Visit Tohoku! Sendai and Shiogama

According to a recent article in the Guardian, the number of tourists coming to Japan has fallen sharply. This is, perhaps, because they imagine that Japan is a post-apocalyptic wasteland, glowing with radioactivity and, quite possibly, roamed by gangs of mutant bikers. And Godzilla.

Obviously, this is not the case. There is no problem with radioactivity in Tokyo. Mayuki’s kindergarten is keeping an eye on the readings from Kawasaki, and so far they haven’t felt the need to change their activities at all; we all went to dig up and then eat potatoes for Fathers’ Day, for example. Areas west and south of Tokyo barely felt the earthquake at the time, and weren’t affected by the tsunami.

However, what about Tohoku? As you may have guessed from the title of this article, it’s even an exaggeration in that case. There are still 110,000 people living in evacuation shelters, and less than half the rubble has been cleared even as far as temporary storage areas, but Tohoku is a large area, and there are quite a lot of places it is safe, and fun, to visit.

Yesterday, I went on a day trip to Shiogama Shrine, near Sendai, in Miyagi Prefecture, on the coast and in the heart of the area affected by the disaster. I decided a while ago that something useful I could do for the affected area was to go there and spend money, so I looked for things that I wanted to do. Shiogama Shrine is one of the Ichi no Miya (Number One Shrines), a system that dates back to the twelfth century, and designates some of the most important Shinto shrines in the country. I’ve had a plan to visit all of them for some time, but previously I’d only managed to visit one, so this seemed like a good opportunity to extend the list a bit. As the shrine is close to Sendai, which is a stop on the Tohoku Shinkansen, it’s possible to visit the shrine on a day trip, without a ridiculously early start or late finish. What’s more, JR East Japan has been running a campaign for a one-day pass for the whole region, for 10,000 yen. That’s less than half what it would normally cost to go to and from Shiogama, which decided it.

Of course, I was a little nervous before I went. I had confirmed that the shrine was still there, and still operating more-or-less as normal, and checking the town’s tourist information page, in Japanese, showed that they were planning to hold a festival next week. So, it sounded as though I could go and do tourism things. Of course, I was still a bit worried about what the people in the town would think. The idea was to support their recovery, so if they felt I was getting in the way, or just coming to look at “the victims”, then that wouldn’t be any good at all. Still, that wasn’t a good enough reason to do nothing, so off I went.

I went by myself, and so part of the enjoyment was the shinkansen ride. I really like riding the express trains, watching Japan’s scenery go past, and just relaxing. Obviously, it’s not quite the same when Yuriko and Mayuki are there, so yesterday was a rare chance.

The main purpose of my trip was to visit the shrine. The old “kuni” were very big in northern Japan, so Shiogama Shrine was the Ichi no Miya for current Aoyama, Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima prefectures, which is almost all the regions seriously affected by the disaster. (Ibaraki and Chiba were also seriously hit, although to a lesser extent.) Thus, in a sense Shiogama Shrine is the tutelary shrine for the regions affected by the disaster, and I planned to go and have a ceremony done to ask for the fast recovery of the stricken areas. Even if you believe that those ceremonies have a supernatural effect (and I’m not convinced), one more from me wouldn’t make much difference, given that the people who live there are presumably making similar requests quite a lot. However, it did strike me as a good way to leave money in the area, which was another of my main purposes.

However, I was a bit nervous about it, for a couple of reasons. First, it is very unusual to make such general requests at a shrine. It might be normal to pray for disaster victims in a church, but it’s not what you normally do at a shrine. You normally go to a shrine to make personal requests. Thus, I was a bit worried that it might be out of order in general. Even if it wasn’t, I was concerned that it might not be appropriate for an ordinary person from outside the region to just turn up and do it, and that it might seem arrogant and condescending. Still, again, these were not good enough reasons to do nothing, so I went from the station to the shrine, as planned.

Beyond a torii, a steep flight of stone steps climbs a hill to between tall trees

The entrance to Shiogama Shrine

Arriving at the main entrance, the reason why the shrine had not suffered from the tsunami was immediately obvious. Indeed, since it is very common for shrines to be on hills, they have, apparently, suffered relatively little in the disaster. The older shrines, in particular, were built on firm ground, and above the reach of the tsunami. That’s not to say that no shrines were damaged, far from it, but, on average, they have not been major victims.

I managed to get all the way up to the shrine, and soon found the reception desk for ceremonies; there was a big sign just to the left of the entrance. There was hardly anyone in the shrine, but there was a group of people there when I arrived. By the time I had filled in my request form, they had gone to the waiting room, so when I handed over the request, and the money in the formal envelope, there was no-one else there. The priest on the desk didn’t react much, but then I hadn’t expected to be told I couldn’t have the ceremony done. He just told me that I would have to wait for the other group to finish, and directed me to the waiting area, which was quite large. I took my jacket out of my rucksack while I was waiting, because while you should dress formally, with a jacket and tie, for a formal ceremony, I wasn’t about to walk around in a jacket for any longer than necessary.

I had offered enough for a ceremony with kagura, sacred dance, because I wasn’t there to save money, and while I waited I could see the miko taking a koto and other equipment into the worship hall of the shrine. After about twenty minutes, a priest came to collect me. He was fairly senior (he had purple hakama on), but not the chief priest (who would have had white patterns on purple hakama, at least). I’d guess he was the senior priest on duty yesterday. I put my jacket on, and followed him across.

The buildings at Shiogama Shrine are over three hundred years old, so I had to take my shoes off at the bottom of the steps into the worship hall. Fortunately, I had anticipated this possibility, and worn new socks with no holes. Inside the shrine, there were no chairs, so I knelt on the tatami mats. Practising formal kneeling pays off for me repeatedly. I knelt to one side of the worship hall, while on the other side there were four of the shrine staff: two priests, and two miko. The miko were in their full kagura regalia. First, the junior priest purified us all, as normal, and then the senior priest went to the main sanctuary to read the norito. The sanctuary is a separate building from the worship hall at Shiogama Shrine, so disappeared from view. However, they have set up a system to allow you to hear your norito.

That was the point when I largely stopped worrying, because the norito was specially written to ask for recovery from the disaster. Now, I suppose that a priest with a lot of experience and talent could have written a norito in that twenty minute slot, as well as getting his ritual clothes on, but it’s not very likely. What that indicated to me was that other people had been making similar requests, enough to justify writing a norito for it, and so it was not strange at all.

During the norito, you bow your head, and when I looked up there were another two miko on the other side of the room. I’m pretty sure they weren’t there to start with, but they might have been sitting back a bit. One was sitting at the koto, the other at the drum. Next was the kagura, a dance called Ichi no Mori. Two of the miko danced, holding kagura-suzu, with lots of small bells and trailing ribbons, while one played the koto and the other beat the drum and sang.

Finally, I had to offer my tamagushi (sakaki branch), and I was briefly confused because there were two tables in front of me. Fortunately, a questioning glance at the priests elicited the information that I should put it on the smaller table. Then I returned to my place, and the senior priest brought my o-fuda, which also had “Recovery Ceremony” apparently printed on the paper; clearly not unusual. He also brought a really big bottle of o-miki, sacred sake, as part of the offerings that you always receive after a ceremony. That’s a bit of a shame, since neither Yuriko nor I drinks sake, but refusing it would have been very inappropriate. We will find a good use for it, somehow. (It will probably end up being offered on our kamidana.)

Me, the senior priest, and the two miko who danced

Spot the Foreigner

Then he asked me where I was from, and how long I’d been in Japan, and thanked me for having the ceremony. That set my mind at ease. The priests do not normally thank you, so it obviously meant that he was pleased that I had asked for the ceremony. Indeed, once we had left the worship hall he offered to have a photograph taken of me with him and the two miko who danced. For once, I remembered to ask for permission to put it online, so here it is.

After that, the priest stayed with me for a bit, explaining a bit about the shrine and some of the historic items in the grounds. There are a couple of very old iron lanterns, one of which is spectacularly elaborate. He said that originally there were four of them, but in the last war the government demanded three of them for the iron. He also said that all the lanterns fell over in the earthquake, although they have now been repaired. I got some o-mamori amulets, and the Scarlet Seal (go-shuin) of the shrine, and then took a lot of photographs.

By that time it was getting towards two pm, so I headed down into the town to get something to eat. It seemed that none of the traffic lights in the centre were working, so obviously recovery is still continuing, but the sushi restaurant I had chosen from the guidebook was open, and very nice, if not very busy. The sushi chef asked me why I was there, and when I explained he thanked me for coming all that way to support them. After a very nice lunch, I went to buy some o-miyage (food, so not exactly souvenirs), and the shop had a sign in the window announcing that they had restarted selling their most famous product, which is made with fresh cream. I bought four of those, but they had to be well wrapped-up to survive the journey home. (They did; they were very nice.)

My last visit was to O-Kama Shrine. A “kama” is an iron cauldron, used for cooking and similar, and this shrine literally enshrines four iron cauldrons. The shrine itself is a separate building, but the cauldrons are in an area marked off with shimenawa as a sacred space, and labelled as “Kami Kama”. I made the nominal offering required to get to see them, and the shrine priest explained that one is thought to be about a thousand years old, while the other three are maybe eight hundred years old. The cauldrons were all used for making salt. “Shiogama” means “salt cauldron”, and the kami of the shrine is supposed to have taught people how to make salt. The cauldrons are used once a year, at the beginning of July (so just before I went), to make salt the old-fashioned way, and I was given a packet of the salt as an amulet when I left. Following the priest’s lead, I paid my respects to the cauldrons with the standard double bow, double clap, single bow.

Then I had to head back to Sendai to get the shinkansen home. I took a different line, and the station in Shiogama, which is right down near the harbour, was still clearly damaged and being repaired, but it was also operating more-or-less normally.

Since Shiogama is right next to Matsushima, one of the most beautiful spots in Japan, I suspect that Matsushima is in a similar situation. Certainly, the trains are running between Sendai and Matsushima, and the tourist information web site for Matsushima looks like they are open for business as usual. So, I can recommend Sendai, Shiogama, and possibly Matsushima as places to visit. Normally, now would be a bit late to book for the summer, but this year I suspect you could find somewhere. I recommend it.

Posted in Shrines, Travel.

7 Comments

  1. Wow! Great post, David. I am a fan. I never knew exactly what the ichi no miya thing meant. Good on you for going to support the local economy 🙂 Fascinating that there are ceremonies for recovery. Just curious– how much was the ceremony with kagura? I’ve never seen it offered before (not that I was particularly looking, I guess) ichi mon yon sen gurai kanaa? Just wondering

  2. Thanks for the comment; I’m glad you like the article.

    At Shiogama Shrine, ceremonies with kagura start at 30,000 yen (which is about $375 at the moment). The form that you fill in when you make your request goes up to 100,000 yen, and then has a space for giving even more. I suspect that you might get a different, longer kagura if you offer more money, but I don’t know.

    It’s very nearly standard for a personal ceremony to be 5,000 yen and up, but they aren’t prices, as such, and different shrines have different guidelines.

  3. Thanks for the comment, Avery. This one is an experience you really can just pay for, at some shrines at least, so all you need to do is save up. Possibly including saving up to travel to Japan if you’re not here already, which would push the overall cost up quite a bit…

  4. Wow, thanks for the info. Yes, I’ve done the standard 5,000 yen-type. I guess you put some $$ back into the community– good work. Keep up the posting!

  5. nice article.My daughter is living in Sendai and I’m looking for things to do when I visit.Could you let me know the name of the sushi restaurant you went to,

  6. kerry, thanks for the comment. The sushi restaurant was Sushi Shirahata: 鮨しらはた. I assume your daughter can read the Japanese even if you can’t. They are normally closed 15:00-16:30 on weekdays, and all day on Tuesday, according to my (Japanese) guidebook. They also have a Japanese webpage, linked from the name.

    I hope you have a nice visit.

Leave a Reply