The second of the Kokugakuin shrine visits on the 5th was to Okunitamajinja. This is the Soja for Musashi no Kuni. The Soja was a shrine set up near the seat of government with the kami of the most important shrines in the province (or kuni) so that the provincial governor could easily honour the kami. Since this was an important part of his job, the Soja made things much easier for him. There are thus six kami enshrined in the main shrine at Okunitamajinja. Musashi is the old province including the current Tokyo Metropolitan Prefecture, Saitama Prefecture, and the eastern end of Kanagawa Prefecture. (Where I live used to be in Musashi; I think the border was somewhere in Yokohama, but it may actually have been the Yokohama border.)

Anyway, when we arrived at the shrine we all gathered in the middle courtyard. Okunitamajinja is very, very big, for a shrine within the urban bit of Tokyo, and it has a courtyard area in front of the haiden. That was where the chief priest (purple hakama with patterns, so first rank) told us a bit of the history of the shrine; the basic Soja stuff, and an unusual feature of the shrine. In most shrines, the kami face south or east, so that you are facing north or west when you pray. At Okunitamajinja, however, the kami face north. This is, apparently, because they are looking north to the region that was still being conquered in the eleventh century, to keep an eye on it. However, apparently the honden were rotated individually, so that the more important kami were on the left as you looked at them, rather than the right. As a result, the shrine now does everything backwards, treating the left-hand-side as more sacred than the right. This tends to throw visitors from other shrines.

After the little talk, we were led out of the courtyard and lined up, with Professor Okada at the front, ready to process into the shrine. The procession was led by one of the priests, and two men wearing happi coats and carrying iron staves with rings on the top. As they walked, they banged the staves on the ground, first one and then the other, so that the rings rang. These staves were originally Buddhist; their use at Okunitamajinja is probably a relic of Shinto-Buddhist syncretism, although I didn’t check to be sure.

The procession did not go to the haiden. There were other people having prayers done in the haiden. Instead, we were led round the back, into the inner courtyard between the honden and the haiden. This is covered with raked sand, so we stood for the sanpai.

The ceremony itself was very simple, just the harae and the tamagushi offering. However, another priest then explained a bit about the honden. (This priest had purple hakama, and so was second rank, and possibly the second priest of the shrine.) The current honden was built in 1667, by the fourth shogun. The previous honden was, apparently, quite spectacular, but it burned down in the early seventeenth century. (I may have mentioned that I’m occasionally tempted by the idea of writing a book entitled And Then It Burned Down: An Architectural History of Japan.) By the time they came to rebuild, the shogunate had spent all its money on building Nikko Toshogu, so they built a very simple building as a temporary measure.

Now, of course, it’s a Prefectural Treasure, because it’s pushing 350 years old. It’s all one building, although it has three doors, because the previous honden had three buildings, with two kami per building. There’s a large courtyard in front of it because, during the shrine’s biggest festival, eight mikoshi (palanquins for the kami) are brought in and lined up there. One effect of this is that you can’t see the honden well from the haiden, and it’s surrounded by a fence so that you can’t see it well from outside, either. Thus, we got a much better view of it than most people do. (Again, obviously, we couldn’t see properly inside, although the doors were open, and I could see another set of doors within.)

After that, we went to the shrine museum. The ground floor has the eight mikoshi for the festival. Apparently, one mikoshi costs about one hundred million yen, or around a million dollars. (They aren’t worth that, though, because they’re impossible to sell; they’re made for a particular shrine, so no other shrine would buy them, and they are very, very distinctive.) These mikoshi are around a hundred years old, weigh about a tonne each, and the most nominally valuable one is the one with the least gold leaf on it. This is because the carvings on it are extremely good, and didn’t need tarting up with gold. According to the priest explaining it to us. Most of the mikoshi have phoenixes on, but there is one that has dragons, and this one is also extremely elaborate. The story here, if I heard it right, is that the patron was rich, and he kept getting the craftsman drunk and telling him he could put whatever he liked on it. This one has lots of gold leaf.

The mikoshi, while impressive, are fairly standard for an influential shrine. Almost unique to Okunitamajinja, however, are the enormous taiko. When I say “enormous”, I mean that the diameter of the drum skin is over two metres. The biggest one was pulled forward in the museum because it got very wet during the big festival this year, and needed to have air flowing on both sides to dry the skins out.

The festival is held in early May. It’s a really big drum.

It’s so big, in fact, that it barely fits through the gate into the middle courtyard, and for the nominal 1,900th anniversary of the founding of the shrine (the legendary founding date is 111) the shrine is planning to rebuild the gate and make it a bit bigger.

After the group visit broke up, I went to get a Red Stamp. This is something that a lot of larger shrines do. You take a book along, and they write the name of the shrine and the date in, then stamp the page with the shrine’s seal in red. The slightly odd bit was that they didn’t ask for money. I had to bring that up. This is the official tradition, but this was the first time I’d encountered it. I suppose they figure that anyone who knows about the Red Stamps knows about the tradition as well. This is not necessarily true for the amulets.

One of these years I want to go to see the festival. I suppose the year after next, when they’re celebrating 1,900 years, might well be a good choice.

Posted in Kokugakuin, Sanpai.

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