David Chart's Japan Diary

July 6th 2007

As mentioned in the blog, I've had a very busy couple of months, which is why I haven't had time to update the diary. As a result, one of things I want to write about happened over a month ago. I hope I can still remember it properly...

Yushima Tenjin Great Festival

Yushima Tenjin is the shrine where Yuriko and I got married. Thus, I wanted to go to see their biggest annual festival, or matsuri. This happened over three days, from May 25th to 27th, and I went on the Sunday. The 25th is a significant day of the month for Tenjin shrines, because it's the date on which Sugawara no Michizane (who is enshrined there) died. However, the month in which the main festival is held varies from one shrine to another.

One element of a Shinto festival is the food, game, and souvenir stands that get set up in the shrine grounds and along the roads leading to it. These are one of the main attractions for most people, and there are standard types of food on offer: takoyaki (fried octopus balls), okonomiyaki (savoury pancake), yakisoba (fried noodles), taiyaki (cakes in the shape of fish filled with red bean paste), and so on. Chocolate-covered bananas also seem to be fairly standard these days. There were a lot of people milling around, taking advantage of the food stands. Yushima Tenjin also had displays of flower arranging and bonsai in the covered corridors around the edge of the shrine precincts; these areas were a bit quieter. This is not standard, however.

The taiko performance The taiko performance.

Another non-standard element, which was a lot of fun, was the taiko performance. Taiko is Japanese drumming, and it really is a performance, not just music. The players move around, throw their sticks in the air and (usually) catch them, change drums, and pose and dance. The group performing at the festival are associated with the shrine, although I'm not sure exactly how; they're called "White Ume Taiko", where "ume" is the Japanese plum, a tree particularly associated with Sugawara no Michizane. The shrine has an extensive ume garden. It's also an all-female troupe. There is no tradition restricting taiko to women; indeed, I think the performers are usually men, so I have no idea why this group isn't.

I like taiko. It has a fast tempo, and is a very energetic and stimulating sort of music, plus the antics of the performers are fun to watch. It is, however, something that I would not expect to translate well to CD; when it's live, you can feel the vibrations of the percussion as well as hear them, which is an important part of the fun.

The inclusion of a taiko group is not completely random; taiko have a close association with shrines. Just about every shrine of any size has at least one taiko, which is beaten before all ceremonies. The standard explanation is that this is to stimulate the kami, but, of course, it also serves as a useful signal that everything is getting started.

A mikoshi at Yushima Tenjin One of the mikoshi and its carrying team, after presenting it at the shrine.

The next major element was the mikoshi procession. This is rather more typical, although not universal. A mikoshi is a palanquin for the kami. Each mikoshi is maintained by a group of, normally, local residents, and they gather together enough people to carry it for the procession. This takes quite a few people. The mikoshi themselves are very elaborate, generally gilded, and not at all cheap. As a result, only the larger shrines tend to have mikoshi these days. Indeed, there are groups of people who go around various festivals helping to carry the mikoshi, because they like it, and otherwise there wouldn't be enough people to do it. Large shrines can have a lot of mikoshi, however; Yushima Tenjin has about half a dozen, and Kanda Myoujin (of which more below) has 216. Yes, two hundred and sixteen. That may well be the highest number in the country, though.

As you can see, but probably not quite make out, from the picture, the mikoshi has a phoenix on top. This is standard; when palanquins were used for transporting human beings as well, only the Emperor and the kami were allowed a phoenix on theirs. If you look carefully at the bottom centre of the main body of the mikoshi, you can just make out that these mikoshi also had small torii (the gates at the entrances to Shinto shrines) on them, another element that I believe is quite common. The people carrying each mikoshi wear uniform jackets, called happi, with a kanji character or badge on the back. This character is traditionally the name of the local group that looks after the mikoshi and organises the procession. Men and women can carry the mikoshi, but, because it's heavy, there tend to be more men doing it. In addition, it get very hot, so men, who can get away with wearing nothing but a loincloth under the happi, are probably more comfortable. As you can see, some men are wearing long trousers, but given the weather that day, I suspect that they regretted that choice.

The mikoshi procession has three elements. First, the kami is sent out from the shrine into the mikoshi. Then, he (or she, but Tenjin is male) is carried around the local area. This serves two purposes. First, it's nice for them to get out occasionally. Actually, there really does seem to be an element of the kami enjoying the trip, and getting to see new scenery, in the thinking behind it. There is definitely a strong element of restoring the kami's power by shaking him around and making lots of noise, and an element of taking the kami around the area he is particularly responsible for to see the lay of the land. Second, by carrying the kami around the area, the whole area gets purified.

A mikoshi at Yushima Tenjin One mikoshi being presented at the shrine.

Finally, the mikoshi is brought back to the shrine, and the kami gets out and goes back home. This is the bit I watched and took photos of, although I didn't actually spot Tenjin moving from the mikoshi.

Traditional Shinto music was played, while the groups carrying the shrine made their way down the main route through the shrine precincts. In general, there are a couple of people walking ahead of the mikoshi carrying something symbolic (paper lanterns, in the case in the photograph), then the mikoshi, then a bunch more people. You need more people because, apparently, most people can only cope with ten to fifteen minutes of supporting a mikoshi before they need a break, so you need other people there to swap with.

When the mikoshi made it to the space in front of the shrine, there was a lot of shouting and moving the mikoshi back and forth and side to side, probably as part of the proceedings. Then the people carrying the mikoshi held it up above their heads for a few seconds; that's the bit you can see in the picture.

Now we get to the bit I can't remember properly because it was over a month ago; specifically, I'm not absolutely sure of the order in which these elements happened. The head priest of the shrine waved the onusa (a paper shaker, used to purify things) over the mikoshi. And one member of the group stood on a table in front of everyone, banged some sticks together, and everyone in the group clapped together in a particular pattern. That, I know, does have some significance, but I'm not sure exactly what it is. The pattern of clapping apparently varies depending on the region of Japan, which can lead to some embarrassment if people move.

Finally, the mikoshi were carried off again, presumably to be taken back to their sheds for next year; that's when I took the first picture, because there weren't so many people around watching.

There were a lot of people there taking photos. Most of them were Japanese, and a few, mainly young women and girls, were wearing yukatas. The only men I saw wearing traditional outfits were involved, however. One of the priests in the shrine, in full get up, was taking photos on his digital camera, which looked slightly incongruous, but it is, of course, perfectly natural for the shrine to want to record of the festival.

Overall, the festival was very lively and energetic; much more rowdy than a church fete in England. It's more like a carnival, really. However, the elements I saw are not, in fact, the main elements of the festival, even though they are what most Japanese people would think of if you said "matsuri" to them. The main elements are much calmer, and I had an opportunity to experience them at a different festival on Sunday last week.

Hie Jinja Sakutansai

This year, I am taking an open course on Shinto at Kokugakuin University, which has the largest course for training Shinto priests in Japan. As part of the course, they organised a trip to two important shrines in Tokyo.

Immediately, we run into terminology problems. These were not tourist trips; they were trips to shrine services, or ceremonies, or festivals, or to worship. Except that none of those words are quite right; the western associations are a bit off. The Japanese term is "sanpai", which means, roughly "go and pay your respects". This is actually quite a common problem; I've gone off calling kami "gods", because the definitions don't quite work. If you apply the Christian definition of "god", Shinto is atheist, because none of the myriad kami meet that definition. On the other hand, if you take the Shinto definition and apply it to "god", almost all varieties of Christianity come out as polytheist, because angels, saints, and even the devil all qualify as "gods" on the Shinto definition. Obviously, it's wildly unhelpful to describe Christianity as polytheistic, and possibly even more unhelpful to describe Shinto as atheistic, but it's also unhelpful to use "god" in two such different senses. Similarly for "service" or "festival", or even "worship". "Ceremony" is correct, but a bit too neutral. So, since I'm actually going to describe what happened, let's call them "sanpai".

The course is quite big; over 200 people are taking it. Most of them wanted to go on the sanpai, so the university hired two large coaches to get us between the two shrines. I suspect that most groups this large would have had trouble getting permission to attend en masse, but we had an advantage. It's virtually certain that the overwhelming majority of priests at both shrines are graduates of Kokugakuin. We all gathered at Hie Jinja, and one advantage of being the only white person on the course became clear. As soon as I appeared, the organiser waved me over, and gave me my slip of paper indicating my bus. Most people had to tell her their names first... (I also have little problem finding my name on the attendance record for the classes; just look for the one that isn't in kanji.)

The entrance to Hie Jinja One of the entrances to Hie Jinja. The style of torii is specific to shrines in this group.

Hie Jinja is one of the largest shrines in Tokyo. It enshrines the guardian deity of Edo Castle, the current Imperial Palace, and is also the heart of one of the biggest Tokyo festivals. The festival that we went to was a lot smaller, and just had the important bit; no food stands, no mikoshi, no taiko performance (sort of).

The Sakutansai is a festival performed at Hie Jinja on the first of every month, with the exception of January 1st, when there is a bigger festival for the new year. I think people can generally attend by appointment, but normally not in groups of 150 or so.

The first stage of a sanpai is symbolically cleaning your hands with water. We did this, and then went through to sit on benches in the lower part of the shrine building. One advantage of this was that we didn't have to take our shoes off. Once we were all seated, we had to wait for the other attendees to get organised.

The proceedings started with one of the priests beating a really big taiko, and then the priests, miko, and other attendees filed into the lower hall, where we were sitting. One of the priests then went to stand in front of an onusa, and said a purification liturgy. Next, another priest took the onusa, and shook it over the priests, the other attendees, and finally us, to purify us all. This is also an absolutely standard opening. Everyone else then went up to the next level of the hall, taking their shoes off. One attendee arrived late, so he got purified individually while the ceremony was going on.

The chief priest then bowed to the kami, and the ceremony got underway.

The first stage was bringing in the offerings to the kami. These are traditionally food and drink, particularly including rice, water, salt, and sake. However, other items are also offered; there were fruit and vegetables that I noticed, and there may have been fish as well. Meat is generally not offered, although there are some shrines that are exceptions. The offerings are placed on small, portable trays and tables, and these trays are placed in front of the kami.

This was interesting, because it took a lot of people to do it. For the part I could see, one priest brought the offerings in from the left of the shrine (from where we were looking, so formally probably the right), holding the tray at about eye level. He was met at the centreline of the shrine by another priest, who bowed, and then took the tray, holding it at about the same level. The first priest then bowed back, and left to get the next offering.

The second priest took the tray a bit further back into the shrine, without crossing the centre, and handed it over to a third priest, standing on the left, in the same way. The third priest handed it to a fourth priest, on the right, and the fourth priest handed it to a fifth, again on the left. This priest finally placed the tray on a table in the rear of the shrine. Thus, the offerings were passed back and forth across the centre of the shrine. Another interesting point is that the colour of a Shinto priest's trousers depend on his rank, so it was clear that the priests got steadily higher in rank as the tray was passed over, with the highest ranking priest actually placing them on the table.

Next, we all read the purification liturgy together. There is a fairly fixed way of doing this, and we had a practice in the previous lecture of the course. Part of it is that you breathe when you run out of breath, and just pick up again wherever everyone else is up to, the idea being that there are no really audible breaks. The last phrase is interesting, because the final syllable is extended on a falling tone that sort of trails off. The whole liturgy is in tenth century Japanese, but with it written down I can tell roughly what is going on.

After purification, the head priest offered the liturgy for the festival. This, I couldn't really hear, much less understand.

The next bit was interesting again. There was a large, golden gohei standing in the back of the shrine. A gohei is normally made of folded paper, and looks a bit like two lightning bolts on a stick. This one was almost as big as the head priest (that's a slight exaggeration), and certainly wasn't made of paper. Equally certainly, it wasn't made of gold, because he picked it up. While a couple of other priests beat taikos, he waved the gohei over the attendees, priests, and us. I don't know exactly what this symbolised. It might have been purification, or it might have been distributing the power of the kami.

We then had to chant the Imperial Rescript on Education together. The head priest did explain a bit about why this was included at the end of sanpai, but I followed very little of his talk at that point. It was issued in the Meiji period (late nineteenth century), so it can't be that traditional.

The next element was kagura, sacred dance. One of the miko, carrying a green branch, danced in front of the kami. This version of kagura, at least, is very slow, stately, and elegant.

We then came to the offering of the tamagushi. A tamagushi is a sakaki branch with white paper strips tied to it. (Sakaki is an evergreen plant very closely associated with Shinto practices.) The attendees who were sitting in the upper section all offered tamagushi themselves, and a couple of the professors did so on our behalf. They received the tamagushi from a priest, then bowed, placed the tamagushi on a table towards the rear of the shrine, then bowed twice, clapped twice, and bowed once. When our representatives were doing it, we bowed and clapped with them.

That concluded the main shrine bit of the festival. Most of the attendees went off to an associated shrine, and we had a short talk from the head priest, which, as I mentioned, I almost completely failed to follow. He didn't have a very loud voice, so I suspect I may not have been the only person having problems. We then had a brief presentation on the Rebuilding of the Grand Shrines of Ise, which happens every twenty years. The current one is the 62nd, and will be completed in six years' time. The budget is, apparently, 55,000,000,000 yen, or about half a billion dollars, all of which will be raised from donations from Japanese companies and individuals; there is no state contribution.

After that ever-so-slightly subtle pitch for money (they didn't actually say "so give us money"; and the Grand Shrines are legally and financially completely unconnected to Hie Jinja), we moved to the associated shrine to bow and clap as some completely unrelated people offered their tamagushi. That caused a bit of confusion, because the priest escorting us told us to do it while our representatives were doing so, and these people were nothing to do with us.

After that, we received a saucer with a small amount of sake each, as a symbolic meal with the kami, and got on our buses. There, bags with luck charms and some rice from the shrine were handed out. The rice is, symbolically, our share of the food offered to the kami. Well, I suppose it really had been offered, but the amount was very symbolic. (I've received rather less symbolic amounts from the local shrine on occasion; the offerings are eaten by people afterwards.)

Kanda Myoujin Sanpai

Kanda Myoujin Kanda Myoujin main shrine. The straw ring is for summer purification; we processed through it, but it wasn't closely related to our visit.

The next shrine was Kanda Myoujin. This is another of the biggest shrines in Tokyo, with, as mentioned above, a main festival involving 216 mikoshi. This time, we were not attending a festival, but just a formal sanpai. They may well have a festival for the first of the month, but it was probably over by the time we got there.

After washing our hands, we all lined up to process into the shrine, led by a priest, two miko, and three musicians playing traditional Shinto music. This time, we got to go up into the shrine building, and so had to take our shoes off. There were also no seats, so we had to kneel in seiza during the ceremony. It's a good job I practise doing that. (And this is one of the reasons I practise it; living in Japan, it occasionally becomes necessary all of a sudden.)

As always, the first step was to purify us all by reading the purification liturgy and waving an onusa over us. Then the head priest read a prayer (norito) for us. This had been written specifically for us. I could tell, because I could understand enough to know that it was telling the kami that a group of people studying at Kokugakuin had come, and would they please help us with our studies, and with life in general. This is a standard feature of a formal sanpai, and if the purpose of the sanpai is a bit non-standard, you are quite likely to get a unique norito. Even if it's standard, your name is inserted.

Next, two miko danced kagura. This was a slightly different dance from the one at Hie Jinja, but equally slow and elegant. Kagura is not a normal part of a formal sanpai. Then the professor offered the tamagushi, we all bowed and clapped, and the sanpai was over.

The head priest then talked to us a bit about the shrine. This time, I understood most of it. There are three kami enshrined in the main building: Ebisu, Daikokuten, and Taira no Masakado. The first two are popular kami of prosperity, probably from India originally, although they have been assimilated to native kami over the years. The last is interesting. He rebelled against the emperor in the tenth century, taking the title of "New Emperor", and after being defeated he was enshrined as a kami to stop him cursing everyone. He lived in the area north of where Tokyo now is, and was quite a popular kami here. However, when the Meiji Emperor visited Kanda Myoujin, Taira no Masakado was moved to a separate building, because the ideology of the period was not happy with a rebel being enshrined there. After the Second World War, however, he was moved back.

The shrine building was completely destroyed in the war. This is unsurprising, as Tokyo was firebombed almost flat. However, when they came to rebuild it, they decided to rebuild in reinforced concrete, rather than the traditional wood. This was, apparently, quite controversial at the time, but it is now the oldest reinforced concrete shrine building in Japan, and a designated cultural property (I'm not sure what level; I didn't quite catch that bit).

Then we got to see the shrine museum, which is mainly about the big festival that they have every two years. As the priest showing us round said, the shrine doesn't actually have any treasures; they were all destroyed in the war. The festival does, however, look spectacular; I will have to go to see it some time.

So, that's it. All Shinto stuff this time. That ended up rather longer than I anticipated.