David Chart's Japan Diary

October 7th 2008

A really long gap this time; thank goodness that my blog hasn't been neglected for quite that long. As you might expect, I've been quite busy in that time, and so now, when I'm finally getting on top of the work that had built up in the gap, I'm going to have a go at bringing the diary up to date as well. With luck, that will mean several entries in a short space of time, of which this is the first.

Shrine Visits

Back at the beginning of July, we had another morning of formal shrine visits organised through the Shinto course I'm taking at Kokugakuin University. It's an open course, in that anyone who pays the fee can take it, and there are a couple of hundred students. Quite a lot of them go on the shrine visits, since they are, obviously, interested in Shinto, so we're quite a big group, and have to visit fairly large shrines. This year we visited two shrines in eastern Tokyo: Kameido Tenjin and Tomioka Hachimangu.

Kameido Tenjin

Taiko Bashi, Kameido Tenjin One of the Taiko bridges in the precincts at Kameido Tenjin

Kameido Tenjin is a shrine dedicated to Tenjin, the deified Sugawara no Michizane, the kami of scholarship, and also the kami of the shrine at which Yuriko and I got married, Yushima Tenjin. "Kameido" and "Yushima" are the names of the areas of Tokyo in which the shrines are found. It was founded in the mid seventeenth century, as Edo spread to that region, and soon became the main local shrine and probably the most important Tenjin shrine in Edo. It was destroyed several times in fires, most recently when Tokyo was bombed almost flat at the end of World War II, but it has always been rebuilt. The shrine precincts are very nice, with ponds and bridges among wisteria frames, but the shrine building itself is reinforced concrete and not that impressive.

The actual sanpai, entering the shrine and paying respects to the kami, was very short and simple, with little more than the purification prayer and the offering of a sacred branch by the course leader. However, after that we all went to a meeting room, and had a lecture from the chief priest of the shrine, which was very interesting. It turned out that the course leader was an older contemporary of the chief priest at Kokugakuin; as I mentioned last year, Kokugakuin probably has an easier time than most places would of getting permission to take large groups to the shrines.

There were a couple of points in the lecture that I thought were particularly interesting (and can still remember now). The first was about the bridges. They are called Taiko bridges, because the bridge and its reflection are round, like a taiko, a Japanese drum. In the Edo period, there were a lot of geisha and geisha houses in the area around the shrine, and after one fire the geisha took inspiration from the shape of the bridges to create a new way of tying the belts on their kimonos, called a taiko knot. The material of the belt forms a loop at the back, round like the bridge and reflection. That knot, slightly flattened for convenience, is now the standard knot for a kimono in normal situations.

The second was a side note on the wisteria. Kameido Tenjin is famous for the wisteria. However, they are associated with the Fujiwara, the family who had Michizane exiled to Kyushu in the tenth century. It might seem a little odd that the shrine would have such flowers, rather than the ume trees that are associated with Tenjin. (Yushima has ume trees, for example.) However, the chief priest just said that the kami doesn't hold any grudges against the flower, and they are very pretty.

Tomioka Hachimangu

Haiden, Tomioka Hachimangu The worship hall at Tomioka Hachimangu

Tomioka Hachimangu is another seventeenth century foundation, and another place that was bombed flat at the end of World War II. After the biggest air raid, the Emperor insisted on going out to inspect the damage personally, against the advice of his staff, and he came to the shrine grounds to look at the devastation. There are photographs of the event, and monuments in the precincts to memorialise it.

As you can see in the picture, the current worship hall has two floors, which is quite unusual for a shrine. It's also built in reinforced concrete, and the interior actually had a slightly western feel about it. The ritual visit was a little more elaborate here, involving a taiko performance and formal prayer as well as the purification and branch offering. Afterwards, we had a lecture from the chief priest. Both the chief priests were members of the families that had held the position hereditarily for centuries, probably since the shrines were founded, which was a little surprising, as the Meiji government officially abolished such things, and they stayed abolished until 1945. Nevertheless, the maintenance of the tradition seems to be far more common than its disappearance. After the talk, we had a tour of the precincts, given by another of the priests. There was a sort of flea market going on while we were there, and apparently it happens every month, if I recall correctly. The precincts of Shinto shrines, particularly in cities, are often not particularly solemn.

Tomioka Hachimangu has a deep link with sumo. Sumo took something like its current form in the seventeenth century, but it was repeatedly banned by the government as being bad for public morals. This seems to be a fairly common feature important Japanese cultural traditions; the same happened to Kabuki. However, the chief priest of the shrine got special permission to hold sumo bouts in the shrine grounds, to raise money for the shrine. This permission was renewed, and so for decades the shrine was the only place in Edo where sumo bouts could legally be held. There is a large memorial to all the yokozuna (highest ranked sumo wrestlers) in the shrine precincts, and the new names are still added to it today.

The other major claim to fame of the shrine is its main festival, which is one of the three biggest in Tokyo. (The others are Kanda and Sanja, I believe.) This festival involves a parade with enormous mikoshi (sacred palanquins), and in the Edo period it was so big that a bridge collapsed under the weight of the attendees. The government then banned it, and the ban endured until the Meiji period, in the late nineteenth century, when the festival was revived. The shrine has the largest mikoshi in Japan, but I don't know whether it is actually moved in the festival. It really is huge, weighing about four tons, and, what is more, it is covered in gold, and the the koma-inu (guardian shrine dogs) have three carat diamonds for eyes. The shrine don't seem too worried about potential theft, possibly because it's huge, weighs four tons, and is ever-so-slightly distinctive.

The shrine visit actually happened before I wrote my last diary entry. This diary really has got behind recently, hasn't it.