The train pulled into Ikegami Station, in the southern outskirts of Tokyo, and a flood of people piled onto the platform. We were immediately met with station masters shouting orders at us, as they herded the masses through the ticket gates as smoothly and quickly as possible before the next train arrived. Outside the station, strange shapes loomed from the crowds. With long tentacles bobbing up and down and a bright light shining from within, these curious mythological-looking creatures made their way down the street past thousands of onlookers and off into the night.
Welcome to the Ikegami Honmonji Oeshiki, a festival that commemorates one of the most important Buddhist monks in Japanese history. Nichiren Shōnin lived in the 13th century and devoted his life to studying and writing about how to save people from suffering and create a stable society that lived in peace. He protested against practices of Buddhism that didn’t follow the teachings of the Lotus Sutra, a scripture which he considered held the answer to all problems. He gave public sermons where he chanted the mantra, Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō, and predicted events that would occur if people didn’t convert. He was met with a lot of opposition himself and some of his followers were killed trying to protect him during assassination attempts. He was persecuted by the government and exiled from the capital, Kamakura. However, none of these events discouraged him and by the time of his death, he had established temples and handed over his teachings to his disciples who would go on create a recognized school of Buddhism known as Nichiren-shū.
Nichiren died on October 13, 1282 at one of his temples, Ikegami Honmonji, which had been built in the same year. For 733 years and counting, it has served as one of the major centres for Nichiren-shū. Every year on October 12, around 300,000 people come to witness the Oeshiki Festival. Floats are paraded towards the temple down streets lined with food vendors. Security guards control the constant flow of people who are only allowed to walk in one direction. Once they reach the main temple, people gather at the entrance waiting to be let in – they will have just a few seconds to throw a coin into the donation box and say a prayer before exiting. Some devotees choose to sit with the monks who are beating on taiko drums and chanting the same mantra passed down from Nichiren.
As a first timer to this Buddhist festival, I was overwhelmed by the ceremony inside the temple. Rather than being calming, the chanting was loud and intense. And with so many people hustling their way in and out, it felt a bit chaotic. I was definitely relieved as soon as we got out. The entire night was pretty crazy but a lot of fun!
One of my favourite parts of Japanese festivals… the food!!