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Coronavirus forces slimmed-down 770-yr-old fan-tossing event at west Japan temple

Monks throw heart-shaped fans to officials of Toshodai-ji temple in the city of Nara on May 19, 2020. (Mainichi/Yoshiyuki Hirakawa)

NARA -- In a normal year, come this time in May visitors would pack the grounds of Toshodai-ji temple in this ancient Japanese capital for the chance to snag one of the heart-shaped "uchiwa" fans tossed out to the crowd -- part of a some 770-year-old annual event. This year, however, there was just a handful of temple officials waiting to grab a fan during the May 19 event, and they were keeping a careful distance from one another.

Like many events across Japan, the "uchiwa maki" fan giveaway was drastically scaled back this year because of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Normally, about 500 fans are thrown out to temple visitors on a first come, first serve basis. On May 19, however, monks threw out just around 100 of the traditional fans from a temple tower to the masked officials below.

The uchiwa maki is part of a larger Buddhist memorial service that has been held annually on the day that Kakujo Shonin, a monk who rebuilt the temple in the Kamakura period (1185-1333), passed away some 770 years ago. It is believed that it started out as an offering of fans to shoo away mosquitoes after Kakujo's death, because the monk had scolded a disciple for attempting to kill a mosquito that had bitten them.

The heart-shaped fans are said to ward off diseases, and officials prayed for the end of the coronavirus pandemic in the memorial service.

Senior priest Myogen Nishiyama said, "A temple has the duty of continuing normal work events when people's daily lives change drastically. We will continue to pray that infections will end as soon as possible."

(Japanese original by Yusuke Kato, Nara Bureau)

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