David Chart's Japan Diary

January 4th 2004

I've just got back from my weekend with Yuriko and her friends, which included staying with her parents and visiting the Grand Shrines of Ise, the holiest places in Shinto. The narrative will make more sense in boring, conventional chronological order, so I'll back up a bit.

January 2nd (Friday)

Me with the Yamamotos Me with Yuriko's parents, at their house in Nagoya.

Yuriko lives in Tokyo, but she was born in Nagoya and her parents still live there. Thus, she spends New Year and O-Bon (an August holiday) in Nagoya, which is why I was able to spend some time with her. She borrowed her parents' car to drive over, with her friend Hana, and pick me up late on Friday afternoon. Yuriko wanted to see my school, so we drove over to Yamasa first and had a quick look around. It was all closed, of course, so we could only see the outsides of the buildings.

Then we got lost for the first time over the weekend, as Yuriko turned the wrong way onto the main road and we got quite a long way before she realised that she was going in completely the wrong direction. After we straightened that little problem out, it was a fairly straight run to Nagoya, and we only got a little bit lost in the city itself.

At Yuriko's parents' house, they had prepared dinner for us, with traditional winter foods, and I think some of the ingredients were from their farm in Gifu. (That was where we were originally going, but there had been too much snow.) At any rate, the food was very good, and I ate quite a lot. Afterwards, I played the very simple version of a game she has played at New Year's for years with Yuriko, and then went to bed, ready for a very early start the following day.

January 3rd (Saturday)

On Saturday, we had to get up at about six, in order to get the ten past eight train from Nagoya to Ise. Because we bought our tickets at the station, and because all the seats were assigned, the four of us (we had been joined by Yuriko's friend Yuriko) were split up a bit. This might have been a problem, except that I may have actually fallen asleep on the train -- I certainly came very close.

The Inner Shrine at Ise The queue to enter the inner shrine at Ise through the torii. The torii is near the centre of the picture.

At Ise, we got a bus to the Inner Shrine. This is the holiest place in Shinto, where the Sun Goddess Amaterasu, the mythical ancestress of the Emperors, in enshrined. The shrine also holds the mirror, one of the three sacred treasures of Japan. (The other two are a sword, in a shrine in Nagoya that I must visit, and a jewel, in the Imperial Palace in Tokyo.) Lowly members of the public, like us, can't see the mirror, or even properly enter the shrine, but as the most important shrine in Japan, it is still a popular destination for the Japanese.

Of course, because it is customary to visit a shrine at New Year's, the shrine was even more crowded the usual. Indeed, the queue to enter the main shrine through the torii (wooden gate) was a solid mass of people, as you can see from the photograph. If you were willing to forgo the good luck accruing from a proper entrance, you could move much more quickly, so we did. We greeted the kami-sama properly, and then walked around the outside of the sacred precincts. You aren't allowed to take photographs within the shrine area, so I don't have any.

The Grand Shrines at Ise were established about two thousand years ago, but they are torn down and rebuilt completely every twenty years. Each of the shrines has two sites, which are used alternately, and you can see the empty site when you visit. This is for reasons to do with ritual purity, I believe, and not just because the kami-sama like new houses (that was Yuriko's suggestion, I think).

The shopping street at Ise A couple of the interesting buildings on the street at Ise. The things hanging from the string along the front of the building further back are traditional New Year's ornaments.

After visiting the shrine, along with half the population of Japan, we went to a shopping street, which has served pilgrim-tourists for centuries. This was also thronged with a seething mass of humanity, but it was very interesting. A lot of the buildings are old, and nearly all are old-style. We passed one, and I commented that it looked quite new. Naturally, everyone stopped, and we discovered that it was a small museum dedicated to, er, some famous Japanese artist who probably lived there... All the signs were in Japanese. Anyway, it was very pleasant to look around. We ate Ise udon in the street, and then had tea and traditional Ise sweets in a tea shop with a nice view of the surrounding hills. The tea shop was also incredibly busy.

Both Hana and Yuriko think that very few of the people going to the shrines actually believe in the kami-sama. I suspect that this may be why quite so many people do it. If a lot of the people going believe, then it's a little uncomfortable going when you don't. People who are not Christians at all tend not to go to church at Christmas, for example. However, if almost no-one believes, then there is no problem if you go along even though you don't either. And people like rituals. (From what I know of Shinto, which, admittedly, isn't much, the kami-sama probably don't mind if you don't believe in them, as long as you come.)

We left the shrine at about half-past two, and the rest of the afternoon wasn't quite as good. The Yurikos really wanted to go to an onsen, so, after getting a bit more lost, we did. However, since there were three women and me, this would have meant, effectively, that I would have had to go to the onsen by myself. I didn't want to do that, possibly not at all (I think relaxing in a hot bath for an hour will be more fun with someone to chat to) and certainly not for my first time. In the end, Hana and I went for a drive around the Ise peninsula, without getting too lost, so it wasn't too bad.

In the evening, after getting lost again, we went to a very nice sushi restaurant for dinner. The owner commented that I was good with chopsticks; that's the first time I've actually heard that comment, which foreigners in Japan are supposed to hear all the time. As I pointed out, in Japanese, chopsticks aren't that difficult. That, of course, prompted the observation that I was good at Japanese, and then we had a short English conversation, partly about my studies and partly about making sushi. All in all, dinner was excellent, so the day ended well.

Today (Sunday)

The Noh stage and lake The view from where we ate breakfast. The Noh stage is the structure with the red railings.

Today we took things a lot easier. I didn't get up until half past eight, although Yuriko got up a bit earlier and went to use the open-air bath on the roof of the hotel. Apparently the view was excellent. We left the hotel at half past nine, and walked to the Outer Shrine of Ise. This shrine houses a god of agriculture, and is less sacred, and thus was less heaving, than the Inner Shrine.

We bought breakfast at a combini (24-hour convenience store -- they are everywhere in Japan) and ate it at the shrine, sitting in a shelter looking out over a lake and a Noh stage. The weather was really good, not even cold, really, although Yuriko and Hana (the other Yuriko had had to go home) thought it was. I suspect that summer will be very hot indeed.

A Shrine at Ise One of the lesser shrines at the Outer Shrine of Ise.

We had a nice walk around the Outer Shrine, and I preferred it to the Inner Shrine. In part, I am sure this is because it was less busy. There are three smaller shrines in the grounds, and they were almost quiet. We were never the only people there, but they weren't crowded. However, the landscape is beautiful; steep hills, ancient trees, sunlight breaking through the branches. The shrines also have a simple elegance, as they were first built before China had any influence on Japan. They are largely undecorated, apart from gold facing on some of the beams, and the wood is unpainted. It's been a few years since they were last rebuilt, so plants are growing in the thatch.

Illumination Station The illuminations on the front of Nagoya station.

Shinto is an animist religion, worshipping the local spirits of nature, with rituals tied to the seasons, and in which the major deity is female. (Yes, Japan is what a mature neo-pagan society looks like.) In the quieter bits of the Outer Shrine, I could feel why. The nature around us really seemed bigger than human beings, and its calm beauty deserved respect. One of the older trees and a hundred yen piece in one of the holes in its trunk, presumably an offering from some pilgrim to the spirit of that tree, and that captures, I think, the original spirit of Shinto. All in all, I think it's a good place to get rituals for the seasons and rites of passage.

After visiting the Outer Shrine, we got a slightly slower, and substantially cheaper, train back to Nagoya. This time seats weren't reserved, so once there were seats we managed to sit together. Hana slept most of the way back, and Yuriko and I had a long talk, on subjects ranging from the film Finding Nemo (Or, in Japanese, Faindingu Nimo) to her work in the New Year. We also spoke in English a bit, because we'd been talking Japanese all weekend, and Yuriko wanted some chance to practise her English.

We arrived in Nagoya around three, and went to Sakae, which is one of the major shopping centres in the city. This has an amazing new structure, with a glass roof supporting a shallow pool over a largely open arena surrounded by shops. We had a meal there (lunch, I suppose), and then wandered around and chatted a bit before it was time for Yuriko, and me, to go home. This meant going via Nagoya Station, which meant that I got to see the illuminations on the front of the station before they were taken down. (I think they're coming down on Tuesday.) The trip back to Okazaki was fine, the train as crowded as ever, and when I got back I wrote this diary entry.

This should make it onto the web on Tuesday, when I will also have to try to download the several thousand email messages, mostly spam, which I am sure will have accumulated in my inbox over the last week or so. I'm not particularly looking forward to that...