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Shinto ritual at shrine in central Japan predicts state of society, harvest this year

Priests are seen repeating Shinto ritual prayers while surrounding a pot during the Tsutsugayu shinji fortune-telling ritual at the Suwa Taisha Shimosha Harumiya shrine in the town of Suwa, Nagano Prefecture, on Jan. 14, 2021. (Kazunori Miyasaka)

SHIMOSUWA, Nagano -- Tsutsugayu shinji, a Shinto ritual whose purpose is to predict the state of society and harvests of the coming year, was held at a shrine in this central Japan town from the evening of Jan. 14 to the early morning of the following day.

    According to an oracle, on a five-point scale, the state of society scored 3.5 for the fourth year in a row. A representative of Suwa Taisha shrine said, "While it's the same score, things will probably be a bit better than last year. If we live our lives with caution, the situation in the world may gradually get better in the latter half."

    The ritual entails cooking a bundle of 44 reed stems -- 43 with names of different crop types and one with the word "society" written on them -- along with rice, red beans and water in a pot overnight. The prediction is based on how much rice porridge gets into the stems and what state the food is in. The ritual is said to be one of the seven mysteries of the shrine.

    As the rice was cooking, chief priest Kazunori Kitajima and seven other priests repeated Shinto ritual prayers all night long in the harsh cold, with the doors open at the Tsutsugayu hall in Suwa Taisha Shimosha Harumiya. In the early morning of Jan. 15, the priests sliced open the stems vertically and revealed the prediction.

    Of the prediction, a representative of the shrine said, "From late spring to summer, there continue to be poor harvests of crops. There are many abundant harvests, but also many poor harvests, and it varies greatly from time to time. The harvest of rice is about medium, so depending on the weather hopefully it will be good." They added, "Please live with even more caution this year than last year."

    Takuro Okano, a 42-year-old office worker from the prefectural city of Okaya, said after looking at a list of the ritual results, "(Based on the ritual results,) I have the faint hope that social conditions will get better than last year at the very least."

    The largest festival in the Suwa region, the Onbashira festival, will be held at the shrine in 2022. This year, Kamisha -- the upper shrine comprising the former shrine and the main shrine -- is due to officially select the trees to be turned into onbashira, and Shimosha -- the lower shrine comprising Akimiya and Harumiya shrines -- is scheduled to cut them down.

    Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Suwa Taisha shrine is calling for cooperation from local parishioners, saying, "This will be a year in which we will have to work hard and get creative so that the festival can be held somehow."

    (Japanese original by Kazunori Miyasaka)

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