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See also: Hemp in religion.

Shinto hemp ceremony in Gunma prefecture (1990)
Shinto priests carrying cannabis plants in Shikoku (1990)


Jinja Matsuri in ****-machi

I lived and worked in northern **** prefecture from 1996-1998. In my spare time I rode my mountain bike all over the northern part of the prefecture. One of my favorite treks took me to a village not far from where I was living. There were many steep hills surrounding the village. Anyway, on one Saturday in late June of 1997 I left my bike at the bottom of one of these hills (I had climbed almost all of them), confident that of course no one would steal the bike (it did disappear once, but was found a few hundred feet away under the shed of a farmer who had pinned a carefully-written note in dictionary english to the seat: “I seize own’s bicycle under rain” – he had moved it to get it out of the rain). The village people were used to me by then and would always bow and ask me how I was enjoying the village, and would remind me to be sure to come to the “*****” (a word I didn’t understand) ceremony in late July at the local Shinto shrine.

So on this one occasion I started up the trail going up this one small mountain, only to be met by a number of polite farmers who had come sprinting over from their work in a nearby potato field, bowing apologetically, blocked my way up the mountain path, then ‘politely’ escorted me down to where my bicycle was parked. They told me in Japanese that I shouldn’t go up the mountain because ‘it was about to start raining and the mountain is very dangerous in the rain’ (there wasn’t a cloud in the sky that particular day, and I had learned to hear such expressions for what they really meant, as ‘it’s none of your dang business why we don’t want you to go up the mountain’)

Back in my town, the following Wednesday I taught my local weekly English gig at the local police station, where I was on friendly terms with the local police. This week there was a weird tension in the air, and at one point the chief of police came into the lesson to participate. He stood there smoking and whispering to another officer, and I caught bits of their conversation in Japanese (which I wasn’t supposed to understand) “…*****-machi no mondai…” (‘the problem in ***** village’, the village where I had been escorted off the trail leading up the mountain). Then later the conversational part of the lesson turned to the discussion of ‘drugs’ in America. All sorts of questions: did I personally know anyone in America who ‘took’ cannabis. How about in Japan? I started to get a real case of the creeps: under the eyes of constant scrutiny in my town and in a very visible government position I had been extremely careful and had never gone near any cannabis while within the borders of Japan, so what were these guys getting at? The lesson ended amiably and nothing further was said, at least outwardly, though after having been in Japan for awhile already I had definitely learned to read social atmospheres as an indicator as to what was really going on apart from what was being said.

Later in July, I finally put it all together: In the company of a group of Japanese friends I went to ****-machi’s shrine festival. As we stood in the front part of the shrine grounds a group of men wearing headbands appeared at the foot of the mountain I had been blocked from hiking on. They were carrying something enormous which at closer glance turned out to be a huge bunch of dried hemp plants ‘from last year’, which of course I recognized instantly, bound together in a sort of column. The distinctive leaves had been stripped except at the very top of the bundle, and the whole thing was about 20 feet [6 metres] high. They stood it upright in a clearing and anchored guy lines to keep it upright.

The ceremony consisted of young men standing in a circle around the huge hempen column with their backs to the column, and trying to set fire to it by tossing flaming torches backwards over their shoulders. They tried to aim for the leafy crown of the column, and eventually they hit it, and it began to burn. Eventually the guy lines holding the whole thing up burned too, and it collapsed in a deluge of sparks and a familiar smell.

As so often as I had experienced in Japan, one of the local English-speakers approached me to tell me about the whole ceremony, as if I hadn’t been able to figure out what was going on. With him was the chief of police from ****. They explained that the large column was made out of ‘rice stalks’ (I smiled and nodded, and naughtily said in Japanese “Oh! single stalks of rice plants 18 ‘shaku’ high growing on a mountain? omoshiroi naa! [“interesting, huh!]”) and that the ceremony was intended to pray for a good rice harvest. The local people, he said, had in former times woven cloth from the stalks of these ‘special, very high-growing rice plants’ and this ceremony was a holdover from those times. I knew this was bulls**t and they knew it was bulls**t; I wondered if they knew that I knew that it was bulls**t?

Months later I was in **** city and visiting a place that did indigo dyeing. During our conversation about hemp and textiles I was not surprised to learn that the ‘hemp ceremony’ of ****-machi was famous all over the prefecture. I learned that the village had special permission to continue to grow hemp on one mountain, for the shrine festival.

So what had happened, I presume, was that when I was going up the mountain there I had been intercepted by local farmers who thought that I was just another gaijin who was after their hemp. Truth was, at the time I had *no* idea that there was hemp growing on the mountain there, and that due to the current twisted way that people are taught to think about hemp today in Japan I would not have gone near the place for fear of embarrassing my employer.

Maybe next time I visit I will bring the villagers some of the indigo hemp cloth I spun and dyed years ago while living in California, as an offering in their hemp shrine.

by ‘Roger’

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