お水取り, Omizutori, quite literally is the drawing forth (tori) of water (mizu), but the most famous and pictorally represented aspect of this yearly festival is the part where stuff is on fire (which is actually called Otaimatsu). Priests walk huge flaming torches back and forth along the porch of Nigatsu-do and shake them in certain places. If you have sparks fall on you, it's supposed to be good luck.
Different combinations of the spectacular event happen on different days, but the 12th presents 11 torches instead of 10, and visitors are circulated through by the crowd control machine that is the Japanese Way. Other nights, you just have to get there early and camp out if you want to see anything. The 12th is also the night of the "mysterious" water-drawing ritual, or actual Omizutori. Which happens at about 2am, making it a lot less accessible (trains don't run after about midnight, so you are walking or taking cabs from that time on.. and you better be staying the night in Nara, for this). I decided that I wanted to see it this year, because I was never going to travel all the way to Nara on a school night and stay up til 2, and this year, the 12th of March fell on a Saturday.
Nigatsu-do is part of Nara's iconic Todai-ji, home of the huge Buddha. 二月堂, Nigatsu-do is literally the hall (do) of the second month (nigatsu). And before you say, well then why do they have all their special events in March (三月), allow me to introduce myself: Hi, I'm Emily, and I'm obsessed with calendars.
I discovered this preoccupation most solidly when I chose the fasti as my topic for study and presentation in the ICCS Rome program (I just went looking for that photo and saw some rad photos which make me amazed again that I got to go to that program!), but here in Japan, it just means that the New Year's gift of a horoscope calendar book (given by one of my adult students) was very well placed. To make a short story long, the old Japanese calendar had 1/1 this year on our Gregorian February 3rd, so the old calendar's "second month" would actually be happening in the modernly conceived "third month," and so on. (If you care about this as much as I do, check out the wiki page on it too.)
So Nigatsu-do is pretty much named after its biggest event, the March drawing of mystical water. The water actually comes out of an unassuming-looking building at the bottom of the steps leading up to the hall.
And of course I was going to see that. Flash and fire and accessibility may seem awesome, but quiet mystical water is more my bag. Who needs trains? I'll walk across the city, my 10am wakeup be damned.
Now as you may already be mentally protesting to your silly blogging author, the 12th of March this year also happened to fall on the day after the 11th of March, which would be the day that a massive earthquake and tsunami completely tore apart the north-eastern part of the country. And I went to Omizutori anyway. I don't have much to say for that, other than there didn't seem to be much reason to cancel the plans. My traveling companion and I saw the last few torches, I took some grainy video, and then we put on every last layer we could find, and settled in to wait.
Spent some of that time exploring the area around Nigatsu-do, got a calligraphy page (as mentioned in the pilgrimage post), managed to get in to one of the small rooms around the outer wall of the hall, where we could hear the priests chanting and clattering around in their wooden clogs inside, and could see only the glow of maybe candles through the slats. The chanting was hypnotic. We meditated, we sat. It was cold. We had some sweet bean mochi and tea at a little shop that was staying open all night. Then we went down and camped in a spot right next to the door of the well house.
Part of the reason Otaimatsu is more photographed is that the actual Omizutori prohibits flash, and is very very dimly lit. They extinguish all the electric lights and proceed by torch up and down the steps, drawing the water and carrying it up to the hall, in all three times.
I took some video, partly because the lighting prevented any but the blurriest photos, and partly because I wanted to get the unearthly droning of the musical accompaniment. If you click through here, it'll only take you to the album associated with the post-midnight stuff. For pre-midnight, click the photo up above.
By the time they were finished drawing the water, it was way too cold and I was not Buddhist enough to attend the Dattan part of it, especially because I thought it would be a lot like the earlier meditation time, and we would need special badges to get in, which we did not have (and which we had not needed previously only because one of the door guys took pity on our idiocy). So we grabbed a cab back to the hotel and hostel area.
I assumed the following day would be a too-tired-to-enjoy wash, but it was actually really nice. We walked around Nara, checked out some lovely park areas, skipped a museum, and enjoyed the sunshine until it was time for dinner (Vietnamese!).