In most parts of Japan, 鬼 (Oni- demons) are not venerated. It’s no surprise, however, keeping in mind how these supernatural creatures are often depicted mischievous at best, pure evil at worse. In Kunisaki peninsula however, a unique festival celebrates demons as if they were gods. This rare matsuri has a very interesting historical background and it’s unlike any other festivals you can attend to in Japan. Welcome to Shujo-Onie.
The reason why demons are the good guys in Kunisaki Peninsula is unclear but it is said this tradition is 1000 years old! Oni bring happiness and good luck here, and they are very well loved characters, represented often throughout the region! You can easily find Oni merchandising in this area.
Two temples celebrate Shujo-Onie alternatively in Kunisaki City: Iwato-Ji, where I went, celebrates it on uneven years. Jobutsu-Ji holds the event on even years.
When a man wears the Oni mask, he becomes possessed by the demon.
Shujo-Onie’s origins are as mysterious as the matsuri itself. Currently, two demons purify and bless with fire torches the people that come to Iwato-Ji temple. But there were three before. Tradition says that, when a monk wears the Oni mask, he becomes possessed by the demon. Because of this, he has to respect some boundaries to be able to turn back to normal after the ritual. It is said that the last time a man wore the third mask, he out stepped the sacred grounds and became permanently possessed by the demon, only to die shortly after. Then, the mask mysteriously disappeared. No one knows where it is, although it is said it “flew away” towards Kunisaki city. Today, only two masks remain.
The last time a man wore the third demon mask, he out stepped the sacred grounds and became permanently possessed by the demon, only to die shortly after.
As you can see in the next photo, the people that will receive the Oni spirit can’t just walk around freely. For example, they are carried to the wooden structure behind the main temple building, where Shujo-onie is held. This way, he’s kept impurity-free for the ritual.
This demon festival revolves around fire and its purification properties. People light up bonfires and parade bamboo torches while the high monks perform a chanting session to initiate and carry the ritual.
This is no quick process, but a delicate ceremony that unravels at its own pace. It involves many people, from local monks that come from other temples to take part in Shujo-Onie to numerous helpers and participants. Before the two Oni “come to life”, monks chant various sutra for a long while, purifying the participants. You can’t rush the summoning of the Oni, all the steps must be performed.
The ambiance is bewitching, with the twinkling fires illuminating the forest and temple. You can feel the excitement of the attendees and the solemnity of the monks. Such a different matsuri, incredibly complex and so fierce!
Shujo-Onie unravels throughout the night and culminates in the two demons first blessing the attendees, then running to town looking to purify people in their houses. Can you imagine two demons and their entourage, at 1:00 am, banging on your door so you can get purified by fire? Would you open your door?
And how exactly do you get purified you ask? Well first you crouch in a circle of chanting and running monks holding torches -basically a rainfall of fire and ashes-, and then one of the demons will hit you with the torch on your shoulder while blessing you.
You crouch in, basically, a rainfall of fire and ashes. Then one of the demons will hit you with the torch on your shoulder while blessing you.
After that, monks will give you a mochi (yay) and you’re on your way, purified by a man possessed by a benevolent demon. I told you this matsuri was unique.
Although the Oni purification is the main event of Shujo-Onie , keep an eye open for other exclusive traditions like water ablution: brave Shujo-Onie assistants (called Taireshi) will take a dip in the freezing cold temple’s pond to get ready for the ritual. Some of them will jump into it several times and even swim! The attendees cheer for them lively while all this is happening… I cheered vigorously but also I desperately wanted to hand them a blanket and a hot yuzu-honey drink. It was so cold!!
Heading to the hotel for the night, well past 1:00 am, I could only think of how deep and different this Japanese tradition is, and how lucky I was to have witnessed it. There’s really so much more Japan culture out there, awaiting to be discovered.
Considering how there’s almost no information about Shujo-Onie online, I’m honored to bring it to you. Want more? Check out my Oita video:
Need help planning your trip to Oita or want to know how to attend Shujo-Onie? Tourism Oita is here to help!
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