Muneage (Ridge-pole ceremony), c. 1930.



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Muneage, ridge-pole ceremony, c. 1930.

“Happily Japan has not yet lost altogether the individuality of the home which her houses represent. When a house is built, therefore, the owner, especially if he himself is to live in it, first holds the cleansing ceremony of the elected site. This is usually done by a Shinto priest, who conducts the simple purification ceremony, always of course on a propitious day, after which the building may begin.

“With the rapidity of Japanese house-building the ‘ridge-pole ceremony’ follows very soon after the consecration of the site. Often the timber has been cut to size, dove-tailed, and the framework arranged in part before the site of the land is actually consecrated.

“When therefore the framework of the house has been set up and the ridge-pole put in place the important ceremony of Muneage is held. Now this differs according to the district in Japan, and also not a little in relation to the size of the house and the ability of the house-owner to ‘foot the bill’ to cover the cost. What is that cost? Well, it is calculated largely by the capacity of the builders’ men to consume sake on that day.

“And it is extraordinary how well-trained is the average carpenter, joiner, plasterer, bricklayer and all the others who have anything to do with the construction of a house, especially on Muneage day! And of course it is a day on which those whose duty is already done on the house, those who are actually working, and those who at some future time are likely to work on it, all seem mysteriously to congregate to see how things are progressing, and to join in chasing away the devils and in wishing god-speed to the completion of the house … At all events, it is generally a surprise to the owner of the house on Muneage day to see the number of workmen who claim to have a hand in contributing to his future home and happiness. The number temporarily flatters him.

“… But before ‘the loaves and fishes’ there is a serious religious office. This may be performed by the Shinto priest, if the house-owner can afford it … The Muneage stage is set by the carpenters. The most striking ‘set-piece’ is perhaps the symbolic imitation bow and arrow drawn taut and ready for firing, high over the ridge-pole itself. The arrow is aimed toward the evil direction to drive away the devils determined to pollute the sacred site and home … Then the Shinto priest, on a special platform erected near the ridge-pole, performs his office by reciting prayers, accompanied by the ceremonial clapping of hands and the casting of salt into the various corners of the building as the traditional Japanese symbol of purification.

“If the owner cannot read the wind to pay for a priest, the performance of the builder or one of his foremen, though perhaps not quite so sartorially impressive, or so sacramentally reverential, is more thrilling. He climbs monkey-like to the top of the ridge-pole, and there, after a series of gymnastics, during which he seems to be hanging on most of the time by his eyelids, he goes through the office, maybe somewhat more perfunctorily than the professional priest, which his workmen waiting impatiently below in thirsty silence.

“The religious part of the ceremony is soon over, especially if performed by the builder or his foreman. Doubtless the workmen see to this. Then appears the sake, and for them all begins the more inspiring part of the day. They usually assemble within the framework of the building, and round a fire made of the wood left over. The carpenters always conspire of course to leave plenty over.

“On it they warm their sake, and high jinks continue until evening, when, if it is in the country, they rollick home in procession like a ship in a storm, singing through the village, to be reminded the next morning of Muneage by a ‘fat head’. There are naturally some absentees from work the following day, and sometimes an excusably impromptu strike.”

Muneage, or Ridge-Pole Ceremony”, by A.F. Thomas, Travel in Japan, Vol. 6 No. 1, 1940

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