13-14 March 2019
It begins with a long mournful drone on conch shells. The sound fills the air like a lament as the four players come onto the stage.

Two by two the rest of the cast arrives – the four heavenly warrior kings, the “rhythm section” with click sticks, rattles and bells, the Yashajin priestesses, and the Administrator with the dragon staff. We sit entranced as the sacred ritual of the Seiryū-e Festival unfolds on the balcony off the Main Hall of the Kiyomizudera Temple in Kyoto.

Kiyomizudera Temple,

one of the most celebrated sites in Japan, was founded in 778 CE. Spread gracefully over the side of a mountain in eastern Kyoto the temple comprises thirty Buddhist buildings. Most of the temple buildings have been burned to the ground and rebuilt time and time again. Those that still stand date from the 1600’s, a testament to the perseverance of the faithful, and the deeply held recognition of the site as sacred. The temple is greatly revered throughout Japan.

Once there was a monk called Kenshin who dreamed an old man in white told him to go north and find a crystal spring. Kenshin discovered a pure, gushing waterfall on Mt. Otowa where he met a hermit who requested Kenshin carve a special tree into a likeness of Kannon Bodhisattva. The hermit disappeared but Kenshin kept watch over his hut. One day a hunter appeared and was admonished by Kenshin for hunting on the sacred ground of Kannon. Deeply moved the hunter built a temple to enshrine the eleven-headed thousand-armed Kannon Bodhisattva as the main object of worship and named it Kiyomizu, meaning “pure water,” after the clarity of the waterfall. Thus was the beginning of this remarkable hallowed site. For more than 1200 years it has been a site of sacred ritual and devotion, and no doubt will be for many years to come.

We first went to Kiyomizudera in the evening to see the illuminations that are a part of the Hanatoro Festival held every spring and fall,

and returned the next day for the Seiryū-e, or Blue Dragon Festival, arriving early to further explore the temple buildings.

Near the Main Hall is this small shrine of nearly 200 curiously clothed Buddhas.

They are Jizo, named after the Bodhisattva of the same name, and have been placed there by grieving parents who have lost young children. It is believed that stillborn children and those that die very young cannot cross the Sanzu River into the afterlife since they have had no chance to accrue merit. Jizo is there to protect and help them in their task of piling stones by the river to help their parents reach the afterlife. Sadly their task is never done as demons are constantly knocking down the piles. The statues are dressed as a way to thank Jizo, and in red as it is the colour of safety. Poor children.

And this is a temple calligrapher stamping and writing in a goshuincho.

It is a “red stamp book” available for purchase at most temples and shrines throughout Japan. A red stamp can be obtained at each site visited, thus showing proof of pilgrimage to that temple or shrine.

Now it is time to make our way to the stage for the Dragon Festival. We arrive early and watch as the priest in glorious purple robes prepares the necessary implements that will be needed for the rituals to follow.

The Seiryū-e Festival is new by Japanese standards, having started only 20 years ago. It was created by the priests of the temple and local businesses. The spectacular and elegant costumes, and the equally spectacular dragon, which were designed by Academy Award winner Emi Wada, show influences from China and Japan, with both classic styling and modern flair.

The festival may be new but the mythology behind it is ancient. Seiryū-e, the blue dragon, is the traditional animal-deity guardian of the eastern border of Kyoto, with the temple as a sort of headquarters since there is a legend that a dragon came to drink from the waterfall every night. It is believed that Seiryū-e is an incarnation of the goddess Kannon.

As we watch, the four heavenly warrior kings arrive in pairs,

followed by three Yashajin representing the deity Yasha who guards the temple grounds and disrupts evil karma.

Finally the Administrator, holding the dragon staff arrives.

Handing his staff to an attendant

he receives blessings from the priest

and then blessings of holy water from the lead Yashajin.

In the background the musician priests arrive. Finally all are assembled.

And now it comes. To a soundscape of click sticks, rattles, bells, and the chanting of namu-kannon namu-kannon over and over, the dragon arrives, the pole bearers weaving back and forth giving life to this eighteen-metre-long god creature, a reincarnation of Kannon the goddess of mercy.

Finally the pole bearers kneel, the dragon rests and more rituals are performed.

The dragon leaves, and two by two all the players leave,

except the Yashajin who administer blessings to devotees.

But it is not over yet. The dragon, with its entourage, weaves its way around the temple grounds, down the stairs opposite the balcony,

and then disappears from sight. But we can still hear it. From the top of a staircase at a different location in the temple grounds once again the retinue enters in pairs, each pair making its way down the long flight of stairs, and assembling like sentinels on either side.

Once again the Seiryū-e appears,

the main character in a dynamic parade through the town for the dragon to survey its territory and those whom it protects.

And all the while throughout the whole thing there is the long mournful drone of conch shells, the rhythmic sound of rattles and click sticks, bells and chanting, and as the incarnation of Kannon performs, the audience intones the long drawn out sound of namu-kannon, namu-kannon, namu-kannon. The dragon roars.

The entire reverent powerful event is one long prayer for peace and to expel bad luck.

If you’re ever in Kyoto mid-March don’t miss it.

Next post: It’s time to return to Malaysia for a trip down the Kinabatangan River.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2020.