My interest in Japanese religion piqued nine years ago when I lived in a small rural town in southern Japan. I was fortunate to experience Shinto rituals when I attended the local shrine each New Year’s day with my friend Yuko and took ikebana (flower arranging) classes, which is based on Buddhist ideology. However, I did not truly understand much of what I saw or experienced until I returned to the United States and started to study Japanese religion with Dr. Roemer at Ball State where I am pursing a master’s degree in anthropology. Now seven years later I am returning to Japan for the first time with a new perspective and a keen interest in understanding better Japanese religion and its role in Japanese culture. I’m excited to be going back in Japan, experiencing both the familiar and the foreign! I hope you enjoy my observations!
Yasukuni – Wednesday July 14, 2010
Our first day in Japan and we’re exhausted from jetlag but excited nonetheless. Tokyo is a massive city – a sprawling series of buildings that goes on for miles with over ten million people. Its hot and noisy and a complete sensory overload.
Since its our first day in Japan its only natural we jump right in and so we make the trek to visit the imposing and controversial Yasukuni Shrine. Yasukuni was a shrine that was frequently in the news when I lived in Japan – at the time Junichiro Koizumi was prime minister of Japan and he made annual visits to the shrine at New Years to honor Japan’s war dear. What makes it so controversial is that the spirits of war criminals are interred at this shrine and so these non-official-yet-official visits naturally upset Japan’s neighbors in China and South Korea as well as many Japanese themselves. Even today my normally calm Chinese and Korean friends will go into fierce tirades about Yasukuni Shrine, a symbol of, what they see as the arrogance of Japan regarding its tumultuous past with its neighbors.
Based on all of this as we approached Yasukuni I wasn’t sure what to expect – would there be protesters objecting to people visiting the infamous shrine? Would it be overtly nationalistic? Would it be a solemn place as people go there to honor the memory of thousands of men (and women?) that lost their lives during past wars?
Though I wasn’t sure what to expect at Yasukuni a colorful and noisy festival never entered my mind. However, as we entered under the imposing torii onto Yasukuni grounds that is exactly what we discovered – the path was lined with stalls selling a variety of matsuri food from yakitori to takoyaki. Game stalls tempted you with prizes such as popular cutesy characters like Hello Kitty and Anpanman or posters and fans of popular boy bands (no S.M.A.P.?! – I was told my favorite boy band was “too old” now). The air was filled with smoke from the grills as well as smells of tasty street food and shots of enthusiasm from the vendors as they try to get you to stop at their stall rather than the dozens of others.
Once we were past the shrine gates and within the actual shrine grounds the atmosphere shifted and became much more quiet – boisterous cries of “yakitori!” were replaced by the clicking of our shoes on gravel. The environment seemed peaceful, almost serene; not at all what I expected from a shrine known for enraging millions of people. As I looked around at the Japanese wandering around I questioned how many of them were even aware of the shrine’s history or exactly which kami (spirits defined in the most simplified way) were interred there. I noticed a group of older men that entered together, many of them would be around my grandfather’s age, perhaps a bit younger and I assumed they knew the significance of Yasukuni since World War II was more likely a memory for them rather than a mention in a history book. However, the majority of the people around seemed to be enjoying the shrine’s grounds as a break from Tokyo’s hectic pace. The nationalistic overtones I expected at the shrine weren’t really there (well, until you entered the museum that detailed Japan’s war history, however, it was tucked off to the side away from the main shrine). Despite associating it with the ire of so many people I found that Yasukuni was, in many ways, like the thousands of other Shinto shrines around Japan – a place for a casual stroll, a break from one’s hectic life and an opportunity to honor the kami.
Other highlights from Day 1
– Tokyo ramen – yum!! Ramen is still one of my favorite foods and this was tasty 😀
– Obon at a small Buddhist temple near our hotel. The small festival honoring departed ancestors shared similarities with Yasukuni’s festival – food stalls beckoned you with the smells of grilled chicken and children clamored around the games. However, this festival also had dancing, the neighborhood people, many dressed in yukata, danced around a platform in memory of ancestors.
Meiji Jingu – Thursday 15
Day two in Japan and after a morning in Mitaka visiting Studio Ghibli’s museum we head back into Tokyo to Harajuku, a neighborhood famous for some of Japan’s funkier fashions and the imperial shrine Meiji Jingu. Meiji is in sharp contrast to Yasukuni – it is surrounded by a lively and hip neighborhood but once you pass under the torii gates you forget you’re in one of the most crowded cities in the world – you’re shielded from the city noise, massive buildings, crowds and intense sun by towering trees which line the gravel path to the shrine. Its quiet, peaceful and serene. We were told later by Dr. Breen, one of the foremost scholars on Shinto that these trees were brought to Tokyo by mourners after the death of Emperor Meiji. Towering symbols of how much the people loved their emperor.
The path to Meiji was scattered with small groups of people walking to or from the shrine. Not surprisingly there were more foreigners at this shrine than Yasukuni since Meiji is one of the better known tourist attractions in the city and the host of one of the largest festivals in Japan. Meiji also manages to avoid the controversy associated with Yasukuni since its interred kami was a beloved Emperor that supported overall education throughout Japan. Because of the association with the imperial family the chrysanthemum, the insignia of Japan’s royal family is stylized throughout the shrine – on the main gate doors and the ends of roof posts.
Before entering the main gate I stop at a small wooden building where miko (shrine maidens) sell omamori (amulets) and omikuji (fortunes) through large windows. They have the usual variety of omamori – those to keep you healthy, for successful examinations, to watch over children, successful childbirth and so on. One of the omamori catches my eye – a small box holding a miniature replica of a kamidana (an alter in front of which Japanese worship the kami). This omamaori is for education, to help you through the years of study. In the dozen or so Shinto shrines I’ve been I have never seen an omamori quite like this. I notice out of the corner of my eye the miko remove the wooden box it is in and place beside her. I realize then that they are closing up and I quickly ask the miko for the kamidana – afraid I would miss my chance to purchase such an usual amulet.
After excitedly showing my new purchase to my classmates we resumed the path to the shrine stopping briefly to purify ourselves with purification water. Upon entering the main gate you walk into a plaza – an open area surrounded by wooden walls with large open doors on three sides and the main shrine ahead. Of all the shrines I went to in Japan this is the only one I remember with a walled interior area. A wall of hundreds of ema (tablets) caught my attention and I went over to inspect them. Written on the ema are messages to the kami asking for favors. The ema are written in at least a half dozen different languages – just scanning over them I saw Japanese, English, Korean, Chinese, Thai and Portuguese. Requests range from the serious to the frivolous – people ask for the kami to care for their families, keep friends happy and healthy and for their favorite sports team to win.
A few people approach the main shrine and toss in a couple of coins, bow, clap and pray. Others, like us, watch from afar. Curious to see what is done. Some Japanese follow the correct way to approach the kami (bow twice, clap twice, pray) while others might only bow once and clap twice or any of the many variations. Some stand there for just seconds while others stand there for minutes, seemingly having an internal conversation with the kami. The prescribed way to approach the kami doesn’t seem to be nearly as important as the fact that its being done.
After some time I wonder through one of the doors to an open area where more miko are selling omamori and there are areas to rest. I sit and watch as one miko instructs another on proper walking and bowing. Even these oft-referred “office helpers” follow strict protocol in how to act while within the shrine grounds. Eventually everyone has finished exploring the shrine and we begin the journey back to the train station, walking quietly along the gravel path with the just the clicking of the gravel and the chirping of the cicadias accompanying our walk. As we pass under the torii beyond the canvas of trees we are blasted with heat and noise and the peacefulness breaks away leaving the chaos of a hectic city.
Other highlights from Day 2
– Studio Ghibli! After obtaining tickets last minute before leaving for Japan we were able to visit Studio Ghibli in Mitaka, outside of Tokyo. I was disappointed that only small children are allowed to play on Cat Bus – one of Miyazaki’s most enduring creatures from My Neighbor Totoro. The small museum allows you to peak into the Stuio’s creative mindset.
– Dinner with Miho – we were joined by my friend Miho who was an exchange student at Ball State University the previous year. Miho takes us to a sushi restaurant in the Akihibara neighborhood which is famous for massive neon signs and electronics. We enjoy a meal of fresh sushi well prepared by the chefs behind the counter.
– Vowz Bar – Following dinner we eventually make our way to a Buddhist bar – a small bar in a building tucked away from the noise of Tokyo on a tiny side street. The bar is in a non-descript building on the second floor, the only indication it’s a bar is the simple wooden sign on the door reading “Vows Bar.” This bar is owned and operated by a young Buddhist priest in conjecture with another priest. Their goal is to get more Japanese interested in Buddhism hoping they will see it as more than a death cult (Buddhism in Japan is responsible for death rituals).
Mr Happyness – Friday 16
Our last morning in Tokyo was dedicated to another rather unique priest. The night before we enjoyed a couple of drinks at Vows Bar – a bar owned and operated by Buddhist priests. Today we met Mr Happyness, a Buddhist priest that adapted ancient Buddhist sutras (prayers) to modern day hip-hop beats. I was surprised that Mr. Happyness AKA Hagai-san was a middle-aged priest, I expected a much younger priest, one that would fit into the general audience of hip-hop. Hagai-san spent the morning with our group, chatting with us in a small tatami room where we enjoyed hot green tea while he answered our questions such as why he became a Buddhist priest. His answer surprised us – though his father was a priest he had not considered the profession until after he moved to the West. While living in the United States and Canada he encountered a number of people that encouraged him to return to Japan and take over his family’s temple because life in the West as a Japanese farmer was a difficult position. Therefore, Hagai-san, told us he returned to Japan and became a priest. After a comfortable amount of time enjoying the conversation Hagai-san led us to the sanctuary of the temple – answering questions about the main altar with its images of the Buddha and the founder of Nichiren, the Buddhist sect the temple was associated with. Eventually the priest disappeared after giving us permission to take pictures of the altar though he quickly reemerged with brochures on the temple in English. After a round of heartfelt thanks we took our leave however before we left the temple Dr. Roemer took a quick photo of us in front of the temple.
Other highlights from Day 3
Yoiyama – After over two hours on one of the high speed trains we arrived in Kyoto. The evening promised to be eventful with Yoiyama, a prelude to the parade the next morning. After dusk we ventured out into the crowds of thousands of people – enjoying the aromas of yakitori (grilled chicken skewers), the bright lights, towering floats on show and the people watching. After wandering around the neighborhood for hours taking in chaos of Yoiyama we returned to the apartment for a good night’s rest.
Gion Matsuri – July 17
On Saturday under the fiercely bright sun we ventured out into Kyoto to watch the colorful parade of Gion Matsuri. Yama and hoko floats traveled down the streets of Gion. The floats showcased their intricate tapestries accompanied by musicians and men dressed in samurai-esque outfits. Hundreds of thousands of people lined the streets to be part of one of Japan’s biggest festivals. The parade was part entertainment for the kami and the crowds gathered and part purification ritual. It was an eclectic mix of the sacred in the form of solemn rituals and festive behavior. It was colorful bright and loud.
We started watching the parade on the main street under a metal awning, a few people back from the street. We originally thought we were in an advantageous place – where you would see the chigo, a young boy selected from the community and through a series of rituals believed to embody the kami for the event. This young boy, high up in the first float, swung a sword using a series of stylized movements before cutting a rope which officially started the parade. However, as the floats began to take formation we realized we were behind where this ritual act would take place. Dr. Roemer moved us through the back streets of Kyoto to find a different location – one where we could see the chigo cutting the rope or the float carts turning the corners (an incredible feat in its own right). It seemed though at each location I could see less and less of the parade as the crowds at those points were 20 or 30 people deep. Eventually we stopped at one location to watch part of the parade – through the crowds we watched a series of floats travel down the street, many of them accompanied by a group of musicians riding high about the people. Over time the intense sun began to have its effect on many of us, myself included. I made my way out to a fountain where I sat on the edge. As time passed more of us gathered and we decided to stop for lunch before continuing to watch the parade.
After a much needed respite from the heat we returned outside and by request of several students headed back to the apartment to rest. As we made our way through some of the more narrow streets of the city we continued to watch the parade pass from afar and even came upon a float or two, already finished with the route, being taken apart by its attendees. A few of us wanted to continue to watch some of the festivities so we headed back out with Dr. Roemer and observed the different communities carefully break down their floats, removing pieces of wood and tapestries in a specific order with the intent of preserving them for next year’s parade. At this time we were able to get a closer look at many of the tapestries on the floats – many from China and Korea and even ones from Turkey and Iraq.
We reemerged that evening for another matsuri event – the parade of the mikoshi. Mikoshi, portable shrines, are carried through the narrow streets of Kyoto, accompanied with musicians and crowds of participants. The whole event was meant as entertainment for the kami being transported in mikoshi, believing they would then take care of the community for the years to come. After walking a bit around the neighborhood to find a good spot to watch the event we happened down a small street lined with old homes, restaurants and teahouses, we stood in front of an old wooden house and waited. Our patience paid off and when the mikoshi was carried down the road we were given a front row view of the passing shrine. The air was filled with a cacophony of music and jubilant cries. After the mikoshi passed the excitement died down, the crowds dispersed and we wandered off into the neighborhood of Gion looking for a place to rest and eat dinner.
Ise Shrine – July 18
After the previous day spent watching the festive matsuri we packed overnight bags and took a bus to the train station with the intended destination of Ise. The small town of Ise is home to the most sacred shrine in Shinto – where the sun-goddess Amaterasu is enshrined. The train to Ise lasting about 2 hours took us away from the dirt and crowds of major cities into the rural landscape of Japan. Small towns filled with houses with tiled roofs, luscious rice paddies, and purple distant mountains passed by the window. Ise itself was a medium sized sleepy town. Our hotel was near the train station and after dropping off our bags we stopped for a lunch of Ise udon before exploring one of the nearby shrines. We then boarded a bus and headed to the inner shrine, where people went to be in the presence of Amaterasu.
Ise Shrine was much more austere than the other shrines we had been to like Yasukuni and Meiji and though it was in a small out of the way town it was also much busier. As we proceeded to the shrine we were greeted by a simple wooden torii and past it was a relatively new looking bridge. The bridge still was imbued with the fresh scent of cypress, a refreshing and calming smell. After crossing the bridge we find ourselves on a path with throngs of people making our way to the shrine. As we meander along the path we see wild deer and chickens wandering aimlessly along the shrine grounds and we come to a lazy river, dividing Ise the shrine from Ise the town. We stop for a few minutes and I stick my feet in the frigid water, the cold feeling providing some relief to their soreness. Eventually we regroup and return to the path to Ise, anxious to get to the shrine. As we walk we notice individuals stopping near tall trees and placing their hands on them, pausing briefly. Dr. Roemer asks a nearby Shinto priest who seemed unsure why they would be doing such a thing, musing that perhaps they were trying to get in touch with the trees’ ancient spirits. We eventually made it to the shrine and waited patiently amongst the crowd until it was our turn to approach the outer gate, the closest most people will ever make it to Amaterasu. After tossing a few coins into the coffer, bowing and clapping we move aside to let other people approach Amaterasu. We begin to meander back to the bridge, crossing it and leaving the shrine behind.
Other highlights from Day 5
– After 8 years I got to reunite with my friend Yumi! Yumi and I attended Juniata College together and met up in Kyoto in 2002. That was the last time we saw each other until our trip to Ise. We got to catch up over a stroll through Ise and dinner.
– Dinner at a tofu-ya. Being a vegetarian its difficult to find a wide range of food I can eat when traveling in Japan. The tofu restaurant’s menu was mostly vegetarian and the tofu set I had for dinner was delicious!
Check back for more experiences as I continue to update the blog to cover all our trip to Japan!
Returning to Japan on this trip was an interesting adventure – I had a completely different perspective of what I saw and experienced from my previous time spent there. Equipped with knowledge from classes on Japanese religion I had a better understanding of Shinto and Buddhism and how they are syncretized in Japanese culture. Though at times I found it a bit frustrating to be so removed from the culture (from my personal perspective) I understand its difficult to integrate and immerse people in just two short weeks, especially when the goal is to see and experience so much. As Kendra would say “that’s life;” with all traveling there are bound to be a few challenges but the end result – a firsthand look at some of Japan’s most significant shrines and temples as well as unique opportunities to meet Shinto and Buddhist priests negated most issues.
The result of this trip – a website introducing Japanese religion and interactive buildings on Second Life will help to bring these incredible experiences to students who haven’t had the opportunity to experience it firsthand for themselves. I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished through the website, I feel we’ve worked hard to put together something that will help interest people in and educate people about Japan and its religious practices.
So in a moment of reflection I’ve decided to reminisce about some of the more memorable and meaningful experiences while in Japan – though first I must give Tayln credit for the idea, though a control freak I always give credit where its due 😉 –
- I got to participate in a festival which is supposed to bless you with good health … the omamori and ema associated with this festival is a foot, which I’ll take as a good sign and hope it did some good for my feet (it certainly couldn’t have hurt!).
- I had the opportunity to meet and talk to Shinto and Buddhist priests, all men who were kind enough to answer my questions with thoughtful consideration. I learned something new from each one and really enjoyed this unique opportunity, its why I enjoy traveling abroad – you don’t get these experiences from reading books.
- I got to return to Nara and feed the deer which was an incredible amount of fun though this time I got nipped! Oh and Nara Buddha – so much fun!
- I absolutely fell in love with Fushimi Inari Taisha and its thousands of torii as well as Sumiyoshi Taisha and Mayumi sensei, who charmed us with his reasons for becoming a priest.
- I had a lot of good laughs with a few really entertaining people (… is that kimutaku? is that?) They made the trip fun. Traveling companions can make or break a trip and I’m thankful that overall this was a good group.
- I got to see a couple of new and old friends again – it was great seeing you both Miho and Yumi, I’m so happy you were able to meet up with us! ^_^
- I ate wagashi and a variety of other Japanese sweets every chance I got (kakigori, keki, mochi and just about matcha anything!) – oishi~!!
- I was able to attend an incredible kaiseki meal in Kyoto, courtesy of the very generous and kind Yoshida family – it was an absolutely lovely meal and an experience I was hoping to have while in Japan.
- I saw shrines and temples I’d never visited before including the austere Ise and the infamous Yasukuni
- I got to return to Japan ~ it was surreal being there as a tourist and very much on the outside looking in and a disappointment I couldn’t return to Kikuchi but it was wonderful to be back and experience new things and make new memories. 😀
Its difficult to find a fitting way to conclude this entry ~ I’ve been very fortunate to have had many great opportunities to study abroad, to learn about and experience different cultures and I will always be thankful for the knowledge I’ve gained from my travels. Though I lived in Japan for two years I still found myself learning and experiencing new things on this trip, in fact that is why I love to travel – there’s so much more out there in the world and immersing yourself in another culture allows you to gain knowledge you wouldn’t receive otherwise, not just about people faraway but about yourself. I guess its appropriate to quote Margaret Mead, an anthropologist here “As the traveler who has once been from home is wiser than he who has never left his own doorstep, so a knowledge of one other culture should sharpen our ability to scrutinize more steadily, to appreciate more lovingly, our own.”
There are many opportunities to travel abroad and, more importantly, live abroad – and I encourage everyone to take advantage of those opportunities and discover the world.