Essays

Two different flowers: Noh and Butoh−I

by Miro Ito

Encounter with Shuni-e Ritual of Tōdai-ji Temple

Metaphorically speaking, Noh and Butoh are different types of flowers…
What made me realize this was the Shuni-e ritual (or Omizutori) at Tōdaiji Temple.

The Tōdai-ji Temple’s Shuni-e ritual has been held continuously since its inception in the Nara period (752), and is considered to be one of the oldest still-existing religious ceremonies in the world. It is an ancient ritual with a history of nearly 1300 years, where Buddha and Shinto kami deities, prayer and repentance, past and future, as well as the elements of fire and water interact.

The principal images are two eleven-headed Kannon Bodhisattva statues (Ōgannon and Kogannon) which are not available for public viewing. The fire, which singularly characterises the event, combusts to purify people of their sins, while the water represents the source of life and spiritual power.

The most important element in the practice of the Shuni-e ritual is repentance. Eleven monks called Rengyoshu visit the Nigatsu-dō Hall of Tōdai-ji every day and night during its main annual practice from 1st to 14th March. Blessing the rebirth of life with the arrival of spring, a truly magnificent and bountiful vision of prosperity and coexistence unfolds.

Although the Shuni-e of Tōdai-ji Temple is considered to be one of the rarest spiritual exercises of its kind in the world (i.e. where collective repentance is conducted as a group), its mystic prayers and actions harken back to various Asian influences.

At the same time, the origins of Japanese performing arts, often linked to some forms of Buddhist, Shugendō, and Shintō beliefs, can be traced there.

Especially for the three days after 12th March, towards the end of the ritual, the practice of Dattan that takes place between Katen (the fire deity) and Suiten (the water deity) is reminiscent of diverse festivals from the Silk Road.

Encounter with Shuni-e Ritual of Tōdai-ji Temple

In the practice of Dattan, eight monks in the role of Hachiten deities wearing Dattan caps trot around the “Shumidan” in the Nigatsu-dō Hall, to the sound of a bell as a signal.

There is a dichotomy in the role of the Fire deity (Katen) with its torch and the role of the Water deity (Suiten) with its water dispenser. Upon the signal of the Shushi-priest, Katen leaps up and pokes the burning torch into the sanctuary, until sparks fly. In response, Suiten acts as a fire extinguisher, spraying kōzui (“sacred water”) everywhere.

The prayer forms of the Shushi-priest who invokes incantations and makes esoteric signs while engaging in the "trotting practice" where he trots around the Shumidan and goes out to the sanctuary prostrating himself, have become “Shushi-bashiri (Shushi-runnning practice)” over time. It later became a performing art in its own right.

Sarugaku masters began to act on behalf of Shushi-priests, which ultimately became the art of Sarugaku.
From the middle of the Kamakura period onward, Shushi-bashiri became the performing arts of Okina Sarugaku and Tsuina (demon chasing ceremony).

Later in the Muromachi period, Zeami developed Sarugaku Noh, which was refined into a stylised form of drama, the Nohgaku theatre.


This essay appears in Miro Ito's photobook Signs of the Intangible  published in January 2023.

Noh play Ema performed by Noh actor, Tomoyuki Takeda (Photo by Miro Ito)

Signs of the Intangible is a collection of photographs by photo artist MIRO ITO, which captures the history of Japan's 1400-year "mind-and-body-unity” culture from a unique perspective.

Introducing "body-and-soul-scapes" where Japanese prayers and belief in dedicatory, repentance interact, including Gigaku and Bugaku masks that were introduced over 1400 years ago, Noh theatre created in the 14th century, and the 20th century avant-garde Butoh and modern dance. With 85 photographs (including new and unpublished works), it also serves as the catalogue accompanying the international exhibitions series.