, five priests and the seven-member chorus marched to the stage under torchlight, accompanied by a yakumokoto and a bow drum. On the stage a special altar held a pyramid of 46 colorful cards, each containing a poem. They were chosen from 215 submitted by Oomoto followers.
Kneeling at the altar, the chief priest opened the festival by reading a sacred poem to invoke the presence of Susanoo no Mikoto. Next, three young women, symbolizing Kushinadahime and her parents, marched onto the stage carrying clusters of bells to perform a purification dance. They moved around slowly, ringing their bells, accompanied by the koto, the bow drum and one chanter.
When the three women finished, they and the priests left the stage. Only the choir of three women and four men remained. They began to chant one poem at a time, accompanied by the koto and bow drum, which played the same tune repeatedly. A folk tune of unknown origin, it is always used at Utamatsuri.
Some poems were chanted solo, some as duets and others by the entire group. Before each poem, the chanter called out the name and town of the poet. The chorus worked its way slowly through the 46 poems. I couldn’t understand a word they were saying but the single musical rhythm, the consistent tanka cadence and the melodious chanting created a thoroughly meditative mood.
When the chanters finished, the three maidens returned to close the festival with another purification dance. The chief priest took the altar and chanted the same poem by Susanoo no Mikoto with which he had opened the festival. By this time, a three-quarter moon had climbed high in the sky, playing hide and seek behind strands of clouds. It was a blissful moment.
Next the writers of the four best poems, as judged by a panel and the Spiritual Leader, mounted the stage. Joining them were a poet representing the writers of the next group of 14 poems and a poet representing the last 28, which were obviously deemed good enough to chant.
Tomoki Tada, head of the Tokushima branch and host of the festival, wrote the winning poem. My first reaction: The contest was rigged. But the judges maintain they do not look at the poets’ names when judging the work; his winning was a happy coincidence. (I later learned there have been many such happy coincidences at the Kameoka Utamatsuri.)
The gist of Tada’s poem is this: After 50 years growing as a branch, Tokushima was finally able to hold a poetry festival and he expresses hope that the younger Oomoto generation will keep the traditions alive on the island of Shikoku. As befits a poem, the writer uses the mythological name for Shikoku.
As difficult as it is to render the Japanese into English, here is an attempt, in the tanka cadence—with apologies to Tada.
- This poetry fest
- Took fifty years to achieve
- Gradual progress
- I hope Futana’s youth
- Will uphold our traditions
Whether the contest was rigged or not, Tada’s effort did capture the spirit of the moment.