Progress Report

There was another meeting of the Kawasaki Representative Assembly for Foreign Residents on Sunday. Because the Open Meeting has a completely different format, this was the first normal meeting for over two months, with the result that most of us had more-or-less forgotten what we had been talking about. Fortunately, the secretariat had a summary for us, which made things a bit easier.

Two members of the assembly moved out of Kawasaki, and so had to resign. There aren’t many absolute requirements on members of the assembly, but being a foreign resident of Kawasaki is one of them. As a result, the first business of Sunday’s meeting was the formal appointment of their replacements. This was followed by three reports on what had happened in the Open Meeting, because the format meant that each representative only attended half of it; we had to be at the sub-meeting for our own subcommittee, and so missed what happened at the other one. This report let everyone catch up.

The next order of business was the progress report from the city. Every year, the Assembly makes concrete proposals, which the city is required to take seriously, and to report back on. The issues that the city has not judged to be dealt with are brought back every year. Some, like trying to persuade the national government to change the pension system, have been unresolved since the Assembly was established. The pension system problems might get solved by accident in the near future, because the government is planning a full-scale reform, but it won’t be anything to do with that recommendation. Others, addressed directly to the city, seem to be making progress. One, in particular, sounded from the report as though it will be completed by the time the city reports next year.

This is obviously a very important part of the process, but it did take quite a bit of time, leaving us without much time for discussion. Nevertheless, we did make progress. We wrapped up our discussion of immigration, agreeing to revisit it when we were deciding on what to make formal proposals. We also finished discussing the library system, and that probably won’t make it to a formal recommendation, because the current situation seems pretty good. We can recommend and donate foreign-language books to boost the holdings, but they aren’t at all bad already.

We then moved on to talk about support for foreign students. It seems that the budget crisis has led to scholarships being cut, but one representative commented that it would actually be more useful to provide support for finding relatively cheap places to live, and part-time work to help pay the tuition fees and living expenses. Another point raised was the importance of pastoral support. Going to university can be isolating at the best of times, even more so when you are going to a foreign country. The provision of somewhere to go and talk about problems, probably outside the university, would be useful, but a more positive approach was also called for. That is, it would be good if it was someone’s job to check up on the foreign students and make sure that they were coping and didn’t have any serious problems. When you are faced with serious problems and get depressed, it’s not uncommon to not think to look for help, so someone actively coming to check on you can be a literal life-saver.

Finally, we had time to quickly look at the documents for the housing support services provided by the city, ask for documents for the next meeting, and make our plans for next time, which include starting our consideration of the deeper problems we listed in our first meetings.

Actually, before our discussions we spent quite a lot of time talking about the process by which our annual reports and recommendations are put together. That didn’t advance our discussions, but it was important, because it means that everyone is now clear on what will happen when, and how these things are decided.

In any case, the assembly is still going well, and I think we will have useful recommendations to make by the end of our term in March 2012.

Nara, Day One

We visited Nara in early November, when my mother came over for Mayuki’s Shichi-go-san. Nara was basically the capital of Japan from 710 to 794 (with some breaks), before the capital moved to Kyoto. As a result, it has a number of very important shrines and temples built in those years, although many of them burned down and had to be rebuilt several times. It is also, unlike Kyoto, not currently a large city, which gives the whole place a very different feel from Kyoto. Mum had never been, Yuriko hadn’t been since she was in school, and I’d only done a day trip while I was at Yamasa, so it seemed like a good choice.

Another reason for going last year was that, as you can tell from the dates, last year was the 1300th anniversary of Nara’s foundation, and there were a number of events held to celebrate that. We were visiting right at the end of the celebration, but we were still able to take advantage of it.

We got the Shinkansen from Yokohama to Kyoto, and then an ordinary JR express to Nara. We actually walked from the station to the ryokan, which was a little further than I anticipated, especially since Mayuki was asleep most of the time and I had to carry her. I’d walk it next time if I was going by myself, but we did get a taxi back to the station on the last day. We left our bags at Edosan, and then set off on our first bit of sightseeing.

Mayuki standing by the pillar of the first torii of Kasuga Taisha, which is much wider than she is.

The first torii of Kasuga Taisha is, apparently, hundreds of years old, and one of the largest wooden torii in Japan

I’d planned our schedule to avoid being at the most popular locations at their peak times, so for the first afternoon we headed for Kasuga Taisha. This is the shrine to the tutelary kami of the Fujiwara family, and I’ve written about the Shinto tradition around it before. As I mentioned, Edosan is just inside the first torii of the main entrance road to the shrine, so we were well located.

The walk takes you through Nara Park, which is beautiful and full of deer. Mayuki was fascinated by the deer, but scared if they got too close. That was a reasonable reaction, as the deer are taller than she is, and as long as I was holding her out of their reach, she was fine with them. The deer are sacred to the kami of Kasuga Taisha, and the symbol of Nara.

At the shrine itself, we looked around, and Mayuki practised “writing” in one of the waiting rooms. We did see the main things, but obviously I’d like to see more. I can’t really do that when other people are with me, however, as they’d get bored.

From Kasuga Taisha, we went round the back way, along the hills, to Todaiji Temple. That is the temple with the largest bronze Buddha in Japan, but we didn’t go to the main hall on the first day. Instead, we visited some of the locations up in the hills.

The first was Hitokotonushi Shrine, which is attached to Kasuga Shrine. The name of the kami means “Master of One Word”, and it is said that if you ask for exactly one thing at the shrine, your wish will be granted. However, you must not ask for more than one thing.

Next, we came to Tamukeyama Hachimangu. This is a very significant shrine, because it was probably the first shrine deliberately founded to enshrine a kami from another shrine; Hachiman came from Usa Hachimangu in Kyushu to help with the creation of the Great Buddha, and this shrine was founded for him. This started the trend of enshrining important kami all over Japan, and also indicates the very close relationship between Hachiman, in particular, and Buddhism. We got there just before the shrine closed, so I managed to get my Goshuin, but they closed the gates behind us as we left.

A view over Nara and the Great Buddha Hall at sunset

The view from Nigatsudo. The large building is the hall containing the Great Buddha.

From there, we went to the Nigatsudo of Todaiji. This hall, which is called “Second Month Hall”, is the site of a ceremony in the second month. It is also on top of a hill, with a large platform veranda that affords spectacular views over Nara. We went down the covered steps into the main temple precincts, but instead of going on to the Great Buddha Hall, we went round the back, along some very quiet and rather charming roads.

The Great Buddha Hall at Todaiji, reflected in a large pondThese roads take you to Shosoin, an eighth-century storehouse about which I will say more later. You can only see the outside, and we couldn’t even do that, as we were just a bit too late, and the gates had closed. So, we continued round the back of Todaiji, to a point where you can get very nice photographs of the Great Buddha Hall. So I did. Mayuki was, unsurprisingly, getting a bit tired by this point, so we headed back to the ryokan for dinner.

I think I may have planned slightly too much walking for the first day, but only slightly too much. We did manage to avoid the crowds for the most part; Kasuga Taisha and Nigatsudo were busy, but not heaving with people. We also saw a couple of places I hadn’t been to, because we didn’t go to Tamukeyama Hachimangu or Nigatsudo when I came on the day trip. Overall, it was a very good first day.

Edosan Ryokan in Nara

A Japanese-style room with a large table, and a decorated folding screen in the background

This is where we ate, and where my mother slept, after the table had been moved.

At the beginning of November, when my mother came over for Mayuki’s Shichi-go-san, we all went to Nara, one of the ancient capitals of Japan. I do plan to write about our whole visit, which was very good, but first I want to write about where we stayed for the first night.

We stayed at Edosan, a ryokan in Nara Park. It was superb, so I want to recommend it. I should say up front that I don’t think the staff speak much English, but they do have forms for foreign guests to fill in, and I’m sure that they’d make an effort to communicate. The website, however, is all in Japanese, although you can see pictures.

First, there is the location of the ryokan. It is actually in Nara Park, the site of Todaiji and Kasuga Taisha, two of the major tourist attractions (and World Heritage Sites) in Nara. Because it’s in the park, the only noise at night when we stayed in November was that of the deer calling to each other. Every room is in a separate small building, scattered around near the first torii marking the edge of the precincts of Kasuga Taisha. The rooms all have toilets and wash basins, and there’s another small building with two private-use Japanese style bathrooms, which are also extremely nice, and very up-to-date in their fittings and facilities.

Then, there are the rooms. The buildings are all traditional Japanese style, some with thatched roofs, and the interior rooms are also traditional Japanese. You sit on the floor to eat, although there are back-rests provided (you can see one in the photo), and you sleep on a futon spread out on the floor, laid out by the staff when you are ready for bed. Our room was, I assume, typical, and was decorated with delightful traditional Japanese objets d’art, including the screen you can see in the photo.

The food, both evening and morning, was delicious. We had a full kaiseki meal (lots of small courses) for dinner, and a traditional Japanese breakfast (rice, grilled fish, and lots of other things); they don’t, as far as I know, serve western food.

My family, gathered outside the gate into the garden outside our room at Edosan

The entrance to our room

The service, however, was what really stood out. It was generally excellent, considerate and efficient, and the person responsible for our room even helped carry our luggage to the ryokan where we were staying for our second night. The most impressive thing, however, was how they dealt with Mayuki.

First, I need to say that I didn’t pay anything for Mayuki. At three years old, the website says that she should be half the adult price, but when I phoned to book (admittedly, you have to do that in Japanese), the ryokan said that she was probably too small to eat even half of the dinner, so it would be better not to pay for it. Then, in the evening, they still provided a chair, place setting, and rice, furikake, and seaweed for Mayuki to eat. Since this is just about all she eats anyway, she was very happy with it, and with the same again in the morning. After dinner, the staff brought a small basket of cheap toys, and let Mayuki choose three, as gifts. She really enjoyed that.

Overall, it was a candidate for the best ryokan experience I’ve had in Japan, and it was far from being the most expensive: it’s about 20,000 yen per night for an adult. Thus, it isn’t cheap, but it is, in my opinion, extremely good value. The contact email address is, although I should emphasise, again, that I only ever communicated with them in Japanese, and they apologised for not being good at English. If you email in English, keep it simple.

My only criticism is that, as it was high season, they would only accept a booking for a single night. I would like to go back to Nara, as there is still quite a lot we didn’t see, and I definitely plan to stay at Edosan again.


A kamidana is a Shinto household shrine to the kami. According to a 2009 survey (reported in Ishii 2010 『神道はどこへいくけ』, page 21), about 43% of Japanese homes have one, although only 28% have one in the 14 largest cities. Since most of Japan’s population lives in the 14 largest cities, this means that kamidana must be very common in more rural areas. They are an important part of Shinto practice, but a bit difficult to find out about in English. However, one of the important jobs at New Year is taking everything off the kamidana, cleaning it, and then putting everything back on, with new o-fuda. (I’ll explain o-fuda below.) That provided a good opportunity to take lots of photographs to use in this blog entry.

A wooden shelf, high on the wall, with a wooden beam above it. “Kamidana” literally means “kami shelf”, and the name is accurate, as the traditional kamidana is, indeed, a shelf. The photograph shows the shelf part. As you can see, it is set high on the wall, and the base of the shelf is supposed to be slightly above eye level. You should put it in a clean part of the house, and not in one of the busiest parts. It shouldn’t be over a door, for example. Normally, it should face either east (to the sunrise) or south (to the noonday sun), but ours faces west, because of the layout of the flat, and because you can see Mount Fuji in that direction, from the room the kamidana is in.

The shelf does not normally extend all the way to the ceiling, but ours is quite deep, and to keep it above my eye level, it had to be fixed to the ceiling. Even then, the base is really at my eye level; I’ve walked into it a couple of times, and whacked myself on the temple. Fixing it to the ceiling is a slight problem, because it means that there is no easy way to hang a shimenawa (sacred rope) from the top. We are thinking about adding a couple of hooks.

The character for "clouds", in wood, stuck to the ceiling over the kamidana.The decoration in the wooden panel across the top of the kamidana is, I think, supposed to look like clouds, because you are supposed to put it somewhere where no-one will walk over the top of it. However, in blocks of flats, that is impossible, unless you live on the top floor. Since most Japanese people live in flats, Shinto priests have come up with a workaround. You stick the chinese character that means “clouds” to the ceiling over the kamidana (ours is wooden, and stuck just inside the front of the shelf). This apparently fools the kami into thinking that it’s the sky above them, or maybe mollifies them because you’ve obviously made an effort.

These days, shrines are very clear that you do not need a traditional shelf for your kamidana, and, indeed, in our old flat I had it on top of my bookcases. This is because it is difficult to impossible to add a kamidana to modern flats, and, despite the name, the shelf is not actually the important part.

Three o-fuda, partially overlappingThe important part is the o-fuda. O-fuda are obtained from shrines, either directly, by visiting and making an offering (usually about 1,000 yen, which is about $12.50 at the moment), or, in the case of the o-fuda of the Grand Shrines of Ise, which are called Jingū Taima, from any shrine affiliated with Jinja Honchō. Physically, an o-fuda is a thin wooden board wrapped in paper, about 25cm long and about 8cm wide, with the name of the shrine or kami written in black, with the red seal of the shrine over that.

The question of what they are religiously is controversial, because Shinto tends to be vague on central points like this. They may be purely symbolic. However, in general they seem to be taken to be dwelling places of the kami in question; the kami is thought to be present in the o-fuda, and hence on the kamidana. That’s why the o-fuda is the most important part of the kamidana, because without it you have no kami on your kami shelf.

There are three classes of o-fuda on a standard contemporary kamidana. The first is the Jingū Taima, representing Amaterasu Ōmikami, of the Grand Shrines of Ise. The Association of Shinto Shrines insists that every kamidana should have one of these, and that it should be placed in the most honourable position. The second is the o-fuda of the household’s ujigami-sama, or local tutelary deity. In most cases, this means the o-fuda of your closest shrine, although there are some cases where the shapes of the regions covered by a shrine mean that the ujigami-sama is not actually the closest shrine. In our case, it means the o-fuda of Shirahata Hachiman Daijin, which is, obviously, a Hachiman shrine. This o-fuda goes in the second place. The final class is the o-fuda of shrines you, personally or as a family, respect or have links to. These can be any shrines; in our case, it is Yushima Tenmangū, which is the shrine where Yuriko and I got married. These o-fuda go in last place, and it is often said that you shouldn’t have too many of them.

The miyagata with the railings and front wall taken offBecause the o-fuda may embody the kami, they are supposed to be treated with respect, and not just piled up on the shelf. Shrines provide free simple stands for them, but it’s much nicer to get a miyagata, which means “shrine model”, to hold them. This is, astonishingly, a wooden model of a shrine, and the o-fuda go inside. Although the miyagata normally does have doors on the front, like a shrine, you can’t normally get the o-fuda in through the doors, as the inside of the miyagata is not much bigger than the o-fuda. There are various ways to solve this problem, but in our case, the front of the miyagata comes off altogether, giving easy access to the interior.

The miyagata with o-fuda in, but with the front still off so that you can see themWhen the o-fuda go in a simple, one-space miyagata like ours, the place of honour is at the front, so that the Jingū Taima goes in front, with the ujigami-sama o-fuda behind it, and the o-fuda of other shrines behind both of them. The o-fuda in the photograph above are in the right order. Miyagata with three chambers are also quite common, and in that case the place of honour is the centre, with the space to the right as you look at it as the second place, for the ujigami-sama, and the space to the left for the other shrines. It is also possible to get miyagata with five or seven spaces, and while the central position is still the first, I’m not sure whether all the spaces to the right are ahead of all the ones to the left, or whether it alternates, so that the fourth most honourable location is the second on the right. Miyagata with that many spaces are really not common, because not many people have enough space for them.

The miyagata on the kamidana, in the centre at the back.Once the o-fuda are in the miyagata, you can close it up and put the kami on the kami shelf. The miyagata goes in the centre of the shelf, towards the back. Next, you can put other things on the shelf.

The kamidana should, unsurprisingly, not be used for normal storage. You should also really not use it as a place to hang washing, but the kami seem to be quite forgiving about that, and I do encourage Yuriko to move it as soon as possible. However, there are certain things that you are supposed to put on the shelf.

The wooden o-fuda have been added to the kamidana, lined up either side of the miyagata, against the wallFirst, when you go to a shrine and have a formal prayer performed in the worship hall (haiden), you usually receive a wooden o-fuda, which is a bit bigger than the ones that normally go in a miyagata, and which typically has your name and the purpose of the prayer written on. These o-fuda should be kept on the kamidana. In general, you are supposed to return the o-fuda to the shrine that issued them after a year, or more generally at the new year after you receive the o-fuda. If you got an o-fuda from the other end of Japan while you were on holiday, returning it to your local shrine is acceptable. However, I don’t do that for o-fuda that mark important events. So, for example, the o-fuda from our wedding and Mayuki’s Hatsumiyamairi are still on the kamidana. However, when we went to Shirahata-san this afternoon for a new year prayer, we got an o-fuda marked “First Prayer”, and I will take that back next year. After all, we’ll get another one. In any case, these o-fuda are supposed to be kept on the kamidana, next to the miyagata, until you take them back.

Engimono have been added to the kamidana, in front of the o-fuda, to either side of the miyagataThe second class of things that you keep on the kamidana are the so-called “engimono”, “good luck things”. This includes o-mamori, which are amulets issued by shrines for various purposes, and other similar items. One that you can see in the photograph, on the left, is a hamaya, a good-luck arrow that shrines distribute at new year. (The meaning of the name is disputed, but it is normally written with the characters for “magic destroying arrow”.) Most of these items are also supposed to be returned to a shrine after a year; again, I don’t always. Sometimes they have significant meanings, such as the two o-mamori Yuriko and I got when we performed a ceremony to announce our wedding at Shirahata-san. Sometimes, they’re interesting, and from shrines hundreds of kilometres away that I’m unlikely to visit again. The hamaya, however, does go back to Shirahata-san every year.

Two bunches of sakaki in white ceramic holdersFinally, there are the standard “furnishings” for a kamidana. The first of these is two bunches of sakaki twigs. Sakaki is an evergreen tree endemic to Japan, and it is used in a lot of Shinto ceremonies. The sakaki in the picture is new year sakaki, and you may be able to see that there are pine branches in the front; regular sakaki doesn’t have those. You are supposed to change the sakaki every two weeks, on the first and fifteenth of the month, and for a few days before that florists in Japan sell prepared sakaki bundles. If you forget to buy replacements, the sakaki tends to look very forlorn by the time they come round again. On the old Japanese lunar calendar, the first and fifteenth (or sixteenth) were the new and full moons, respectively, but these days the replacement is done according to the solar calendar, and so has nothing to do with the moon.

The sakaki have now been added to the kamidana, in front of the o-fuda but behind the hamaya

One bunch of sakaki goes on each side of the miyagata

Next, there are three things that I don’t have on my kamidana. First, it is common to have a polished metal mirror in front of the doors to the shrine. This is because a mirror is a very common symbol of the kami, most famously of Amaterasu. Second, people often have light sources, generally electric these days because of the risk of fire, to either side of the miyagata. Finally, a shimenawa, or sacred rope, across the top is also common. We don’t have one of them because I haven’t sorted out how to fix it yet. The mirror and the lights are missing because I haven’t been able to afford them yet…

Five ceramic vessels on a wooden platformFinally, there are the offerings to the kami. These offerings should not be placed directly on the kamidana, but instead on a special tray called a “sanbō”. The name means “three directions”, and comes from the fact that there are decorative holes in three sides of the base. The side of the base without a hole is the front, and should be placed facing towards the kami. The offerings are placed on top of it, often, as here, in white ceramic containers. There are four standard offerings.

The first is rice. This can be cooked or not, although we normally offer it uncooked, because it keeps longer. This is the most important of the offerings, and is placed nearest to the kami.

A photograph with labels to show the arrangement of the offeringsThe second is sake, rice wine. This is next in importance, and it is normal to have two bottles of sake in the offerings.

Finally, water and salt are offered, and these two are furthest away from the kami.

In principle, you are supposed to change the offerings every day, but that doesn’t happen at our house; they get changed when I change the sakaki, so normally every two weeks. Normally, you eat the things that have been offered to the kami after they are taken down, but because the rice has been sitting out in the open for a couple of weeks, I just throw it away. The sake, however, is poured into a jar to be used later; the sake jars, as you can see, have lids, so it is fine.

[Edit 2021/01: Well, I wrote that ten years ago and it is no longer true. I would not recommend that anymore, even though it is standard practice and the form that some priests recommend; rather, I recommend that you put the offerings on the kamidana immediately before you pay your respects, and take them down immediately afterwards, so that there is no problem eating them. Paying your respects every day is still the ideal. My guide to Shinto Practice for Non-Japanese has more details, and my Mimusubi blog has more details on why this is not as straightforward as you might think.]

You can also offer other things to the kami, particular food that you don’t see very often. Rice, water, salt, and sake are the staples, so seasonal vegetables and sea food are standard offerings. It is unusual, although not unheard of, to offer meat to the kami. You can also offer inedible things, like books or flowers. As with the standard offerings, you would use the item after it is taken down; that is, in fact, the main point. A central part of Shinto worship is the common meal with the kami, where you eat the food offered to them.

The offerings are placed on the kamidana, in front of the miyagata, which is why it is placed towards the back. Once the offerings are in place, the kamidana is complete, and you can properly venerate the kami at your own household shrine.

The kamidana with the offerings added in the front centre, in front of the miyagata

Since writing this article, I have written An Introduction to Shinto, and a guide to Shinto Practice for Non-Japanese, both available from Amazon. I’m also writing a series of in-depth essays on Shinto, supported through Patreon. If you are interested in learning more about Shinto, I invite you to have a look, and consider becoming a patron.

Happy New Year

Happy new year, everyone. I hope you all have a really good one. Even though I was the only one to make it to the shrine at midnight, Yuriko and Mayuki are still asleep as I type this. Maybe next year Mayuki will be excited enough to remain awake until midnight.