A Wedding and The Grand Shrines of Ise

Last weekend we went on a little trip. One of Yuriko’s cousins was getting married in Gifu (near Nagoya), so we went to that, and then extended the trip a bit to go to Ise and visit the shrines. The wedding was on Sunday, so Yuriko and Mayuki went to Nagoya on Saturday to stay with Yuriko’s parents. I was, as usual, teaching on Saturday, so I got the shinkansen early in the morning, getting up at half past five. Apart from that, however, the journey went very smoothly.

Mayuki in a blue dress and tiara

I'm a Princess!

The wedding itself was very nice. Mayuki was all dressed up in the dress she picked out for herself, and informed me on several occasions that she was a princess. She was quite lively when I arrived, but was happy to go into the ceremony. That was Shinto style, in a shrine room inside the wedding complex. Mayuki started getting a bit sleepy during it, and climbed on my knee. Then, while the miko were dancing, she fell asleep. She stayed sound asleep to the end of the ceremony, and all through the group photograph, and as we made our way to the reception hall, and sat at our table. Then the staff brought a bed for her, and as I went to put her in it, she woke up. Of course.

Her first reaction was surprise. “It’s not the kami’s place anyone. It’s turned into a restaurant!” She got into the restaurant aspect, eating quite a lot of her dinner, and using the bed as a place to play, and dance when there was music. At a Japanese wedding reception, there are very often performances by some of the guests, and this one was no exception. One of the first was an event at which the children (elementary school and under) would help. The staff came round to tell us in advance, so I was able to warn Mayuki in advance, and get her to agree to help.

What she had to do was help burst a balloon that contained a lot of heart-shaped balloons. Before they did that, though, the MC asked all of them questions, and she asked Mayuki how old she was. “I’m three!” she said, very loudly and clearly. Obviously, she hasn’t quite got around to being shy yet. Mayuki was very taken with the balloons that came out, and spent the rest of the reception playing with them. Towards the end, when all the emotional and sentimental speeches got going, I decided it was time to take her out of the reception hall, and go and play with the balloons in the corridor. I have no idea where she gets all her energy from, but there was a lot of playing involved.

We all spent that night at Yuriko’s parents, where Mayuki made the most of the fact that it’s a house, not a flat, so she can run and jump up and down on the floor without Yuriko getting stressed or annoyed.

On the Monday, we set out for Ise. The second typhoon of the season had gone over during the night, and it was still wet and windy, but Yuriko’s parents gave us a lift to the underground station, so we had no problem. The train to Ise, however, was delayed en route by about an hour, because the winds were too strong for it to travel. By the time we arrived at Ise, shortly after one, the wind had gone down quite a bit, and the sun was out.

The Grand Shrines of Ise comprise 125 shrines in total, of which two, the Outer Shrine and the Inner Shrine, are the most important. The long-established custom is that you visit both, but visit the Outer Shrine first. Conveniently, the Outer Shrine is about five minutes’ walk from the railway station, so there was little problem doing that.

Mayuki picking up stones

Stones are very interesting

The shrines are very simple, and set in natural woodland, which makes them extremely pleasant to visit. Mayuki enjoyed running around and picking up the stones and gravel on the paths, while Yuriko and I enjoyed the fact that it wasn’t very busy on a Monday. There were signs telling us to walk on the left, but not enough people to make it necessary.

The two main shrines are simple wooden buildings with thatched roofs, rebuilt every twenty years, surrounded by four layers of fence. The outermost layer is of planks, so that you cannot see through it, but the inner layers are of posts, so that you can see a bit. There is no worship hall, so most people go through the first fence and venerate the shrine in front of the gate through the second fence. However, if you’re a member of the sukeikai, as I am, you can go one layer further in.

First, you have to sign your name in the visitor book. Then a priest leads you through a small gate, and purifies you while you are still outside the second fence. At most shrines, this purification is done with an onusa, a wooden baton with many paper streamers attached. However, at the Ise shrines they do it by scattering salt from a small bowl, using a small branch of sakaki (the evergreen tree closely associated with Shinto). After the purification, the priest leads you round to a gate through the second fence (not the one that most people pay their respects at), and then to the centre of the area between the second and third fences, where you venerate the shrine from in front of a torii. Then the priest leads you out again.

Mayuki was being squirmy through all of this, and as we tried to leave, we found out why. She wanted to write her name in the visitors’ book as well. Our attempts to persuade her that it was not necessary failed, so in the end we asked the priests for permission, and they said she could. She made a definite effort to write her name; although the characters were not right, it was obvious what she was trying to write. I’m not quite sure what the next people made of her signature, though.

In addition to the main shrines, there are 123 smaller shrines, and three of these are up a hill just across from the Outer Shrine, so we visited those as well. Mayuki was in a good mood, although she wanted to be carried, but instead of clapping twice she patted her head and stomach, like a monkey. Luckily, I think the kami have a sense of humour.

We were staying at the Jingu Kaikan, which is associate with the shrines, and very close to the Inner Shrine. The room had a nice view, and the food was very good, so Yuriko and I were very happy. After going to the big bath, Mayuki discovered that a vending machine in the lobby sold her favourite blue ice cream, so she was very happy as well.

One of the services the Kaikan offers to guests is a free early morning guided visit to the Inner Shrine. That started at 6:30, so I left Yuriko and Mayuki to get more sleep. It was extremely good. The weather was perfect, not too hot, but sunny, and with the fresh air of early morning. As we arrived at the Inner Shrine before 7am, it was not very busy, although there were other people there. The guide told us quite a bit about the shrine as we went round, and while I knew quite a bit of it already, there was a lot that was new to me. For example, the next rebuilding of the shrines will happen in 2013, but the bridge over the river was rebuilt last year. This is because the first post-war rebuilding was supposed to happen in 1950, but Japan didn’t have the resources to do it then (and there was some resistance to doing it while Japan was still occupied). However, the bridge was getting unsafe, so that was rebuilt on schedule in 1950. The main rebuilding happened (obviously) in 1953, so the bridge, which was originally replaced in the same year as the main shrines, is now replaced three years earlier.

Similarly, most of the offerings to the kami at Ise are made by the shrine from the products of its own lands. The exception is the sake, which can only legally be made by a licensed sake brewer. All the shrine’s sake is bought from one brewer, Hakutaka in Kobe. Before the war, many brewers offered sake to the shrine, but as the war progressed and conditions in Japan got harder, most of them stopped. Hakutaka was the only one to keep up offerings all through the war, and now, to repay that, the shrines get all their sake from the company.

I have to say that I like these sorts of developments of tradition. You can’t work the reason out from the tradition as it currently is, so the history is important. No-one would have decided to do things this way if they were designing the tradition from scratch, so it gives the whole thing a natural feel, which is very appropriate to Shinto.

Mayuki posing at the bottom of the stone steps up to the Inner ShrineAfter breakfast, I went back to the Inner Shrine, this time with Yuriko and Mayuki, and Mayuki enjoyed collecting stones and running around again. We went to pay our respects at the Inner Shrine as well, and this time we asked the priests if Mayuki could write her name before we went in. Fortunately, they gave her permission, so she carefully wrote her name once more, and then joined us, walking into the inner area and venerating the shrine properly. For a moment, it looked like she was going to imitate a monkey again, instead of clapping properly, but she thought better of it. By many accounts the Inner Shrine of Ise is the most sacred shrine in Japan, so maybe the atmosphere suggested to her that she should not play around there.

After that, we went to the tourist trap street outside the shrine for lunch and souvenir shopping. It is a very nice tourist trap, and after lunch Mayuki stressed Yuriko by insisting on walking barefoot, but we did manage to get some nice souvenirs. While Yuriko was doing her last bit of shopping, a young woman started a taiko performance near the shop, so I took Mayuki to see it. She was rapt, turning to me once to comment that the drumming was fast. I enjoyed the performance as well, and there’s a taiko group fairly near to us, so that’s another possibility for Mayuki’s musical development.

As we headed to the station to go home, black clouds moved in and the good weather came to an end. All in all, we timed it very well.

Posted in Our Child, Shinto, Travel.

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