Hatsumode:  New Year’s Shrine Visit


“Church is who we are, not where we go….” ~Unknown

Year of the Rooster at Futenma Shrine

Year of the Rooster at Futenma Shrine

Shrine Entrance

Shrine Entrance

Jody and I headed out with every intention to visit our local Shinto Shrine on New Year’s Eve – one of the most important dates to celebrate in Japan and much of the Far East – to hear the ringing of the shrine’s bells.  Futenma Gongen is just a short drive from where we live, and a Shrine that Jody can see from the Navy Hospital on Camp Foster where she works.  However, with me coming down with a serious case of the flu/respiratory infection, we opted instead to visit the shrine as most Japanese do, in the few days following New Year’s Day.  After all, it is bad form in Japan for anyone to go to “church” impure and soiled with sickness….

Talisman for the New Year

Talisman for the New Year, including evidently lucky-dice!

new-years-2016-2017-futenma-shrine-visit-proud-celebrationsHatsumode (初詣) in Japan is the first visit to a shrine or temple during the first few days of January where family and relatives pray together for a fortunate year ahead.  Some of the most popular shrines (shrines are Shinto in Japan) and temples (which are Buddhist here) organize festivities with stalls that sell food, provide carnival-type games for this kids, and offer souvenirs and sweets like you might find at an old-tyme American county fair (See Shinto Shrines and Snake Oils for more).  And yes, I did have to get a great big bag of cotton candy, just as popular here as anywhere else in the world.

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Each year the shrine puts up a large ornately painted wood plaque with the New Year’s zodiac. This Year: Year of the Rooster!

new-years-2016-2017-futenma-shrine-visit-leaving-ema-wmWe went off to see the shrine for the first time during the afternoon of January 2nd.  Luckily we approached it from the direction where people queued up for entrance, and after passing a line extending at least a kilometer, we decided to come back on a more…reasonable day.  No doubt god understands.  Returning a couple of days later after Jody got off work we found the shrine still bustling with people, but with really no lines at all.  While this probably doesn’t meet the strict intent of visiting by the 3rd, we weren’t alone; there were plenty of Japanese doing the exact same thing!

Jody's Fortune, Not as Good as Mine!

Jody’s Fortune, Not as Good as Mine!

new-years-2016-2017-futenma-shrine-visit-tied-fortunes-wmPart of such a visit usually involved purchasing omikuji, which are fortune-telling strips of paper, selected by reaching in and hand-drawing one out of a large box of bound fortunes.  Jody and I each selected our fortunes, and after reading and sharing what lay in store for us (pretty much all good, like most fortunes), we left ours tied on wires strung near the shrine’s special pine tree.

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new-years-2016-2017-futenma-shrine-visit-new-year-talismans-2-wmThere are also a whole slew of talisman and lucky charms that can be purchased for a small donation, all of which promise to offer increased safety for drivers, prosperity in business, healthy babies for pregnant women, and even good exam results for students!  Of course most focus on love and health, rightfully so.  Jody and I decided to purchase two ema, small wooden plaques on which prayers can be inscribed.  One was to leave at the shrine with our prayer welcoming in the New Year, and the other to take home to add to our collection of ema we’ve collected from across Asian over the last 3.5 years.

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Leaving Our Ema

Leaving Our Ema

Prayers are also offered at the shrine or temple’s main altar.  After throwing some coins into a tamper-resistant donation collection box which can be found in front of every altar no matter how large or small, parishioners than grab a thick robe hanging down nearby and swirl it around to ring a connected bell a few times.  Finally, the faithful bow twice, clap their hands twice in front of their chest, pray, and when finished, bow one more time in respect prior to leaving.  Luckily for us Westerners, this procedure is pretty much the same at either Shinto Shrines or Buddhist Temples.  This time around, since the Shrine remained a crowded buzz of activity, Jody and I passed on offering prayers at the altar.

Leaving Our Ema

Leaving Our Ema

new-years-2016-2017-futenma-shrine-visit-kabura-ya-new-year-arrownew-years-2016-2017-futenma-shrine-visit-kabura-ya-turnip-headed-arrow-bulbFinally, we selected our New Year Kabura-ya (鏑矢, “turnip-headed arrow”).  This represents a particular type of arrow used by the samurai class of feudal lords of long-ago Japan.  Originally a way to announce approach and send messages, the bulbs on these arrow heads were designed to make a particular sound when fired.  Over time legend grew that such jangles could chase away bad kami, basically evil spirits.  Today, even carrying such an arrow, or placing it in your home can ward against evil spirits.  Our arrow rests safely and purposefully near the entrance to our condo.

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It’s true that church is not where we go.  While Jody and I are neither Shinto nor even church-goers at home, there is value is maintaining such positive, almost secular traditions, that are hinged at welcoming a future full of health and prosperity.  Church is, in fact, who we are and will be in the coming New Year of the Rooster 2017.

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Happy New Year from the Kings!

Yasukuni Shrine:  Enshrining Japan’s War Dead


“I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal.”  ~Colonel Curtis LeMay, Chief Architect of the Allied Strategic Bombing Campaign against Japan

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As Jody and I approached the Shrine from the west, my instantaneous thought was that its impact, physically, spatially and emotionally, was effusively worthy of its purpose.  Its entrance protected by two large, intimidating shishi lion-dogs, our journey through the shrine’s grounds took us under not just a single torii (shrine’s normally have one, which designates sacred ground; see Trampled Torii and Floating Torii for more), not even two, but three.  And they are perhaps the most impressive I have seen in all of our travels throughout Japan.

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First Torii (Steel)

The Daiichi Torii (Otorii), imposing in size, is the first of the three, found at the immediate entrance of the shrine’s grounds from the east.  First erected in 1921 and rebuilt in 1974, it was for a time the largest torii in Japan at over 75 feet tall over 100 feet wide.

Second Torii (Bronze) and Shrine Gate

Second Torii (Bronze) and Shrine Gate

The second Daini Torii (Seido Otorii) is encountered next.  Built in 1887, this remains the largest bronze torii in Japan.  Passing under this torii, a massive wooden cypress gate called the shinmon is confronted.  A commanding 20-foot-high structure built in 1934, each of its two massive swinging doors boasts an over-sized Chrysanthemum Crest, a symbol of imperial royalty.

Gate and Inner (Third) Torii

Gate and Inner (Third) Torii

Just feet beyond and through the final Chumon Torii built of cypress, Jody and I found ourselves at the apparent confluence of Shintoism and nationalism within all of Japan.

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tokyo-2016-yasunkuni-shrine-jody-entering-through-the-shrines-main-gatesYasukuni Jinja is a Japanese Shinto shrine, but one unlike all the others.  Dedicated to eirei, “hero spirits” who died in service of the Emperor of Japan during conflicts from 1867 to 1951, the shrine was specifically built to house the actual souls of the dead as kami, loosely translated to “spirits souls,” or what could be considered lessor deities.  Enshrinement is strictly a religious matter since one requirement post-WWII placed on Japan was a forced separation of State Shinto and the Japanese Government (“Church & State”).  The priesthood at the shrine has complete religious autonomy to decide to whom and how enshrinement may occur.  It is thought that enshrinement is permanent and irreversible by the current clergy, even though some surviving family members have formally requested removal of descendants.  In my opinion, what people can do – as in enshrining the dead, people can undue – as in removing souls previously enshrined.  People can get so lost in dogma….

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tokyo-2016-yasunkuni-shrine-nationalism-at-the-shrine-wmtokyo-2016-yasunkuni-shrine-ground-rulesThere certainly are some unusual facets to visiting this shrine, even to the very casual foreign gaijin visitor with limited experience or knowledge of such locations.  First, there is a Japanese flag flying not only from an official flagpole towering over the shrine, but also near the main hall, where visitors come to pay their respects and pray, on a religious structure selling shrine-related tokens, talismans and amulets.  Second, there are posted warnings in multiple languages (Japanese, Chinese, Korean and English) about what is and what is not permitted on shrine property.  Finally, and most surprisingly for Japan, there is posted and uniformed security here, which didn’t allow us to loiter or pause for photos of the main hall where those who came to commune with the dead pray and pay their respects.

Prayers for the Dead

Prayers for the Dead

Yasukuni enshrines and provides a permanent residence for the spirits of those who have fought on behalf of the Emperor, regardless of whether they died in combat, and eligibility is extended to government officials and even civilians as long as they died in service of the state.  Interestingly and fittingly, all civilians who died in Okinawa during the war, and Okinawa schoolchildren who died during evacuation from the island are also eligible and enshrined.

Paying Respects

Paying Respects

At proximate issue is that 1,068 of the enshrined kami at Yasukuni are convicted war criminals, some of whom were charged and found guilty of heinous crimes.  Depending on your frame of reference, the enshrinement of those individuals may not be such a bad thing – but please note that is not my claim.  The wider, larger, more looming issue throughout the Far East is that enshrinement as a kami typically carries absolution of earthly deeds, no matter what those exploits entailed.  More significantly, it elevates those enshrined souls literally to deity status, where the deceased are all worshiped as equal gods.

Fortunes

Fortunes

There are over 2,466,000 enshrined kami at Yasukuni.  This total includes not just members of the military, but hundreds of thousands of civilians as well, specifically women and students who were involved in relief operations on the battlefield or worked in factories in support of the war effort.  There are neither ashes, bodies or bones at the shrine, and enshrinement is not exclusive to people of Japanese descent.  Yasukuni has enshrined 27,863 Taiwanese and 21,181 Koreans.  And many more millions of kami of a much wider array of nationalities are enshrined at the nearby Chinreisha, dedicated to all those who lost their lives in conflicts worldwide.

Themes on the Shrine's Lanterns

Themes on the Shrine’s Lanterns

The Chinreisha is a small peripheral shrine constructed in 1965, and is dedicated to all those killed by wars or conflicts worldwide, regardless of nationality, but who are not “eligible” for enshrinement proper.  Most visitors who wish to balance their respects for all those who suffered, especially during WWII, make it a point to prayer here as well, just as Japanese Prime Minister Abe did very recently.

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There were not too many visitors on the Tuesday afternoon we visited.  Most were Japanese, many solitary visitors, but a few in smaller groups, who would approach the main hall almost one at a time.  The altar, draped in large white curtains adorned with the Imperial crest, hides details of the hall from everyone less those at prayer in front of the small opening in the drapes.  The Honden, built in 1872 and refurbished in 1989, is the main area where Yasukuni‘s enshrined deities reside and is generally closed to the public.  Behind the Honden is another smaller structure called the Reijibo Hoanden which houses the “Symbolic Registry of Divinities,” a handmade Japanese paper document that lists the names of all the kami enshrined.  Interestingly, this particular structure was built of quakeproof concrete in 1972 with a private donation from Emperor Hirohito, Imperial Emperor of Japan during the whole of WWII, himself.

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Those praying would clap their hands loudly, and then pause, some with heads bowed, some with hands held together in front in the internationally recognized symbol of prayer.  One gentlemen prayed for many, many minutes, standing stoically still, deep in thoughtful meditation.  I can only imagine the loss that this man was trying to reconcile.

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The word Yasukuni, taken from classical-era Chinese text of Zuo Zhuan, literally translates as “Pacifying the Nation.”  It was chosen by the Japanese Meiji Emperor when the shrine was founded in the latter half of the 19th century.  For many Japanese, it is the most important Shinto shrine in Tokyo.

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During the allied occupation of Japan in the late 1940s, a much-needed separation of church and state was forced on Japanese culture.  However, the shrine’s authorities and the Japanese government’s Ministry of Health and Welfare established a somewhat clandestine system in 1956 for the sharing of information regarding deceased war veterans.  Most of Japan’s war dead who were not already enshrined at Yasukuni were done so in this manner by April 1959, without much fanfare.

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Japanese war criminals prosecuted by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (MTFE), better known as the “Tokyo Trials,” were initially excluded from enshrinement.  But as time went on, government authorities began considering their enshrinement, along with providing veterans’ benefits to their survivors.  This movement gained significant momentum following the signature of the Treaty of San Francisco in 1951 which effectively returned peace between Japan and the Unites States, opening the way for a return of Japanese sovereignty.

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During Allied occupation of Japan from 1945-1952, the Allied General Headquarters (GHQ) planned to burn down the Yasukuni Shrine and build an entertainment venue in its place.  Lucky for Japan, and perhaps because of Divine intervention, two Western Priests Fathers Bruno Bitter and Patrick Byrne insisted that honoring war dead is the right and duty of citizens everywhere, even for the Japanese, and cooler heads prevailed as the decision was made not to destroy the important and sacred site.  At that time, the Health and Welfare Ministry began forwarding information on Class B and Class C war criminals (those not involved in the planning, preparation, initiation, or waging of the war) to Yasukuni Shrine authorities in 1959.  These individuals were gradually enshrined between 1959 and 1967, often without permission from surviving family members or wide knowledge within the government, or the public, and even of the Emperor.  As an independent religious institution, the governing Shinto priests were free to unilaterally do what they considered spiritually most appropriate.

An Unhappy Visitor

An Unhappy Visitor

In 1954, some local shrines started accepting enshrinement of war criminals from their local areas.  However, no convicted war criminals were enshrined at Yasukuni until after the parole of the last remaining incarcerated war criminals in 1958.

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Information on the fourteen most prominent Class A war criminals, which included the prime ministers and top generals from the war era (but not the Emperor himself, a mistake in my opinion), was secretly forwarded to the shrine in 1966.  Health and Welfare Ministry officials and Yasukuni representatives agreed during a secret meeting in 1969 that Class A war criminals judged at the Tokyo Trials were “able to be honored.”  The secrecy of these meetings however points to moralistic problems that those involved had or feared, especially since these same people decided not to make public the idea that Yasukuni would enshrine the worst of Japan’s convicted war criminals.  The actual timing for enshrinement was left to the discretion of the then Shrine’s head priest Fujimaro Tsukuba.  Tsukuba, not being entirely comfortable with the notion of elevating the worst of the worst to deity status and therein providing complete absolution for their horrific crimes and sins, delayed the enshrinement and died in March 1978 before giving his approval.

Former Japanese Prime Minister at the Tokyo Trials, Later Executed

Former Japanese Prime Minister at the Tokyo Trials, Later Executed

But things quickly changed.  The priest’s successor, Nagayoshi Matsudaira, personally rejected the Tokyo war crimes tribunal’s verdicts and enshrined the war criminals in a secret ceremony on October 17 of that same year, proclaiming them as “Martyrs of Showa.”

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Emperor Hirohito, Japan’s Emperor during WWII who was allowed to retain his position and status, visited the shrine as recently as 1975.  However, after finding out about this most questionable enshrinement, he was “displeased,” a finding held in private until memoirs were published after his death, and subsequently refused to visit the shrine.  His visit in 1975 was the last visit by a Japanese Emperor.

Purifying Waters

Purifying Waters

While Hirohito’s stance may seem prudent for the cultural leader of the nation, I suggest it’s for much more selfish reasons.  Hirohito’s evasive and opaque attitude about his own responsibility for the war and the fact he has claimed that the atomic bombings of Japan “could not be helped” imply strongly that he may have been more afraid that the enshrinement would reignite the debate over his own responsibility for the war…and the fact that he should have been tried and judged as Class A War Criminal No. 1.  But that’s just my opinion.  The details of the war criminals’ enshrinement eventually only became public only in 1979, but only minimal controversy resulted for the next several years.

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Today there is burning outrage in some quarters about the controversy surrounding Yasukumi Shrine.  No matter where you fall, It would indeed be shameful to erase a memorial to literally 2.5 million dead solely because of 14 very bad people.  Indeed, there are many, perhaps thousands or tens of thousands of people enshrined there that committed truly horrific acts of violence and depravity during the war, but who escaped prosecution and justice.  The very fact that Hirohito escaped justice throughout his life reflects the fallacy belittling the great many, the overwhelming majority, for the sins of the very few.  Remember, in any way, those that suffer the most are the poor, uneducated, and predominantly the innocent….  Remember, General LeMay, the American Army Air Corps Commander who directed the bombing of Japan resulting in 300,000-350,000 civilian dead and many more wounded, framed the debate best:  “I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal.”  In other words, objective judgment of right and wrong is a moving target, almost impossible to hit, while waging war.

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Now, the adjoining war museum, operated by the shrine, that is another story altogether.  But that subject is for another dedicated blog.  Stay tuned!

Itsukushima: The Shrine over the Sea


Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, overwater shinto shrine WM

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, tidal pools WMWith its brightly colored vermillion lacquered finish, the shrine is dramatically framed by the salty blue sea below and the lush green forest of Mount Misen rising high above. Although there are conflicting stories about exactly why the shrine was built almost entirely over the sea, it is a stunning sight no matter the reason. The reflection of the shrine in its surrounding waters makes for memorable photos, particularly in the theatrical light of an early morning sunrise or in the duskiness of the setting sun. But it is in sensing the spiritual sanctity of the place that makes a visit here so emotionally moving.

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, teapot WM

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, shrine lamps WMSince ancient times, it is said, the Japanese people have worshipped on the beaches below and in the woodlands surrounding Mount Misen (see The Fiery Passion of Mounting Mount Misen for more). With origins from as far back as the late 6th century, the Itsukushima shrine’s boardwalk, over-water construction is a result of the island’s sacred status: commoners were not allowed to set foot on the island and those who wished to visit had to remain offshore, so to speak. In fact, the traditional and still ceremonial approach to the shrine is by sea, passing through the famously imposing great “otorii” in the bay (see Floating Torii of Miyajima for more).  Today, visitors can hire a boat to take them through the otorii by sea, but only when the tide is up; this is an especially inviting excursion if the high tide occurs in the evening when the entire complex is bathed in warm light from the surrounding shores.

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, otorii gate across the shrine's tidal pools WM

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, purifying water 2 WMIt is possible to get some fabulously scenic views of the shrine from the areas that surround it east and west. But, if you have time – and it doesn’t take much, pay the inexpensive entrance fee and enjoy the serenity of walking through the shrine’s many passages where a visitor can truly appreciate the intricate curvature of the rooflines, recognize the different mythical creatures cast into the many hanging iron lanterns, and admire the beautifully finished doorways and woodwork. If you time your visit right, or if you are patient enough, you can experience many of the more remote corners of the shrine almost all to yourself. Take your time wandering through the meandering corridors, and be sure to take in the changing views from an almost infinite number differing angles and varying backgrounds of forest, water and adjacent shrines, temples and a five-story pagoda that can be spied over the treetops. Be forewarned through: the relative beauty of the shrine is much altered by the tides. Unless you visit near one of the highs, the shrine (and otorii) are often surrounded by rather unmemorable mud.  Jody and I decided to visit twice to take in different tidal ranges; I also went back in the rain to admire the quiet ambiance of this historical place.

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, Shinto Monk walking the shrine WM

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, protective foo dog 2 WMThe shrine’s present architectural form and style dates from about 1168, the time of its last major redesign and rebuild, when the shrine first started to become popular outside of the immediate region. However, the shrine has, on numerous occasions, been since damaged by fire and typhoon, and each time it was repaired, renovations also occurred which resulted in continual expansion and improvement. As its size and magnificence grew, the shrine’s grandeur eventually caught the imagination of the Japanese Imperial Court.  While there most likely will be some type of repair or renovation during your visit, the shear size of the place makes it easy to overlook such necessities.

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, lonely boardwalk WM

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, light from a chinese latern WMStarting in the late 12th century, the Japanese Imperial Emperor and Court paid a number of visits to the shrine, where the shrine experienced a marked degree of prosperity. But such stability was short-lived as the shrine’s influence declined in the 13th and 14th centuries. It is believed that the present-day layout dates from around 1325. Finally, in the mid-1500s, with regional conflicts settled and civil wars over, the shrine regained its reverence and grandeur of centuries past.

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, monk and priest geta (wooden clogs) WM

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, shinto shrine WMThe result of such a long evolution is a mish-mash of stylization which reflects the features of the particular periods when construction occurred. The shrine’s overall appearance, though, is most often considered a splendid example of Heian Period Shinden architecture, some saying the finest in all of Japan. This is the same style used at the time for the residences of the Imperial Court and noble class, and can be found throughout the old Imperial Palace in Kyoto.

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, silent boardwalks WM

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, shinto shrine at night WMIt’s interesting to note that no nails are used in the boardwalks, and spaces are provided to reduce any buoyant effect of an extreme tide or tidal surge. At such times, the stone lanterns lining the beaches on each side of the shrine are dismantled and set among the shrine’s corridors to provide additional weight against rising seas.

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, red shrine nuns 2 WM

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, leaving a prayer and wish (shrine ema) WMSince the shrine is built in the sea, its foundation posts are submerged in the water and decay rather easily. It is also constantly weathered and sometimes battered by rough seas and even typhoons. And although continual maintenance is thus required, visitors today are still able to see nearly the same shrine as the Heian Court did nearly 800 years ago when Itsukushima was first built.

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, ema boardwalk WM

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, Jody hide and seekOne of the most notably famous structures found within the shrine is the “floating” nōh stage. Built in 1680, it is unique in Japan as it rests completed upon the sea. Sacred dance (shin noh) is still performed here during the annual Peach Blossom Festival in April when traditional court dances in spectacular costumes and ornate masks are featured.

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, chinese foo dog (shisa shishi) WM

Sori-bashi (Arched Bridge)

Sori-bashi (Arched Bridge)

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, chinese foo dog (shisa shishi) 2 WMThis bridge, dating to 1557, also called the Imperial Messengers’ Bridge (Chokushi-bashi), was used by imperial messengers who crossed on important festive occasions. Due to the almost impassable slope of the span’s high arch, temporary stairs were assembled and placed on the bridge to allow for much easier passage. The bridge has been repaired several times since construction.

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, oriental-inspired shinto shrine arched bridge WM

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, empty celebratory sake barrels WMToday, the entire complex is registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is a designated “National Treasure” of Japan. About 3 million people a year come to see Itsukushima Shrine and its huge “floating” otorii gate on the sacred island of Miyajima. As one of the three great scenic views in all of Japan, you too, should go!  Be it an easy day-trip from neighboring Hiroshima, or have a stay in one of the island’s many ryokan, place this island on your Asian bucket list.  You won’t be disappointed.

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, peaceful day on the waterfront WM

 

Read more about Japan’s Floating Shrine over the Sea:

http://www.lonelyplanet.com/japan/western-honshu/miyajima/sights/religious/itsukushima-jinja#ixzz3nGf4EUKq

http://visit-miyajima-japan.com/en/culture-and-heritage/spiritual-heritage-temples-shrines/sanctuaire-itsukushima.html

What Does the Fox Say: Kyoto’s Fushimi-Inari Shrine


What does the fox say? It says it all – silently – at the Fushimi-Inari-Taisha Shinto Shrine, one of the most impressive visits one could make in all of Kyoto.

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14060715578_2141ddd704_bFoxes (kitsune), regarded as messengers of Inari, play important roles at Inari shrines. Like the song that went viral, there are hundreds of stone foxes scattered and hidden across the Fushimi Inari complex. Often they are depicted holding a granary key in their mouths, visual symbolism reflecting Inari as the protector of rice and cereals, a role so revered in ancient Japan that foxes are often referred to themselves as Inari.

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With endless expanses of crimson-colored wooden torii (See Trampled Torii for more on those iconic contours of the Far East) layered amongst a wooded and peaceful mountain spared from the city’s urban sprawl, the massive religious complex offers an escape to a spiritual world unto its own.

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14328992688_f96798e4a7_bJF4_029682Yes, it’s a Shinto Shrine. But this place is oh so much more. Ancient. Mysterious. Moving. Immense. Describing it as “just another shrine” would be like saying that the Vatican is just another church…. What Fushimi-Inari encompasses is an entire realm of various shrines large and small, nestled amid thousands of torii, all spread across an entire mountain just outside Kyoto proper. For me and Jody, our repeat visits to the shrine – during the day and at night – are some of our more memorable adventures in our flirtations to date anywhere in the Far East. It not only ranks as one of the most impressive sites in Kyoto, but it’s one of the most important to the Japanese people who live there. See Honeymoon’s Atomic Fireworks Saves Kyoto for more on what makes this locality so special.

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Fushimi Inari Taisha (伏見稲荷大社) is the lead shrine of Inari. Situated at the base of Inari Mountain, the complex consists of four major religious areas along with dozens and dozens of sub-shrines and alters winding through numerous trails spanning over 2.5 mils and ascending to the mountain’s peak 725 feet above.

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14801914150_8fc1376c87_b 14766524022_1a6a317b62_bInari was initially dedicated to the gods of rice and sake in 8th century Japan. But as the role of agriculture diminished, the Inari deities were repurposed more broadly as protectors of business and commerce. Thus, the guardian spirit or god Inari became the patron of business. Since times distant merchants and manufacturers have traditionally worshipped Inari. This explains, in fact, the shear and almost uncountable number of torii located here, of which over 10,000 are said to be standing. Each has been donated and inscribed by a Japanese business or business person thankful for their prosperity and in the hopes of gaining additional favor with the gods for the future. The resulting long tunnels of torii are some of the most iconic visions in Japan; the torii.

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14056204387_14037f94ec_bThe earliest structures were built in 711 CE, but were re-located in 816 to the present-day site. However, the main shrine structures we see today were all built around the 14-15th centuries, including the main gate (楼門, rōmon, “tower gate”), and the main shrine (御本殿, go-honden). Today the shrine, one of the earliest Shinto Shrines in Japan, is the country’s most popular, most visited, and serves as headquarters for some 40,000 Inari shrines scattered throughout Japan.

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Interspersed along the shrine’s paths, small food stands serve Kitsune Udon (“Fox Udon”), a noodle soup topped with pieces of aburaage (fried tofu), a treat favored by foxes. You can also try Inari sushi, fried tofu wrapped around sweetened rice.

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The hike around the shrines long and crossing paths is impressive to each and every sense. Light plays with the torii tunnels during the day….. But it is in the late afternoon and throughout the night where it takes an eerie and more spiritually moving turn. There in shadows of the descending day, the small graveyards, miniaturized shrines and silent alters take on a mysterious air.

Leaving our own Ema

Leaving our own Ema

14041109430_846d3c1c88_b14041146147_28a3f9dc03_bThe Japanese, being a very superstitious people, hold that the Inari shrines are possessed by foxes at night. While foxes are generally seen has sacred and benign, they also are known to be somewhat mischievous – as foxes are everywhere) – especially at night. Jody and I, just to be safe and in the hopes of avoiding any accidental mammalian-based bewitching, visited together, even though the bitter cold of the night was calling Jody back to our lukewarm Machiya in Kyoto’s Gion District (read Timeless Townhouse for more on our stay at a traditional Geisha home at the turn of the last century). For the record, Jody was a foxy lady even prior to our visit.

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We recommend that, if possible, a visit to the shrine should be timed for the very late afternoon, when the crowds start to fade along with the harsh light of the day. The chance to explore the torii tunnels alone in the tranquil forests is both spiritually moving and all-things romantic. Having these sites and sights to yourselves is simply a magical experience.

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“The secret of the fox, Ancient mystery, Somewhere deep in the woods, I know you’re hiding…My guardian angel….” ~ The Fox – What Does the Fox Say?

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See my Flickr Set “Kyoto” for more photos of our visit to that iconic Japanese city.

Reference

http://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/location/spot/shritemp/fushimiinaritaisha.html

http://www.pref.kyoto.jp/visitkyoto/en/theme/sites/shrines/temples/fushimi_inari/

http://www.sacred-destinations.com/japan/kyoto-fushimi-inari

http://www.insidekyoto.com/fushimi-inari-taisha-shrine

http://www.lonelyplanet.com/japan/kansai/kyoto/sights/religious/fushimi-inari-taisha

Shinto Shrines & Snake Oils


“Crooked creatures of a thousand dubious trades…sellers of snake-oil balm and lucky rings.” ~ Stephen Vincent Benet, from John Brown’s Body

snake-oil

Snake Oil. The phrase, for most of us who watched cheesy Western reruns on Saturday afternoons, immediately conjures up images of shabby swindlers exploiting the naïvely unsuspecting public by peddling fake cures. The Oxford English Dictionary defines snake oil as “a quack remedy or panacea,” a characterization that most Americans would not dispute. The OED, however, doesn’t note that the phrase’s genesis is linked inextricably to American flirtations with the Far East.

Wild-West-Snake-Oil-Salesmen

Makes the FDA not seem so bad….

Snake oil is an expression that, 100 years ago, referred to fraudulent health products or unproven medicines. In more modern times it has come to refer to any product with questionable or unverifiable quality or benefit. By extension, snake oil salesmen are people who knowingly sells fraudulent goods or who are themselves a fraud, quack or charlatan. But why?

coolies-promontory

Coolies and Our Railroads

During the mid-1800s, America was in the midst of a fantastic building project: the Transcontinental Railroad. To support such a massive and dangerous undertaking, and to do it at minimal cost, thousands of Chinese workers were “imported” to the United States where they basically became indentured laborers, responsible for most of the most dangerous, heavy lifting of the rails. About 180,000 Chinese immigrated to the United States between 1849 and 1882, the vast majority coming from peasant families. In the “New World,” these unskilled Asian laborers came to be known as “Coolies.” See my blog Beauty and Honor Enshrined for another Coolie connection between East and West.

snakeoil

And of course the Chinese brought with them their culture, customs and traditions. Which included various medicines, such as snake oil. Made from the Chinese water snake, the oil actually did help reduce inflammation, and was used primarily to treat joint pain (specifically arthritis and bursitis), from which the Chinese no doubt suffered from their back-breaking daily labors. The Coolies would ingest and or rub the oil on their joints after surviving yet another day toiling across America. And, of course, the Chinese workers began sharing their ointment, used for hundreds and perhaps thousands of years in the far-away Far East, with Americans, many of who marveled at its healing properties.

Snake Oil/Patent Meds We All Could Use!

Snake Oil/Patent Meds We All Could Use!

Too Good to be True

Too Good to be True

Due to the massive lack of government oversight at the time, there was a massive explosion in “patent medicines” at the same time. Sold by shady traveling salesmen, or advertised in the obscure classifieds of questionable newspapers, such tonics promised often an unbelievable wide range of cures, including chronic pain, headaches, “female complaints” and pretty much anything involving the GI track. Over time, as these “cures” became more and more known as false, they came to be known as “snake oil.”

Shinto Sales

Shinto Sales

14725978451_679b92773c_bThe Shinto Shrines and Buddhist Temples here in Okinawa and Japan have, like most religions, their own versions of snake oil. And, like all other houses of worship in the world, raise a good deal of money from their sale. Now I’m not saying that these talismans are all false or that they don’t offer their sacramental protections or blessings to the buyer. But, like most religiously based claims, little concrete proof of their efficacy can be offered, other than rather subjective spiritually improved prognoses. What is obvious, though, is that the mere promise of help, protection, or just plain good luck leads to their massive popularity here in what is already a highly superstitious culture. And that leads to the “ching-chinging” of cash registers….

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For instance, we visit our local Shinto Shrine at Futenma each New Year, and well-attended ritual throughout Japan. Kadomatsu (門松) can be purchased and serve as much more than New Year decorations to the faithful. They are intended to welcome the kami (spirits or gods) of harvest to ensure the coming year’s crops. Other examples of local Shinto Shrine snake oils are described below.

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Kadomatsu

11812222966_3157ccdfc2_bOmikuji (御御籤 or 御神籤) are oracles written on strips of paper, nothing more than a fortune. For the Japanese, their oracles are chosen using the time-honored Chinese method of selecting a fortune-telling stick; for us gaijin (foreigners), we just reach into a box and select one from the thousands found there. These are often found at shrines wrapped around tree branches, a way to either multiply a good fortune, or to leave a bad so it won’t follow you home….

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My Omikuji tied at the Shrine

16199643279_80b0af4be5_bOmamori (お守り) are amulets on sale at shrines and temples for particular purposes. And by particular, I mean particular. There are hundreds to be found and purchased, with each Shrine or Temple having a specific focus. For example, there are suction-cup charms designed for car windshield to protect the vehicle’s occupants. Students can purchase trinkets to assist them in studies or test-taking. Businessmen buy trinkets to ensure success and prosperity in the coming year. But the most can be found to support health or fertility!

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A Collection of Various Omamori for Sale

Hamaya (破魔矢) is literally an “evil breaking arrow,” sold during the New Year at shrines and kept at home all year to keep evil at bay.

Hamaya For Sale

Hamaya For Sale

16359893076_50ddb00b30_bEma (絵馬) are small wooden plaques on which worshippers write their prayers or wishes, which are then left hanging where kami receive – and hopefully act on them. They bear various pictures, often of animals or other Shinto imagery, and many have the word gan’i (願意, “wish”) written along the side. The ema of today are stand-ins for more traditional offerings to the religious houses of the past, such as animals and food-stuffs. And then there are specific ema which can be purchased, such as for success in work or on exams, marital bliss, to have children, and for good health.

The Futenma Shrine's Ema

The Futenma Shrine’s Ema

god-and-tithing

Shinto Sales

Shinto Sales

As you might be able to read from between the lines, I’m not a firm believer or supporter of any one type of organized religion. All are a creation of man, and based on highly suspect scriptures, rooted in no longer relevant tradition and practices. And there is simply no escaping the financial aspect of all these talisman for sale, a seemingly rather transparent notion that the faithful everywhere take for granted. But clearly there is a spiritual dimension to our shared human condition. And in embracing and trying to capture that spiritual quality, I have no issue in partaking of the best of each religion that happens to be at hand.

Leaving our Prayers and Wishes in Kyoto

Leaving our Prayers and Wishes in Kyoto

So, yes, we display Kadomatsu for the New Year, and we take great pleasure in getting our Omikuji each year. We purchase various Omamori for help in the coming year, for protection on the roads and to help in insuring our health. We even bought a very nice Hamaya, which remains protectively poised at the threshold of our home, warding off evil on a continual basis. And not only do we collect Ema for their artistic quality, we take great care in crafting our wishes each year so that they will be heard and cared for by the kami.

Brisk Sales!

Brisk Sales!

Because, like for most snake oils of the past, the cure is often times in faith, not whether the ingredients actually work or not. And besides, what is lost other than a few bucks that hopefully are put ultimately to better use? No, there is nothing lost here buying from such sellers of snake-oil balm and lucky rings, but everything to be gained.

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Bad Year? Forgetaboutit…by Bonenkai!!


“Do not anxiously hope for that which is not yet come; do not vainly regret what is already past” ~Chinese Proverb

“Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Enjoy yourself. It’s later than you think.” ~Chinese Proverb

new-year

If you thought Halloween and Christmas were big now in Japan (see Cosplay in Japan and O Half-a-Christmas Tree), the end of the year and the New Year that follows are simply a celebratory season of festive fun and occasion, often to an elaborate degree.  Although traditionally the period around New Year’s in Japan (お正月 oshōgatsu) is one of the times in the year for family to formally come together, the holiday has a far larger and longer cultural and temporal reach.

1327469918663_6268088The New Year in Okinawa is actually celebrated twice, first based on the Gregorian (sometimes referred to here as the “baby New Year”) and then by Lunar (Asian) calendars, which seldom if ever coincide.  Although the Japanese have used our calendar for official and cultural New Year’s celebrations since 1873, here in the Ryukyu Islands (of which Okinawa is the seat), a separate cultural New Year is still celebrated based on the Chinese New Year, widely throughout broader Asia, as a remnant of Okinawa’s close historical ties with China throughout the ages.  Unfortunately for us, we’ll be in Kyoto for the Chinese New Year.  But fortunately for us, we’ll be Kyoto!!

Japanese businesses and employees often hold festive bonenkai (“forget the old year parties”) throughout December, and similar shinnenka parties are held in January to welcome the New Year.  These are not formal events, but more traditional social get-togethers, were intoxication is expected and a night’s indiscretions are customarily forgotten at work the next day.  This is one idea the West needs to import from Japan!

There's probably some indiscretion here....

There’s probably some indiscretion here….

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt is also during this time that houses and some personally-owned businesses are cleaned in an ancient Shinto custom called susubarai (“exorcism or purification of the soot,” sometimes referred to as osoji), a chance to purge physical spaces of the last vestiges of the old, passing year in order to start anew with a clean slate.  We were surprised at just how extensive these cleanings could be – many of our local businesses were closed but not idle; we could see all their furniture piled up outside as the inside underwent its ritualistic cleansing.

Shimenawa

Shimenawa

Kadomatsu

Kadomatsu

Shimenawa are iconic here at this time of year.  Made up of sacred rope woven with straw decorated with white stripes of paper, these are topped with an auspicious Japanese bitter tangerine (橙 daidai).  Daidai originally means “several generations,” a reference to this fruit’s custom of staying on the tree for several years if not picked and its color returning to green in the spring.  Thus, they reflect wishes for good, long life through the years and generations of the family.  The completed talisman are then hung over entrances to mark dwellings as a temporary abodes of Toshi-Gami (New Year deities), which are gladly accepted.  Finally, kadomatsu (門松, literally “gate pine”), an arrangement of pine, bamboo and ume tree sprigs representing longevity, prosperity and steadfastness respectively, are often placed in pairs on either side of thresholds to welcome and temporarily house ancestral spirits.  We have a set outside our door, but I’m not sure anyone is visiting.  I do believe they help spiritually guide our directionally-challenged feline friend back to the correct condo door…since they all look exactly alike!  The doors, not the cats.

Gaijin Dinner Guests at the Quiet (but busy) Sea Garden.

Gaijin Dinner Guests at the Quiet (but busy) Sea Garden.

New Year’s Eve (Omisoka) observances, while becoming more and more Western, are not nearly as party or drink0-oriented as ours.  In fact, I was pleasantly surprised to easily get a reservation at one of the nicer but smaller restaurants in our neighborhood just a couple of weeks ago.  The time just before midnight is usually quiet and reverent, although firecrackers are commonplace as an ancient Chinese tradition thought to ward off evil spirits.  There was a nice fireworks display given at our local American hangout, American Village, but which itself was not overly crowded or boisterous…by US standards.  Most traditional Japanese will visit their local shrine or temple at midnight.  Although we did share our late-night dinner with a fair amount of well-dressed and happy, young, and perhaps less traditional Okinawans, the urban seawall where we live was relatively quiet.

Our New-New Year Visit to the Futenma Shrine

Our New-New Year Visit to the Futenma Shrine

Safe Driving Omamori Charms

Safe Driving Omamori Charms

Hatsumōde (初詣) is the first Shinto shrine or Buddhist Temple visit of the Japanese New Year, traditionally called for between the 1st and 3rd of January.  This visit is so important that the vast majority of businesses are closed during this period (29 December – 3 January) to allow their employees wide latitude for this visit, where wishes and prayers for the new year are made (the closest analogy to our New Year resolutions), new omamori (charms or amulets) are bought, and old ones are returned to the shrine so they can be burned (to release whatever spirits may reside in them).  Thus, there are often long lines at major shrines throughout Japan and Okinawa.  During the hatsumōde, it is common for men to wear a full kimono, a now very rare occurrence here, with many families making their pilgrimage in their finery.  The act of worship at the shrines and temples is generally quite brief and experienced individually, but more extensive domestic worship usually is included with family and relatives at home in a more intimate setting.

Anime character "Good Luck Charm Himari".  Not if you're on the other end of that sword....

Anime character Omamori (Good Luck Charm) Himari. Bad luck if you’re on the other end of that sword….

Sacred Cave under & behind the Futenma Shrine

Sacred Cave under & behind the Futenma Shrine

This is probably not a traditional - or Shinto - way to experience Hatsumode

This is probably not a traditional – or Shinto – way to experience Hatsumode

Okinawa New Years 2013-2014, Futenma Shrine visit, year of the horse placardWe decided to make our own tradition and visited one of Okinawa’s most popular Shrines the day before New Year’s!  I’m not sure this would meet the de facto assertions of the Shinto faith, but I do believe that God will understand.  By visiting early, we had ample time to explore the Shrine and its sacred cave (you must ask for entry, but does not require a guide), and contemplated our well-wishing for the coming year before drawing our fortune and leaving our prayers.

Readying for New Year Celebrations

Readying for New Year Celebrations

First we entered through the Torii – a timeless Asian symbol designating sacred ground, and conducted a cleansing ritual on ourselves, conveniently outlined by a picture board for the many foreigners who visit.

Water Purification Ritual for Dummies

Water Purification Ritual for Dummies

Okinawa New Years 2013-2014, Futenma Shrine visit, a written oracle number 26A common custom during hatsumōde is to buy a written oracle called omikuji.  The omikuji goes into detail about the coming year, but like most fortunes, they are vague and can be interrupted pretty much anyway one would like, thereby ensuring their continued popularity!  If your omikuji predicts bad luck you can tie it onto a tree on the shrine grounds, in the hope that its prediction will not come true….

Jody's was Better

Jody’s was Better

SHUT THE FRONT DOOR!  Dang, too late for us:  not knowing any better and basically playing monkey-see, monkey-do, we ended up tying our pretty ding-dang good fortunes to the strings surrounding one of the trees on the Shrine’s grounds….  I guess we need to return there, ASAP, to pull a fortune that we can take home and keep!!

Our Prayers & Wishes for 2014

Our Prayers & Wishes for 2014

ChionInBellThe times around midnight on January first are much more significant here as sonorous reverberations of cast-iron bells ring to coincide with the dawn of the New Year.  At midnight on December 31, Buddhist temples all over Japan ring their bells a total of 108 times (除夜の鐘 joyanokane) to symbolize the 108 human sins in Buddhist belief, and allow the Japanese to cleanse themselves of such trespasses of the previous year.  This is a ritual that we will make a point to take it next year.  I already can’t wait!

Jody's "First" Soba on New Years Day

Jody’s “First” Soba on New Years Day

Of course meals during this time are ritualistic.  A common meal on New Year’s Day in Okinawa is toshi-koshi-soba, literally “year-crossing noodles,” when the sound of slurping the long soba noodles helps to secure lasting good fortune for the eater’s family.  We, quite by accident, happened to have soba on New Year’s Day, and maybe, just maybe, this will make up for tossing our good fortunes at the shrine!

A Few Stylish Nenga

A Few Stylish Nenga

Nenga Postage

Nenga Postage

Sending New Year’s cards – nengajo – to relatives, friends, teachers, classmates, and co-workers is a very important custom in Japan.  The cards must be delivered after January 1st, and the Japanese Post actually accepts and holds New Year’s cards, marked “nenga“ under the postage, from mid-December for delivery starting on the 1st!  But they must never be delivered to a family in mourning who refuse to accept such New Year’s greetings.  See here for some really funny if not odd Japanese New Year greetings!!

Our FIRST sunset of the New Year in Itoman

Our FIRST sunset of the New Year in Itoman

Okinawa New Years 2013-2014, Futenma Shrine visit, celebration bannersCelebrating the New Year in Japan is also analogous with marking “firsts.”  Hatsuhinode (初日の出) is the first sunrise of the year, and many Japanese will drive to the coast or climb hills and mountains so that they may be some of the first to see the first sunrise of the New Year. Kakizome is the first calligraphy written at the beginning of a year, traditionally on January 2.  “First laughter” (waraizome) is an important to express at midnight.  First dreams (初夢, hatsuyume) are often recorded and retold, and “first letters” (hatsudayori), often in the form of haiku, are exchanged.  Shigoto-hajime (仕事始め, the first work of the New Year), keiko-hajime (稽古始め, the first practice of the New Year), hatsugama (the first tea ceremony of the New Year), and the hatsu-uri (the first shopping sale of the New Year) are all special events here that hold equally special meaning.

Equally as Important:  the FIRST cotton-candy of the year....

Equally as Important: the FIRST cotton-candy of the year….

Prayers and  Wishes

Prayers and Wishes

With all its ritual, tradition, and celebratory “firsts,” the New Year here is a grandiose reminder of the constant and relentless passage of time.  Such passage is welcomed, encouraged and embraced, warmly and spiritual in Asia.  However you decided to celebrate the New Year and time’s passage, and whatever you have resolved or wished, Happy New Year to one and all.

Happy New Year! ~Kevin & Jody

Happy New Year! ~Kevin & Jody

And please, whatever you do in this coming year, take heart the lesson of the opening Chinese proverb:  enjoy yourself this year.  Time’s passage can be insidious, but always relentless; more likely than not, it’s later in our lives than we all would like to think.

There is anime for EVERY occasion!

There is anime for EVERY occasion!