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

Floating Torii of Miyajima


Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, Kevin for scale of the floating torii's base at low tide WM

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, Jody seated at the shrine dock's edge (floating Torii) WMStanding at the base of perhaps the most iconic torii in all of Asia, it’s easy to feel the divine dimension which seems to emanate from each and every wooden fiber. The Great Torii (Otorii) of Itsukushima, a Shinto Shrine on the island of Miyajima, like all torii (see Trampled Torii for more), marks the boundary of sacred ground, a physical reminder of the split between the spirit and the human worlds. It also remains as the ceremonial shrine entrance for souls of the departed and the still living alike.

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, Torii Gate through a boardwalk holga WM

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, self-portrait at O-Torii GateThe first Otorii at this location was erected in 1168, a little more than 200 meters offshore. Since then, the gate has continually served the larger shrine, although the one we see today dates to a reconstruction of 1875, itself the eight Otorii in the shrine’s long history. Eight rebuilds are not too shabby for 950 years of sitting in the ocean exposed to the elements!

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, flirting with the floating Torii WM

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

Miyajima 2015, Mount Misen, view of the Floating Torii from the rail up the mountain 2 WMThe Otorii is about 55 feet in height, about 80 feet in length at the arch, and weighs a whopping 60 tons. The main pillars are natural camphor, approximately 500 to 600 years old, a tree type known to be resistant to rot and insects. The smaller supporting pillars are natural cedar. The arch has a roof made of cypress bark thatching. Architecturally, today’s design dates back to 1547, and consists of four smaller torii supporting the larger in the style of medieval Ryōbu Shintō (“dual Shinto”), a mix of esoteric Buddhist and Shinto religions.

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, Jody and the floating torii 2

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, solitary view of the floating torii 2 WMArguably, the best time to view the Otorii is during high tide, although one must consider lighting as well. When the waters are high, the gate can appear to float dramatically on or over the sea. At dusk the arch can sometimes be beautifully contrasted against the golden skies of the setting sun and distant mountain ranges. During low tide, the waters recede enough to make a relatively dry trek to the Otorii’s base. While the pictures may not be as beautiful, seeing the gate up close and personal is something to behold. The structure is truly a massive one!

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, solitary floating torii WM

Shot in the Rain

Shot in the Rain

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, large brass chinese latern at dock's edge WMCruises around Otorii can be hired at the Miyajima ferry terminal at night when the gate is illuminated by powerful lights along the shore. And, if you’re lucky enough to catch a high tide, the boat will even pass under and through the gate!

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, Jody with the floating torii in the rain

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, Jody seated at the shrine dock's edge (floating Torii) WMThe structure itself is not sunk or otherwise secured below the seabed, but stands in place strictly under its own substantial weight. Even though, the Great Torii seems all but impervious to the best that Mother Nature can throw at it: it has survived, with little or no damage, storms, typhoons, and even earthquakes.

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, night torii in the rain WM

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, arched Torii WMMiyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, floating tour gate WM

How is this possible? As an engineer, I found this design rather intriguing…if not unlikely. But if you think back 950 years, the technology and tools necessary to build an under-ocean foundation just didn’t exist. Rather, the architect’s strategy focuses on weight that creates pressure, and on wooden joints that offset any potentially destructive forces encountered by absorbing vibration and small displacements of the gate’s various components.

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, Selfie in the Rain at O-Torii Grand Torii Gate

Self-Timer, Tripod Portrait, Shot in the Rain!

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, floating torii WMThe Gate stands on two main and four minor pillars, where the smaller supports act to buttress the larger, giving the structure stability in two dimensions. Its weight acts in the third. Although the pillars themselves are the bases of truly massive trees, another seven tons of weight is added topside by filling the boxed structure below the upper arch with a slew of fist-sized stones that ensure the upper structure stays firmly in place. Then the entire structure is held together by wooden wedges, which absorb motion without unbalancing or otherwise damaging the Torii.

View from the base of Mount Misen

View from the base of Mount Misen

 

Miayjima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, glowing floating torii at night WM

The vermilion color of Shinto Shrines and torii across Japan is believed to help ward off malevolent specters. The lacquer which carries the color also offers some protection from rot and decay, since most torii remain constructed of wood. The sun and the moon are painted on the east and the west (respectively) of the Otorii roof, as implored by Feng Shui in an effort to help further block demons.

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, tidal boardwalks WM

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, chinese lantern and floating torii WMThe theatrical Otorii of Itsukushima Shrine and Miyajima island is one of Japan’s most popular tourist attractions for good reason, and is no doubt the most recognizable and celebrated feature for most any visitor. As one of three officially designated most scenic views in all of Japan, it is one not to be missed!

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, torii gate to the shrine WM

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, shooting the floating Torii WM

For more information on the Otorii and Miyajima Island, please see:

http://visit-miyajima-japan.com/en/culture-and-heritage/spiritual-heritage-temples-shrines/le-torii-flottant.html

Day trips from Hiroshima are easily accomplished. Direct two-way ferry service operates between Miyajima and Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park.

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, floating Torii through the shrine WM

Love Rocks!! Match-Making, Love & Romance in Kyoto, Japan


“Where there is love there is life.”  ~ Mahatma Gandhi

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If you’ve been looking for love in all the wrong places, perhaps it’s time you visited the Jishu Shrine of love and match-making in Kyoto, Japan.  Kyoto is known as the most visited place in Japan.  I’ve even heard an urban legend that it’s the most visited place on the planet…outside of Mecca.  While I doubt the latter claim, the former certainly holds true.  As Japanese’s ancient capital and cultural and religious center spared the destructive bombings of WWII (see my blog about how the city was saved here), its extensive collection of historically important castles, temples and shrines all provide a draw for tourist and pilgrims alike.

The Complex's Deva Gate

The Complex’s Deva Gate

Kyoto Winter 2014, Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺), Jishu Shrine of Ōkuninushi god of love and match-makingJishu is found within the Kiyomizu-dera temple complex, already the city’s leading tourist spot that draws massive throngs.  However, finding ourselves already in Kyoto during low winter season, we decided to further reduce the risk of swarming sightseers by visiting during a random weekday…at sunrise!  Actually, since it was on a hillside, I thought what a better place to view the dawn of a new day; unfortunately, I didn’t take into account that the Kiyomizu-dera provides only a westerly view….  Between the cold of winter and early time of day, we were assured a nearly private visit!

Kiyomizu-dera's Main Hall and Veranda

Kiyomizu-dera’s Main Hall and Veranda

Kyoto Winter 2014, Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺), painted dragon adorns a temple's ceilingKiyomizu-dera (清水寺, “clean” or “pure waters”), a UNESCO World Heritage site, is a complex of Buddhist temples and shrines in the hillsides of eastern Kyoto.  Kiyomizu-dera was founded in 798, but the present buildings date to 1633.  The massive wooden main hall features a large veranda supported by a tall and dense latticework of pillars that juts out dramatically over the hillside and offers impressive views of the city.  Most amazingly, there is not a single nail used in the entire structure.

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Kyoto Winter 2014, Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺), Jishu Shrine of Ōkuninushi god of love, shrine's cleansing watersThe Jishu Shrine is dedicated to Ōkuninushi, a god of love and “good matches.”  Jishu Shrine gets high marks for its foreigner user-friendliness.  English-language explanations of most everything are extensively provided, and proclamations of inclusivity abound:  “There is only one human race even though there are many nationalities.”  And perhaps most importantly, the shrine’s Ema good-luck charms are clearly explained in English, a relatively uncommon find visiting Japan’s religious sites.

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While Jishu is small and an easily missed off-shoot from the main pathway through Kiyomizu-dera, it’s packed with interesting wives’ tales and superstitions about love, marriage, curses, and match-making (enmusubi).  Some of the highlights for Jody and I are described below.

Jody's Love on the Rocks

Jody’s Love on the Rocks

Kyoto Winter 2014, Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺), Jishu Shrine of Ōkuninushi god of love, Jody blindly walks from love rock to love rock 2img_0292Love Rocks!  Love may be blind, but if you believe hard enough, you can still stumble upon it….  The primary love lure of the shrine are two rocks.  Yep, rocks.  Love rocks.  They stand about 6 meters (20 feet) apart, and according to legend, if one walks between the two stones with their eyes closed (no cheating!), then they are assured luck in love.  However, should someone help along the way, one will only find love through the interloping of another.  The challenge is a popular one, with the love-sick attempting to thread their way through the throngs with eyes shut and arms outstretched.  While I needed a bit of guidance, Jody made the walk rather easily.  Good thing she’s already mine!

An anime adaptation of Cupid....

An anime adaptation of Cupid….

Japan’s Cupid.  Ōkuninushi, a Japanese “god of love.”  The Jishu is one of the most famed and popular match-making shrines in Japan, and is dedicated to this god.  Anyone looking for romance or marriage probably has plans to visit here, and not surprisingly, the shrine is most often full of young giggling Japanese girls.  Ōkuninushi is associated with love, romance and match-making.  As the spiritual hose of the annual meeting of all of Japan’s kami (Shinto spirits) in November of every year, Ōkuninushi brings the kami together, fostering relationships in the spiritual world.  Therefore, by extension, he became the kami of connections in all worldly matters of love as well.  However, instead of a bow and arrow, Ōkuninushi uses a…rabbit?

Japan's Cupid and his Hare

Japan’s Cupid and his Hare

 

Yes, the anime version of the "Hare of Inaba"

Yes, the anime version of the “Hare of Inaba”

What’s up Doc?  Well, lovers bred like rabbits, so doesn’t it make sense for Ōkuninushi to have a hare (rabbit) as a sidekick?  Not quite.  The legend of the Hare of Inaba has Ōkuninushi taking pity helping cure the hare who had been skinned alive as a punishment for deception.  However, in a mythical twist of fortune, it turned out the hare was in reality a fellow god, and in return for Ōkuninushi’s help in restoring its skin, the hare became Ōkuninushi’s devoted ally and advised him how to obtain the love of a princess he was seeking to marry.  Since then, the pair has been inseparable.  Already have love; what about good fortunes?

Inaba's Fur Restored

Inaba’s Fur Restored

Fortune Favors…those with 5 Yen to spend.  Omikuji, literally “sacred lot,” are nothing more than random fortunes written on small slips of paper.  Divination has always been a central aspect of ancient Shinto practice, one that continues to this day in the popular form of these fortune slips.  At the Jishu Shrine, however, the fortunes mostly focus on love and romance.  Those receiving good fates might fold and keep the Omikuji to make sure they come true.  Those not so lucky in love will tie them up on a pine tree using strings provided, based on a pun of the word for pine tree (松 matsu) and the verb “’to wait” (待つ matsu), the idea being that the bad luck will wait by the tree rather than attach itself to the bearer.  What a sap (get it, pun intended)!!  Okay, so now you have love and good fortune.  But what about the benjamins??

Magic Money

Magic Money

Money Can’t Buy You Love.  Carrying a treasure sack on his back, holding a “magic money mallet,” and standing or seated on bales of rice, a rather healthy and jolly Daikoku, one of the Seven Gods of Good Fortune associated with Buddhism, can be found throughout the Jishu shrine.  Originating in India as the Hindu deity Shiva, he became intertwined with the Shinto god Ōkuninushi as the characters for “Okuni” can also be read as Daikoku.  Thus, as one deity traversed three countries and three religions, it became conflated in cultural and practice with another, cementing the Shinto-Buddhist syncretism.  What’s more convenient in a shrine than to have access to wishes for love and wealth!!  Well, one also needs a way to wash away their sins.

Hitogata, 人形, vaudou japonais

Healing Waters.  Found within the shrine are a couple of tables with hitogata paper dolls destined to wash away your problems.  The simple design, resembling a human figure, represents you the worshiper after you write your name and age over it.  Once offered to the shrine’s waters in a divine purification service, it is said that your ills and evils shall be washed away.  Sure beats confession.

Kyoto Winter 2014, Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺), Jishu Shrine of Ōkuninushi god of love, love Ema muah XXOOXX

chichibu_shrine_anime_ema_4732Kyoto Winter 2014, Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺), Jishu Shrine of Ōkuninushi god of love, love knots and ties that bindLike a Prayer.  Less Madonna’s annoying tune.  Ema (Shinto prayer plaques) sell at a brisk pace, and can be found just about anywhere around the shrine.  Some portray Ōkuninushi’s and his hare on one side, while others depict classic icons of love.  On the blank back-side, however, is where heartfelt requests for a love-match or marriage are written.  One of the most entertaining aspects of visiting the shrine is examining just how creative some of the pleas of the love-sick actually are.  Now, if only we could read Japanese….

ushi_no_koku_mairi_mizuki_shigeru

 

Cursed Sacred Cedar Trunk

Cursed Sacred Cedar Trunk

Kyoto Winter 2014, Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺), Jishu Shrine of Ōkuninushi god of love, Okage-Myojin sacred cedar tree trunkVoodoo, Japanese style.  Finally, all is fair in love as the saying goes.  There is always a darker side, and that is no less true than here at Jishu.  Okage Myojin, a kami-guardian of women, is thought to answer a woman’s any prayer.  Such kami were called upon for “ushi no toki mairi,” a prescribed method of laying a curse traditional to Japan, so-called because it is conducted during the hours of the Ox, with the proper witching hour of 2:00AM.  Typically a scorned woman, dressed in white and crowned with an iron ring set with three lit candles, drives a nail through a straw effigy of the victim, impaling it into a sacred tree.  The ritual must be repeated seven days running, after which the curse is believed to succeed, but being witnessed in the act is thought to nullify the spell…and probably cause quite a bit of embarrassment!  The sacred tree at Jishu is a cedar, and although dead (ironically probably killed by metal poisoning), the trunk remains standing where marks of many nails can still be found.  It’s very interesting to note the similarities to placing a voodoo curse in the West.

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Jishu Shrine is a very small area and can be easily missed while traversing the massively broader Temple complex as it is buried deep within.  But don’t let its size – or the crowds fool you – it’s most certainly worth the visit!  Whether you’re taken already or not, everyone could use a little more Luck in Love.  Have a visit, and enrich your life!

Kyoto Winter 2014, Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺), Jishu Shrine of Ōkuninushi god of love, collage