The Takasanji Oni Matsuri (Ogre or fire festival) is held at Takasanji Temple every February on the Saturday closest to February 7th; which is New Years in the old Lunar Calendar in Japan.
Part of the festival involves blessings the local 42, 25, and 12 year old males; of which 3 are selected to participate in the fire ceremony in the main hall. During the ceremony, the temple is ritualistically cleansed of three demons portrayed by the 3 males selected from the local population. The 3 wear ceremonial masks; the 42 year wears the mask of a grandfather, the 25 year old the mask of a grandmother, and the young boy wears the mask of a grandson. In addition, about 30 men who were born in a year with the same sign of the Chinese zodiac as the year of the festival chase the demons through the temple carrying torches, until the demons are driven out by the fire and noise.
The sheer amount of fire within a priceless wooden temple is stunning, and how they have not managed to burn that building down is beyond me. If you are planning to come out and enjoy this festival, I recommend you bring a camera that can handle the contrasts of the dark and fire, as well as the speed of the action. On that note, watch out for anyone bearing a step ladder. In true Japanese style, they will completely ignore everyone behind them and try to get the best possible shots of the festival while completely blocking your view. While totally worth it, this is usually a very cold experience, so dress warmly! Make sure you get on one of the buses that will take you directly back to the station after the festival. While you do not need to run, it is best to follow the crowd down and get on one before they stop running for the night!
The foundation of this temple in northern Okazaki dates back to the latter half of the 7th century. An ascetic priest who had been living as a hermit in the nearby mountains constructed the building on the orders of the Emperor Tenmu (emperor from AD 673 to 686).
In the first few centuries after its original construction, the Buddha of Healing was worshipped here and the temple was called Kishoki temple. The temple of that era would have been of simple wood and thatch construction, unfortunately nothing remains of the early temple besides archeaological items.
Kichioki temple was a center for worship for the local community, for the next several hundred years through the age of reform and the Nara Period. The temple we see today was built by a priest named Kanden. Kanden was an elder cousin of the great Japanese warrior and founder of the Kamakura shogunate Minamoto Yoritomo (1147-1199). On the first anniversary of Yorimoto’s death, Kanden began constructing a Zen temple here and enshrined Yoritomo’s hair and teeth inside the womb of the statue of the Goddess of Mercy.
These days, the main hall of the temple is famous for its perfection of the Kamakura Period (1185 – 1333) style of architecture – dating from its reconstruction in that style in the year 1222. Takisanji Temple has many national important cultural properties including the Kamakura-styled Main Hall, Sanmon Gate, and the sacred statue of the Goddess of Mercy which not only has the remains of Yorimoto, but is also said to be built in his life-size.
Have a close look at Sanmon Gate. The gate is some distance from the Main Hall these days, which gives us a good idea of the size of the temple during its heyday. The gate was built in 1267 by Mitsunobu Fujiwara, a master carpenter and builder of high social rank from the mountain province of Hida (now the Takayama area of Gifu prefecture). It was built to perfection both in terms of the depth of its entire structure and in the mightness of its large shingled roof.
The gate is made from wood and plaster, the bright coloring coming from the vermillion coating. If you look up under the eaves of the roof you can see in each corner a small figurine resembling a gargoyle.
Guarding the entrance to the gate are two wooden statues called Niouzou. The one of the right of the gate (pictured) is agyou (a – the beginning of all things – similar to alpha), and the one on the left is ungyou (un – the ending of all things – similar to omega). The character read as gyou, means figure or shape.
Each of the statues are 287 centimeters high (approximately 113 inches) are were carved during the first half of the 15th century. Unfortunately the Niouzou are protected by wire to prevent them from being damaged or vandalized, so you won’t usually be able to obtain a close look. At festival time, priests from the temple attach woven straw sandals called waraji to the wall in front of the Niouzou – new shoes for the gods.
At the time of construction, it was common to leave part of structure imperfect, partly out of superstition for the destruction that seemed to follow beautiful things, but also because they believed in the saying “Every tide has its ebb”. As a result, even as people were looking at this perfect work, they would whisper that even the Master of Hida had somewhere surely made a mistake.
It appears that one or more of the rafters (wooden beams supporting the roof) had been inserted back-to-front. Upon hearing this, Mitsunobu Fujiwawa, ashamed that a master builder such as himself appeared to have made a mistake, jumped off the upper story of the Sanmon Gate to his death. It is said that later a camellia grew on the ground where the master died blossomed every year, but never bare fruit. The mound to the left of the gate is said to contain his grave.
Side by side with the main hall of Takisanji Temple is Takisan Toshogu Shrine. This Shinto shrine was built in 1646 by the powerful 3rd Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu, and is the top 3 Toshogu Shrines in Japan, the others being Nikko and Kunozan. The Main Hall, the Hall of Worship, the Nakamon Gate and the Torii Gate were all designated as national important cultural properties in 1953.
Takisan Toshogu Shrine is on the highest site of the east side of Takisanji Temple’s Main Hall, and is brilliantly colored in the Toshogu style. The magnificence of the shrine and the 50 stone lanterns donated by the lords of Okazaki Castle for generations of the Tokugawa family give evidence of the power and influence of the Tokugawa Shogunate. The shrine was reconstructed from 1969 by the Cultural Agency, and restoration (both of the Toshogu shrine and the much older Kamakura era Takasanji temple main hall) continues. The beauty of its style vividly remains.
Behind the Toshogu, there is a path leading to the Oku-no-in.