Kadomatsu in Sendai: An Old-School Japanese New Year

Kadomatsu in Sendai: An Old-School Japanese New Year

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Picture: freeangle / PIXTA(ピクスタ) (left); Nyri Bakkalian (right)
You may have heard of kadomatsu, Japan's traditional New Year decoration. But did you know of this old-school variation from the Edo era?

Kadomatsu (門松), a decoration displayed prominently beside home doorways, businesses, and offices, are an important New Year’s tradition in Japan. These days, kadomatsu commonly has pine sprigs worked around three bamboo stalks, sliced diagonally and bound together with straw. Sometimes it features other elements. However, this is its most common configuration. It even appears even in emoji form as 🎍.

Kadomatsu in Sendai are visibly different. They are a remnant of life in Sendai during Date rule. Almost completely lost since the Second World War, some devoted locals have revived the practice over the past decade.

In their long history, they have been an important part of the backdrop of New Year’s in Sendai, and have been a quiet equalizer between people of many castes and careers. In time for the New Year 2022 holiday, let’s explore this local twist on a well-known tradition!

Kadomatsu: Vessel for the New Year Gods

A modern kadomatsu. (source, public domain)

Before we talk about Sendai-style kadomatsu, let’s take a moment to understand kadomatsu overall.

A kadomatsu is part of the assortment of new year’s decorations displayed in Japanese homes and businesses. Its pine represents continuity, and its cut bamboo represents sincerity and straightness. When present, plum represents new life. They are a form of goshintai, a vessel for a kami to inhabit. Goshintai are also called mitamashiro. The most common form of goshintai are usually mirrors. Their most common placement is in the inner sanctum of a Shinto shrine.

Kadomatsu serve as one of the goshintai for the Toshigami-sama, the deity of the new year. Together with kadomatsu, the displays will also include kagami mochi, stacked rice cakes. The home, business, or establishment welcomes the Toshigami-sama as an honored guest. The decorations stay up until about the 7th of January or the 15th in western Japan. After that, they are ritually burned.

New Year’s Celebrations, Date Style

Kadomatsu serve as one of the goshintai for the Toshigami-sama, the deity of the new year. Share on X

Sendai-style kadomatsu formed an important backdrop to New Year’s under Date rule and the decades immediately thereafter.

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For the warrior population, New Year’s in Sendai under the Date was a lively month-long affair. On New Year’s Day, the retainers who lived in and around the castle town came up to offer their respects to the Date daimyo. At Sendai Castle, a lot of noisemaking also happened during New Year’s Day. The clan oversaw the first firing of guns and blowing of horagai signaling conches.

On the 3rd was a field exercise called Nohajime (野始め “first field”)․ Elements of the clan’s army gathered around Matsumori Castle, a Muromachi-era fortification in what today is Izumi ward. Shogunate law constrained fighting forces’ activity, so the clan disguised it as a falconry hunt.

Next, on the 4th, the vassals who lived far away came up to offer their new year’s greetings to the lord. People often got snowed in, so travel time was necessary. On the 5th came the year’s first archery practice. Archery had a religious purpose, as the sound of bowstrings is said to drive off misfortune. A linked-verse poetry contest came on the 7th, and the year’s first recitation of the Heart Sutra, on the 8th. On the 11th, council meetings steering the Date clan’s political business for the year began.

On the 14th came the start of the new (Noh) theater season, and Buddhist rites of penance on the 18th. Theater was an important form of performing rites that symbolically cleared away old baggage.

Finally, from the 22nd to the 29th, the clan held a goma, a fire ritual from esoteric Buddhism intended to lead people to higher spiritual attainment. This ritual closed out a full new year’s month.

Parts of the Sendai Kadomatsu

Sendai kadomatsu - visual description
Parts of a Sendai-style kadomatsu. Image by the author.

There are five major components of a Sendai-style kadomatsu, as depicted in the diagram above.

The most common modern form of kadomatsu are a single stand. Butr Sendai-style kadomatsu make an arch. Each side has a central support pillar called a shinbashira, often made of chestnut.

Surrounding the base of each is the oniuchigi, a base structure made of 3 or 12 wooden planks. Tied to the shinbashira is a pine branch chosen for three levels of branches. Attached to the top of the pine branches, arching inward toward each other, is a pair of bamboo branches.

Finally, a section called a kendai spans the two sides. This is a bamboo pole enshrouded by a sacred shimenawa rope, underlining the kadomatsu’s role as temporary goshintai. Hanging from the center are paper streamers as seen on shimenawa at shrines, together with dried persimmon or other seasonal items.

Biggest Kadomatsu In Town

Sendai-style kadomatsu graced many a gate of large and small homes, businesses, and offices in the Edo period. But the biggest instance of Sendai-style kadomatsu belonged to the Date family itself. It stood in front of Sendai Castle’s main gate, regardless of whether the daimyo was there or away on rotation in Edo. Its pines had five or seven levels of branches rather than the more common three. Kadomatsu usually match a doorway in scale, and Sendai Castle’s main gate was massive. 65.6 feet (20m) wide, 41 feet (12.5m) high, and 22 feet (7m) deep. This kadomatsu was, in a word, massive.

Eight families who held the title of Onkadomatsu agenin 御門松上げ人 were responsible for its construction. The Onkadomatsu agenin ritually purified themselves before starting this task of harvest and construction. They gathered the various components from the forests of Nenoshiroishi. Nenoshiroishi is now part of Sendai’s Izumi ward, not too far from Matsumori Castle. Today, this is part of Sendai City and parts of it remain forested, but back then, it was some distance north of the castle town, and even wilder.

The domain rewarded these eight kadomatsu-making families. Among their privileges was partially being excused from the domain’s taxes.

Sendai Castle’s gate with kadomatsu on display. Digital painting by the author.

Sendai Kadomatsu in their Heyday

Through it all, Sendai kadomatsu stood over doorways where generations of visitors passed. In this sense, they were an equalizer across the old social castes. Share on X

While Sendai Kadomatsu were part of the new year’s observances of the warrior caste in Sendai Castle town, they were an important part of the overall backdrop to New Year’s in Sendai.

The commoner population had its own month-long rhythm to the new year’s first month. Each household and business would send a representative around the castle town, decked out in their finest attire, to offer new year’s greetings at different districts and storefronts of colleagues and relations.

Often these visitors– called reisha 礼者– brought New Year’s gifts along, things like fans, furoshiki, and fabric. Because these visitors often touched the wooden stand holding the kagami mochi mentioned above, locals called these visitors otekake. These visits went neighborhood by neighborhood. The first were on the 1st and the last on the 23rd. All of this was against the backdrop of business and life starting to pick up anew for the new year. Meanwhile, the warrior population throughout the Sendai castle town, even amidst the Date clan’s broader New Year’s customs and rituals, observed a similar pattern of visits.

Through it all, Sendai kadomatsu stood over doorways where generations of visitors passed. In this sense, they were an equalizer across the old social castes. The new year’s gods smiled down upon lord and vassal, merchant and farmer, artisan and priest alike.

A Kadomatsu Revival

A beautiful wintertime Sendai kadomatsu.

After the Boshin War, Sendai-style kadomatsu slowly fell out of favor in the Meiji era. By the end of the Second World War, the practice had effectively vanished. However, over the past decade as of this writing, local efforts have revived this briefly lost practice. Spearheading this is Kokoro no Furusato, an organization devoted to preserving the memory of Edo period Sendai and reviving lost customs like the Sendai kadomatsu. It makes reference materials available as part of its educational efforts, and some of them appear in the citations below.

Among the particularly visible places around Sendai where you can see it today is Aoba-jinja. This is the shrine in Sendai’s Aoba ward that enshrines the deified Date Masamune, the city’s founder. You can find another at Zuihoden, Masamune’s mausoleum.

Much of the Date clan’s new year’s traditions have disappeared since 1871. Because of the work of devoted locals in bringing it back, Sendai kadomatsu is one unique remnant of them that endures.

I’d like to think the new year’s spirits, and Masamune himself, would both be happy.

What to read next

Sources

  • Brian Bocking. A Popular Dictionary of Shinto (Lincolnwood, Ill. : NTC Publication Group, 1997). pp. 172-173, 209.
  • Dentō no Sendai Kadomatsu wo Fukugen Suru.” Kokoro no Furusato homepage. Accessed 29 December 2021.
  • Goma.” Central Shugendo Training Center in Kanto. Head Temple Takao-san Yakuo-in Official Site Accessed 29 December 2021.
  • k_yamamuro. “Kadomatsu – Japanese New Year’s Decorations.” Tr. Hilary Keyes. Accessed 28 December 2021.
  • Kobayashi Seiji. Date Masamune. (Tokyo: Yoshikawa Kobunkan, 1978), p. 35.
  • Kokubun-shi.” Harimaya.com. Accessed 28 December 2021.
  • Mihara Ryōkichi. Kyōdoshi Sendai Mimibukuro. (Sendai: Hōbundō, 1983), pp. 59-62, 127-130.
  • Noriko Otsuka. “Falconry: Tradition and Acculturation.” International Journal of Sport and Health Science 2006 Volume 4 Issue Special Issue 2006. Pages 198-207.
  • Sendai no Dentōteki na Kadomatsu, Gozonji Desu ka?” Kokoro no Furusato homepage. Accessed 29 December 2021.
  • Sendai Shi-shi Volume 1 (Sendai-shi: Sendai Shi-shi Hensan Iinkai, 1974), p. 110.
  • Yuisho.” Aoba Shrine homepage. Accessed 29 December 2021.

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Nyri Bakkalian

Dr. Nyri A. Bakkalian is an author, recovering academic, raconteur, and Your Favorite History Lesbian. Her PhD thesis focused on the Boshin War in the Tohoku region. She is the author of "Grey Dawn: A Tale of Abolition and Union" (Balance of Seven Press, 2020) and "Confluence: A Person-Shaped Story" (Balance of Seven Press, 2022). She hosts Friday Night History on anchor.fm/fridaynighthistory and the secret to her success is Arabic coffee. She misses Sendai daily.

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