Toyokawa Inari Tokyo Betsuin

The main building of the temple, and the approach.

It's a temple, not a shrine

The first shrine I visited on my walk along the Ōyama Kaidō last month was not, in fact, a shrine at all, at least not strictly speaking. Toyokawa Inari Tokyo Betsuin is formally a Zen Buddhist temple. It is also, very clearly, an Inari establishment, and Inari is almost always a Shinto kami.

A vermillion torii and avenue of prayer flags

Don't be fooled; this is not a shrine

So, what’s going on? From around the eighth century to the nineteenth, the borders between Shinto and Buddhism were extremely ill-defined, with many practices and people shifting from one to the other. A lot of early Shinto theology, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, was written by Buddhist monks, for example, and reading Buddhist sutras to held kami achieve nirvana was also very common. The most famous manifestation of this, however, was the doctrine of Honji Suijaku, which said that the kami were local, Japanese manifestations of Buddhist deities. The inverse doctrine, holding that Buddhist deities were different manifestation of the kami, was also popularised by some Shinto priests.

In the late nineteenth century, however, the Meiji government declared that Shinto and Buddhism were clearly separate, issuing a law, the Shinbutsu Bunri Rei, or Law to Separate Kami and Buddhas, which said that all religious institutions and practitioners had to choose to be either Shinto or Buddhist.

The Inari cult started at Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto in the early eighth century, but when KÅ«kai, the founder of Shingon Buddhism, founded Tōji nearby in the late eighth century, he adopted the kami as a protector of his sect’s temples. As a result, many Inari shrines were founded with strong Buddhist elements. Nevertheless, in the Meiji period almost all chose to become shrines, getting rid of much of the Buddhism.

Toyokawa Inari, in Aichi prefecture, was an exception, and it became a Buddhist temple. The one I visited in Akasaka is technically a part of that temple. Karen Smyers did part of her research for The Fox and the Jewel at the one in Aichi, which she says has few obvious foxes. That is not the case in the Tokyo temple.

The combination of Shinto and Buddhist elements was very interesting. The main building did not have a torii, but it did have two fox statues in front of it, like the koma-inu at a shrine. The shrine building at the end of the path marked by the large red torii was built like a shrine, but the items inside were Buddhist style. Similarly, the dedication on the stone at the centre of the crowd of fox statues was to Dakiniten, the Buddhist deity who was assimilated to Inari, not to Inari directly.

A statue of a fox in front of an incense burner

The stone fox looks like it belongs in a shrine, but the incense burner behind it is definitely temple furniture

There were quite a lot of fox statues around, some of them next to distinctively Buddhist items, such as an incense burner. There was also a complete set of statues of the seven gods of good fortune, behind some shrine buildings. The seven gods of good fortune are derived from Shinto, Buddhism, and Hinduism, at least, so they are even more complex than most elements of Japanese religion.

It is interesting to speculate that, two hundred years ago, most Shinto shrines were like this, with sutras being chanted before the kami and incense burned, while monks went about their business. However, Toyokawa Inari had no miko, and even two hundred years ago a shrine would have had them, so this is no more a relic of pre-Meiji practices than any other location. It does, however, provide evidence that the syncretic practices were not completely suppressed by the Meiji law, and were ready to reappear when, eighty years later, the law was repealed by the occupying Americans.

Lots of stone fox statues, arranged on stone shelves

I can't think why so many people think Inari is a fox

Natural Helper Cells

All animals have some way to fight off infections by bacteria, viruses, and parasites. If they didn’t, they would soon die. In mammals, this system is quite complex, and includes two main branches. One, the adaptive immune system, learns about infections the first time they are encountered, and then can deal with them quickly if they come back. This is the system that is used in vaccination. The other system, the innate immune system, has a fixed set of responses, and deals with things that look like they might be dangerous, even though the body has never encountered them before. Today’s paper, by a team led by Kazuyo Moro and Shigeo Koyasu at Keio Medical School, reports more discoveries about the innate immune system.

The immune system includes cells called helper T-cells, which secrete substances, called cytokines, that provoke strong immune responses. If these cells respond to the wrong sort of thing, it can cause serious allergies, and an over-reaction can be fatal, leading to a so-called cytokine storm. There are two main types of helper T-cells, as far as I can tell from this article, TH1 and TH2. However, in the years since they were discovered, many cell types have been found to perform a similar function to TH2 cells, so that the name is now being used to refer to a function, rather than a cell type.

This paper reports the discovery of a new group of TH2-type cells, fat-associated lymphocyte clusters (FALCs), which are clusters of fat cells and natural helper cells, a kind of lymphocyte, found along blood vessels near the intestines. The cells seem to be involved in, at least, responding to parasitic infections of the gut, provoking other cells to react in a way that clears the parasites out of the gut. The authors call them natural helper cells, as they have none of the characteristics of T cells.

So, why is this important? Well, an entirely new class of immune cells is a significant discovery. It’s important to understand the immune system as a whole, and in order to do that we need to know what cells make it up. The better we understand the immune system, the better we can handle it when treating infections and the like. Of course, as the cells have only just been discovered, their full importance is not yet known, so the ultimate significance of this discovery is still uncertain. Science is often like that.

Natural helper cells (Editor’s summary)

Immunology: The expanding TH2 universe (News and Views article: Nature 463, 434-435 (28 January 2010) | doi:10.1038/463434a; Published online 27 January 2010)

Innate production of TH2 cytokines by adipose tissue-associated c-Kit+Sca-1+ lymphoid cells (Original paper: Nature 463, 540-544 (28 January 2010) | doi:10.1038/nature08636; Received 6 October 2009; Accepted 5 November 2009; Published online 20 December 2009)

A Year in the Life of a Shinto Shrine

Here we have another example of a book that does what it says on the cover; a recounting of one year’s festivals and activities at a Shinto shrine, together with comments from various of the priests on matters connected to Shinto, Japan, and the shrine’s operation. The writing is clear and lively, and it gives, I think, a very good idea of what contemporary Shinto is actually like. I would definitely recommend it to anyone who wants to get an insight into the practice of the religion.

However, I do have a few caveats. The book appears to be highly accurate on areas I know about, so I’m inclined to trust his account of the shrine, as he was actually living there and attending the rituals. The biggest error I noticed was in the glossary, where he says that the colour of the hakama worn by priests depends on their rank within the shrine, whether chief priest, senior priest, or whatever. Actually, the colour of the hakama depends on a separate ranking system, but in practice it does seem to correlate closely with rank at the shrine. However, a chief priest at a small shrine might only get the hakama that the assistant chief priests get at his topic shrine. As I said, the book is highly accurate; I think you’d probably have to read the Association of Shinto Shrines regulations to be aware of this distinction, and even then you might elide it in a book.

A larger concern is that the book does not, I think, make it sufficiently clear that his account applies to one shrine, Suwa Shrine in Nagasaki. This is quite a major shrine, associated with one of the largest festivals in Japan, and it has a large staff of priests. To take one example, he refers to the reverence towards Ise as a standard part of rituals. I don’t doubt that it was a standard part of rituals there, but I have never seen it done as part of a ritual. My local shrine doesn’t do it, and I haven’t noticed it in the festivals I’ve attended at other shrines. Maybe it’s a Kyushu custom (Nagasaki is in Kyushu), or maybe it was just the chief priest of that shrine who thought it was a good idea. The rituals and festivals reported in this book are a good example of the sort of thing that happens at a shrine, but the details are not necessarily true of anywhere apart from Suwa Shrine in Nagasaki, and I think that could have been rather more emphasised.

A related concern is Nelson’s attribution of particular interpretations of the rituals to the attendees in general. In some cases, this may be based on interviews with them afterwards, but even so he does seem to generalise more than I’m comfortable with. He quite rightly emphasises that Shinto rituals do not include sermons that specify a particular interpretation, so there is no way to know how most attendees interpret the ritual words and actions.

My criticism is not that the book fails to reflect the diversity of Shinto; that would be asking for the book to be a different book. Rather, I think it fails to make clear that it is only describing one small part of Shinto, and that other shrines are different in many ways. If you read the book bearing that in mind, it is an excellent introduction to Shinto as it is actually practised.


We’re almost certainly moving flat in the near future.

This has come about rather suddenly; the leaflet about it appeared in our mailbox a couple of weeks ago, we went to see it a little more than a week ago, and we did the contracts on Saturday. The flat in question is in a danchi, one of the complexes of flats built in the 70s to accommodate all the Japanese people moving to the cities as the economy took off. Thus, it’s rather older than our current place, but it’s also rather larger, with an extra room. That’s the important thing; we need another room so that Mayuki can have her own room when she gets a bit older.

The other key point is that selling this flat should cover the cost of buying the new (old?) one. We do need to apply for a mortgage to cover the interim, but the estate agents, after consulting with the banks, didn’t anticipate any problems with that, even though I don’t have permanent residence yet. That did cut down on the options a bit, as many places will not lend that much to resident foreigners without permanent residence. So, it could still all fall through, if, on the actual investigation, the bank decides not to lend us the money. But, on the balance of probabilities, it looks like it’s going to happen.

We aren’t moving far, incidentally. You can see the new place from outside our front door. That’s another important factor; it means that I won’t lose my students.

This morning, another leaflet arrived, advertising a flat equally close, slightly larger, much newer, with a better view. And two and a half times the price. That’s really not practical…

A Mystery

If you read blogs and websites by foreigners (or former foreigners) living in Japan, there is one experience that you come across repeatedly. People who do not look Asian find that Japanese people will not speak Japanese to them, and insist on speaking English, even when the foreigner has displayed Japanese ability. If the foreigner does speak some Japanese, this is met with amazement and disbelief — “It speaks!” — but followed by a relapse into speaking English. You can see examples here and here.

OK, so what’s the mystery? Here it is:

This has never happened to me. Not once.

Well, I suppose it might have happened once, but if so I’ve forgotten it. It’s true that Japanese people occasionally address me in English to start with, but they always shift to Japanese quickly, and most shop assistants start off in Japanese. There was one occasion when the young man serving me wanted to practise his English, so he tried doing the order and such in English, but broke it up by asking me in Japanese how to study a foreign language. (Get lots of practice.)

How to explain this difference in experience? Here are some hypotheses.

1. I was Japanese in my former lives, so I have a Japanese aura. When I suggested this to my wife, she said she thought it was a possibility, but I’m  a bit more sceptical.

2. There are two different Japans. I live in the nice, welcoming Japan, and they live in the nasty, racist Japan. While it sometimes feels like this while reading, I think there’s actually only one Japan.

However, regional differences are a possibility. I live in Kawasaki, which has a pretty high foreign population (about 3%), so maybe people around here are more used to people who don’t look Japanese, but can speak it. However, I’ve not had the experience anywhere in Japan, even up in Akita, where most non-Japanese are almost certainly tourists. Still, that could just be luck; my experience is rather limited.

Another real possibility is changes over time. The number of people of apparent (or obvious) foreign origin who speak Japanese has been increasing recently, so the average Japanese person might be getting used to the idea. It’s also possible that the idea that this annoys foreigners has seeped into customer service training, but that seems rather unlikely; most places wouldn’t have enough foreign customers to make covering this topic a priority.

3. My Japanese is much, much better than theirs. Not in all cases, certainly. And, in any event, this fails to explain the fact that people almost always start out by addressing me in Japanese. I can’t see any way I could conceivably look fluent in Japanese. (Well, apart from in a bookshop, where the fact that I have chosen a Japanese book all by myself might be a hint.)

Again, though, a variant on this may be a partial explanation. Japanese is not an easy language for English-speakers to learn (and vice versa). Thus, a lot of foreigners in Japan may not be as good at Japanese as they think. Thus, when they speak Japanese, the Japanese person’s response is to think “this person cannot really speak Japanese; better to try English”. However, Japanese people are subject to the same illusion about the quality of their English (see “Funny Engrish” blogs, passim). And so, the foreigner is faced by a Japanese person addressing him in largely incomprehensible English, and can’t understand why the Japanese person doesn’t just try Japanese.

(I’ve recently passed an important milestone here: Japanese people have stopped praising my Japanese, and started correcting it. (At least, I assume he or she is Japanese.) The next milestone is when they stop. The one after that is the Akutagawa Prize.)

4. It’s a matter of attitude. I just don’t see things as a problem. This may well be part of it. For example, I don’t have a problem with people initially addressing me in English, or handing me the English leaflet. It is, statistically, the sensible assumption. Most white people in Japan do not speak Japanese, and can make a stab at English, at least. I don’t even have a problem with people who want to practise their English, as long as they don’t let it get in the way of whatever we’re supposed to be doing. Thus, I may have had experiences that other people count as the Japanese not accepting that they can speak Japanese, but I don’t classify them that way.

On the other hand, whether someone is insisting on speaking to you in English is not just a matter of perception. This can’t cover all the cases.

5. They’re all lying. When I initially thought of this hypothesis, my reaction was “why would they lie about this?”, but then I thought of some reasons. People do lie about trivial experiences in conversation, for various reasons such as to make themselves sound more interesting, or to assert membership of a particular group. So, actually, it seems likely that some of the reported experiences of this never happened. But all of them? That doesn’t seem plausible. If it wasn’t somewhat common, you’d get a lot more people popping up and saying “that never happens to me”.

6. “I was treated normally” is not an exciting story. This is a selection bias. People don’t normally post to the internet about being treated normally in Japan. (This article is obviously an exception, but it’s a reaction.) Only the unexpected, problematic, or particularly good is newsworthy. Japanese people refusing to accept your linguistic competence on the basis of your race is noteworthy; shop assistants casually speaking Japanese to you is, generally, not. I’m pretty sure that this is at least part of it.

While none of the hypotheses can convincingly solve the mystery alone, combining all of them (except, perhaps, number 1) might do it. Each, individually, can plausibly reduce the frequency a bit, so all of them together could make the difference between “The Japanese never accept that white people can speak their language” and “it never happens to me”.

Still, if anyone has other suggestions, I’m interested.

Fossil Viruses in the Human Genome

There is a commonly-heard idea that Japanese science is not creative, although they are very good at refining other people’s ideas. This idea is commonly heard even in Japan; I’ve had to disabuse quite a few of my students of the idea. Including some of the ones working as research scientists. It is true that Japan has yet to produce a Newton, Darwin, or Einstein, but then there really haven’t been very many of them in history. Japan does produce high-quality original research, so I’m going to introduce a bit of it on my blog.

My standard is simple: I will introduce articles published in Nature, with an accompanying News and Views analysis, that were produced by researchers working in Japan, possibly in collaboration with other nations. Because I don’t have time to check every article’s origin, there is, at least for now, another practical requirement: the first author needs to have a Japanese-looking name, or the News and Views article needs to mention where the research was done. This would be bad if I was trying to be systematic, but I’m not.

The other two conditions are meaningful. Nature is the most influential science journal in the world, just about beating Science, the main competition. This means that any articles published in it are important research. The News and Views articles are written about a small proportion of the articles (normally called “letters”, for historical reasons), with the editors choosing the ones of most general interest and importance. Thus, getting an article in Nature, with a News and Views commentary, means that your research is of the highest normal global quality. Realistically, this is the best you can aim for.

I will link to the articles on the Nature site, but while the editorial summary can be read for free, the actual articles need a paid-for subscription. If you’re at a university, your university probably has one; otherwise, you need a personal subscription to Nature. If you’re interested in science, I think it’s well worth it, but it’s not cheap.

Obviously, these articles will be a bit irregular, depending on when appropriate papers appear in Nature.

Anyway, on to this time’s paper. The research was mainly done by a group at BIKEN, in Osaka, by Masayuki Horie and Tomoyuki Honda, with assistance from a lot of people (the author list is in the freely-accessible information).

It is well-known to biologists that a large proportion of the human genome (about 8%) comes from viruses. Bits of the viral genome get incorporated in chromosomes, and then reproduced with the rest of human DNA. All the previously known examples were from retroviruses. Retroviruses are so-called because they reproduce by first converting their RNA genome into DNA, and then using the machinery of the infected cell to make more RNA from the DNA template. Integration of this DNA into the host genome is relatively common, and may, actually, be a normal part of the process; as this article isn’t about retroviruses I’m working from memory.

This paper reports the discovery of DNA elements derived from Borna viruses, a different class. These viruses have RNA genomes, but do not normally integrate any DNA into the host genome. However, they do carry out their entire life cycle within the cell nucleus, the part that contains the host DNA. Further, they naturally infect neurons, cells that do not normally die, and so the infection can be extremely persistent.

The researchers started by searching the databases of genome sequences for sections that matched sequences from the Borna virus genome. They found plenty. There were several in humans, some of which appear to still function as genes; that is, the DNA could be transcribed to messenger RNA and then made into proteins, and in one case there is already evidence that it is. Most of the insertions, however, have lost bits over time, and can no longer be used to make proteins; these are called pseudogenes or fossil genes. By looking at the presence of similar sequences in related primates, the authors determine that the virus must have been integrated into the genome about 40 million years ago, because it is in all the primates that split off from the lineage that leads to humans after that time, but not in the ones that split off before that.

They also found evidence for the virus genes in other animals, with varying dates for integration.

For the viral genes to be inherited, they have to be incorporated in the germ line; that is, in the eggs and sperm that go on to make the next generation. Since the virus normally infects neurons, a different class of cells, this might be relatively rare, so the authors looked to see whether the viral genes get incorporated into the DNA of neurons. It turns out that they do, and that this seems to be quite frequent.

The incorporation of the DNA is blamed on so-called L1 elements, elements of DNA found in mammalian genomes that reproduce themselves throughout the genome. Their machinery seems prone to picking up a particular gene from Borna viruses, and incorporating it instead. (All of the insertions were derived from one of the Borna virus genes, a gene for the protein shell that encapsulates the virus when it leaves the cell.)

So, what’s the significance of this?

From a pure science perspective, it’s the first evidence for contributions from a virus other than a retrovirus to the human genome, which is interesting in itself.

The 40 million year age is also interesting, because so-called RNA clock methods for measuring the age of Borna viruses suggest that they are much younger than that. (An RNA clock works by measuring the rate of mutation in the genome, and then looking at changes, or at how long the virus could be stable.) This suggests that the RNA clock doesn’t work very well for viruses.

Finally, incorporating bits of DNA into the genome in random places can disrupt the cell’s function. It can cause cancer, but also have other effects. There is, apparently, some (disputed) evidence associating Borna-virus infection with mental illness, and this provides a mechanism by which the virus could have that effect. Disruptions to neural functioning could, of course, cause mental illness of various kinds.

Viral ‘fossils’ in the genome (Editor’s summary)

Virology: Bornavirus enters the genome (News and Views article: Nature 463, 39-40 (7 January 2010) | doi:10.1038/463039a; Published online 6 January 2010)

Endogenous non-retroviral RNA virus elements in mammalian genomes (Original paper: Nature 463, 84-87 (7 January 2010) | doi:10.1038/nature08695)

Ōyama Kaidō: From Akasaka to the Tama River

The remains of the gate to Edo Castle in Akasaka

The starting point of the Ōyama Kaidō, the old Akasaka gate of Edo Castle

For my birthday last year, my sister bought me a book describing the course of the ÅŒyama Kaidō, with directions for walking it. The ÅŒyama Kaidō was one of the Edo-period roads of Japan (the Edo period is 1603-1868; the time when the Tokugawa shoguns ruled Japan from Edo, the city that later became Tokyo), and led from Edo to ÅŒyama, a mountain in what is now Kanagawa prefecture. ÅŒyama was a pilgrimage centre, hosting a shugendo temple complex, but the road was also used for trade. It was, however, a relatively minor road, certainly compared to such famous routes as the Tōkaidō or Nakasendō, both of which ran from Edo to Kyoto, the former along the coast and the latter through the mountains. (“Tōkaidō” means “east sea road” and “Nakasendō” means “middle mountains road”.) However, I decided that I wanted to walk along the ÅŒyama Kaidō for two reasons. First, it’s relatively short, making the goal practical. I expect to be able to do it this year. Second, it runs very close to our home; it’s our local historic road.

Aoyama streetscape

A view of the Ōyama Kaidō in Aoyama

So, on Monday, when I had a day off, I started the walk. The road starts in central Tokyo, at one of the old gates to Edo Castle, the Akasaka gate. From there, it heads west, and for most of the distance the modern 246 main road follows the old ÅŒyama Kaidō route. This means that the first part of the walk, at least, is very urban, and not overly blessed with clean air. However, it is still interesting to see different areas of Tokyo. Another point of interest for me is that the Den’entoshi line and Hanzōmon line, the train lines I use to get into Tokyo most of the time, also stick close to the route of the ÅŒyama Kaidō, albeit underground in this section. Thus, I got to see what the bits of Tokyo above the line look like. Having gone under all of these areas countless times, it was nice to finally see them above ground.

Along the way, I passed a fair number of Shinto shrines, and went into most of them. However, I want to give each shrine its own article, so this article will concentrate on the road.

Shibuya streetscape

The Ōyama Kaidō in Shibuya, on Dōgenzaka

The first part, from Akasaka to, roughly, Omotesandō, was quite open, with a lot of modern buildings lining the road, and even parks. This is still, I believe, quite an expensive area of Tokyo, with high-class shops. From Omotesandō, however, you are approaching Shibuya, where the buildings are much more crammed together and chaotic, with a much wider variety of shops. I took a small detour in Shibuya, to pick up the deposit on the kimono I rented for last year’s tea ceremony, and found that it took me through Shibuya’s red light district. Given that the area is just off an old road, it could have a longer tradition as such than you might think.

Sangenjaya streetscape

The Ōyama Kaidō at Sangenjaya, where I stopped for lunch

The main road continues to follow the ÅŒyama Kaidō for a while from that point, and elevated expressways follow the same route, so that there are three layers of road for quite a long distance. This makes the street quite dark, so the route recommended in the book dodges off the main road wherever the ÅŒyama Kaidō seems to have taken a slightly different route. Unfortunately, even this isn’t very much. The mid-point of the walk came around here, so I stopped at Sangenjaya, which is also one of the stops for the express trains, to have lunch.

Seta Streetscape

The view from the footbridge where the Ōyama Kaidō crosses over the main roads

Some way beyond Sangenjaya, at Komazawa University, the Ōyama Kaidō finally breaks away from the route of the main road, and things get a lot quieter. The area becomes residential, and almost suburban, with much lower buildings and even a street dedicated to a very famous anime series (Sazae-san), because the creator lived in that area. The route of the Ōyama Kaidō crosses the main road again, but then plunges back into residential areas, and quiet backstreets that barely seem urban, as it approaches the Tama River, the current border of Tokyo prefecture.

In the Edo period, there was no bridge, and the river was crossed by ferry. According to the book, there was a marker stone at the site of the ferry, but I couldn’t find it; there is a lot of development going on by the river at the moment, so the map and directions were not as useful as they should be. It may, in fact, have been removed, because the river itself is having flood-prevention work done.

I set off walking at about 10am, and arrived at the river shortly after 4pm. My legs were getting quite tired by that point; in the whole day, I think I walked over 25km. Fortunately, my legs didn’t feel too bad the next day, so I think I’ll be able to cope with the following segments of the road. I hope to walk the next section next month.

The Tama River

The Tama River

The Fox and the Jewel

This book, subtitled “Shared and Private Meanings in Contemporary Japanese Inari Worship”, is the product of extensive research into the Inari cult in contemporary (early 1990s) Japan. The author spent a year at Fushimi Inari Taisha, the oldest Inari shrine and still, in some sense, the centre of the cult, and a further year at Toyokawa Inari, a Buddhist temple.

The choice of research centres highlights the first way in which the Inari cult complicates the standard picture of Japanese religions, because Inari is normally thought of as a Shinto kami. Indeed, I’ve classified this post under Shinto on my blog. However, before the Meiji Restoration, when Shinto and Buddhism were closely intertwined, Inari had very close ties to Shingon Buddhism, and when the Meiji government forced all religious institutions to choose whether they were Shinto or Buddhist, a few Inari centres chose to be Buddhist, although most decided to be Shinto.

The main message of the book, however, is that things are much more complicated and less unified than they look. There is a mountain behind Fushimi Inari Taisha, and the mountain is covered with red torii and small stone shrines. These small shrines started to appear in the mid nineteenth century, and the shrine initially opposed them, before giving in and authorising them. However, the shrine exerts virtually no control over worship at them; they are scattered all over the mountain, so supervising them would be impractical if the shrine even wanted to do it. What’s more, the shrine does not, in fact, own the whole mountain, so some of the small shrines are on land over which the shrine has no authority to start with. The author of the book, Karen Smyers, got to know several of the groups who worshipped on the mountain, and learned quite a lot about their beliefs and practices.

What she discovered was that every group was different. Even though most paid for ceremonies at the main shrine, they generally placed greater importance on the rituals they carried out on the mountain, in front of the minor shrines. These rituals, and the meaning attributed to them, differed significantly from group to group. Even the name of the kami varied, although it usually ended in “Inari”. While this is, in some ways, similar to Western phenomena such as “the Virgin of Lourdes”, it goes deeper, because there is no consensus on which kami Inari actually is. There is a common one, Uganomitama no Kami, but this was largely a Meiji imposition. Fushimi Inari enshrines five kami, including Uganomitama, and different places enshrine other groups. Toyokawa Inari, naturally, enshrines a Buddhist deity instead, Dakiniten. Even if the kami were agreed on, there are few general legends; Inari seems to be a very personalised deity.

One thing that all the priests and monks agree on is that Inari is not a fox. There may be fox images at virtually every Inari shrine, and the fox may be closely associated with the kami, but the kami is not, they insist, a fox. However, popular belief is much less clear about this. Some people agree that the fox is a messenger or servant of Inari, but others believe that Inari him or herself (Inari’s gender is not constant from one group to another) is a fox. Who’s to say which group is “right”, or “orthodox”.

Smyers also devotes some space to discussing the strategies used for avoiding conflict between groups of Inari worshippers. In essence, there are a number of ways to avoid talking about the issues over which they are likely to disagree, such as “which kami is Inari?”, “how should one worship Inari?”, or “what is the proper way for a follower of Inari to live?”. Obviously, this leaves conversations between representatives of Inari groups at quite a superficial level; Smyers reports that some of her informants tried to get her to tell them what other of her informants actually believed.

This is entirely consistent with the impression I’ve picked up of Shinto. There’s an emphasis on creating a surface image of unity, with torii at almost all shrines, fixed vestments for the priests, and a standard framework for rituals and festivals. However, underneath that surface, every shrine is different. As Smyer’s research shows, even when the shrines all fall into the same cult, such as Inari, they can all be different, and I suspect that that is true far beyond Inari. I’ve not done the formal research to back that intuition up, but it would be surprising to discover that all shrines were the same. Of course, because shrine priests do not preach, the beliefs and practices of the worshippers are also likely to vary widely.

Smyers suggests that this may, in fact, be a broader feature of Japanese society. The apparent conformity is a mere surface, below which there are countless small groups, all different. That is also consistent with my experience of Japan, but too large a claim to make on the basis of the evidence I have.

In any case, this is a very interesting book, and one I would recommend to anyone with an interest in Japanese culture, particularly if they were interested in religion, or Shinto specifically.

Tea Party

Last night, I went to a tea party. At least, that’s how the participants referred to it in English. Actually, I went to an extremely formal tea ceremony.

The name of the type of ceremony is “Akatsuki no Chaji”, which means “Dawn Tea Ceremony”. The name is descriptively accurate; dawn is an important part of the ceremony. When I say I went last night, I really mean the night part.

I was invited to the ceremony because one of my students has done quite a bit of research on the way of tea, and knew the head of a relatively small tea school. His school is part of the Sekishu tradition, which was a form of tea ceremony practised by samurai in the Edo period. Unlike the larger Sen schools, Sekishu schools allowed students to found their own schools when they reached a high enough level of ability, so these days there are quite a lot of Sekishu schools (at least compared to Sen schools, of which there are three). I don’t know the details, because it happened while I wasn’t there, but she mentioned me to him, and, as a result, I was invited to today’s Dawn Tea Ceremony.

The first thing I had to do was rent a man’s kimono, with the hakama trousers and an over-jacket. There wasn’t a lot of choice in my size, but there was something appropriate. The second thing I had to do was learn to put it on. Fortunately, this is easier than putting on a woman’s kimono, so Yuriko was able to teach me on Friday, and, after practising on Saturday, I was able to put it on by myself.

It was very important that I be able to put it on myself, because the tea ceremony started at 3am, so I was putting it on in a hotel at about 2am, ready to meet the other guests and take taxis to the tea house. I had to get up at 1am this morning, so forgive me if my English is a little less limpid than normal.

In any case, I managed to get myself to the hotel lobby, in a correctly-worn kimono, by 2:30am, and I think that may have been the part of the event I was most worried about. I travelled to the tea house with my student, who was able to give me a bit of last-minute advice. This was welcome, because while I do know a bit about the tea ceremony, this was the first time I had ever been to one, and I had no idea what to do.

The tea house was in a park-like setting, among paddy fields out in the suburbs of Tokyo, so we arrived in complete darkness. A paper lantern had been left at the entrance to mark it, and the path was lined with candles. We followed these up to the tea house, where we first gathered in a waiting room, and signed our names in the guest book. There were six of us; four men and two women. All of us were wearing kimono, which made me very glad that I had made the effort. I, at least, felt as thought I fitted in; I don’t know what they thought. Any tea ceremony has a principal guest, and today’s was a teacher of tea ceremony from the Oribe tradition, another samurai tradition, and one with links to the Sekishu tradition. (I don’t know the details, however.) The principal guest’s job is to talk to the host on behalf of the other guests, as well as make some formal responses. He also served as the person I watched to find out what I was supposed to do, on the grounds that he would certainly know.

After we had signed the book and had a drink (of amazake, which is a kind of sake, so I only tasted it), the ceremony proper started. At the entrance to the garden around the tea house there was a small waiting shelter, and we sat there for a few moments, before someone came out of the tea hut to welcome us in, carrying a candle. In the garden there was a stone water stoop, were we all washed our hands, one at a time.

The entrance to a tea house is very small, a crawl-door, so even Japanese people have to crouch to get through. Inside, the room is quite small, with tatami mats, and a pit in the floor for a charcoal fire, on which the water for the tea is boiled. The only lighting was from candles and an oil lamp, so it was a little dark, but extremely atmospheric. A piece of calligraphy was hanging in the alcove, chosen for the occasion.

There were three people directly involved in the ceremony. First, there was the head of the school. He is in his eighties now, so he was supervising and explaining things to us. Second, there was the man who actually made the tea. He was a former student of the head of the school, I think. It was never made clear, but I got the impression that he had “graduated”, or whatever the expression is, but was still associated with his former teacher, as is often the way of things in Japan. The third person was another member of the school, and she was helping with fetching and carrying. Obviously, all of them were also wearing kimono.

I did notice something interesting about the kimono. There are three grades of formal kimono. The most formal has the wearer’s house crest repeated five times; on each sleeve, on each breast, and on the back. The next has three (the breast crests are deleted), and the least formal has only one (on the back). The man performing the ceremony had five crests, the head of the school three, and the guests who knew what they were doing, one. I didn’t have any, at least partly because I had to rent the kimono.

The first part of the ceremony was the “before tea”. The tea was made, in front of us, following the formal ritual of the school. From what I could see, this is a careful formalisation of the actions you would normally use to make tea. Things were wiped, cups rinsed, and the tea whisked. But everything was done just so. Here was where I started to notice my lack of background; it was obvious that much of what he did was significant, but not obvious if anything wasn’t.

At least, that was the case until the next bit, where the charcoal in the hearth was changed. The live coals were put in a bowl, and passed round for us to warm our hands, while new ones were put in. The school head told us that, in the Sekishu tradition, there are no rules for the pattern of the charcoal. It is, however, part of the ritual, as is looking at the pattern of the charcoal. Incense is added to the charcoal, and then the water pot, filled with cold water, is placed on it. There is a second “tea” part of the ceremony later, but the water for it is brought to the boil during the ceremony.

Once the incense had been added, the incense jar was passed around, so that we could all have a look at it. This is, apparently, a standard and important part of the tea ceremony. Even, no, especially when the incense jar is over four hundred years old and was owned by the founder of the whole Sekishu tradition. I was almost afraid to touch it, but it would have been impolite not to, and, in any case, when am I going to get that sort of chance again? I might be able to see similar things in a museum, but I won’t be able to pick them up. The same process was repeated for other utensils, later in the ceremony, and while some were the same age, others were much more recent, including one that the school head had decorated himself. (The principal guest guessed that correctly, and asked if that meant he could keep it. Alas not.)

After the water was put on to boil, it was time for dinner. There was a whole kaiseki meal, with many small dishes, and I had to keep an eye on the other guests, particularly the principal guest, to make sure I ate it correctly. The atmosphere was much more relaxed at this point, and I think that this was also an important part of the ceremony, when the guests and host have a chance to talk properly.

One of the other guests teaches tea ceremony at a girls’ high school, and she wanted to take a photograph at the end of the meal. This was because most people who practise the tea ceremony these days are women, and, naturally, everyone doing it at the high school is female, so she wanted to show them a picture of men attending a formal tea ceremony. Having a foreign man there as well might have been a bit of a bonus. I hope it proves to be a useful teaching aid.

After the meal, we all left the tea house for a while, as a sort of intermission. For some reason, the crawl entrance was stuck shut, so we had to go out of a different door, which made things a little easier. By this time, the sky was beginning to brighten, with the first signs of dawn.

I was very glad to get outside for bit. Strictly speaking, you should sit in seiza at a tea ceremony, the formal kneeling posture, with your feet flat on the floor and your weight resting on your heels. I practise this fairly often, and I can do half an hour without any trouble, but a three hour meal proved to be a bit too much for me, and they were good enough to bring a stool. It was a relief to see that, although I had the least endurance by a fair margin, some of the other guests were also having problems before the meal ended. By the end of the whole ceremony the only guests who had been able to stay in seiza for essentially the whole time were the two who teach tea ceremony. I guess they get lots of practice.

After enjoying the dawn, a gong summoned us back to the hut, and we washed our hands again before going in.

The decoration in the alcove had been changed to a winter flower arrangement, very austere, as is standard for the tea ceremony, and we took our places again. This part was much more ceremonial, and we were served thick tea, two kinds of Japanese sweets, and thin tea. The thick tea is really thick, more like a soup than what you would normally think of as tea, and thus quite bitter. The thin tea is the same flavour, but a more tea-like consistency. By this point, I really couldn’t stay in seiza for very long, so I just tried to do it while I was actually being served or drinking tea, but even so my calves kept cramping. I really need more practice if I’m going to be able to do it properly.

We left the tea house in full daylight, somewhat over four hours after the ceremony started.

This is, I believe, about as formal and full ceremony as tea ceremonies get; it is common to omit the meal, for example. It seems that the dawn ceremonies are particularly rare, not least because the people performing the ceremony have to stay up all night, as there are preparations that need to be done before the guests arrive. As a first experience of the tea ceremony, therefore, it was somewhat overwhelming. I’m absolutely sure that I don’t understand everything that was going on, but equally sure that there were things there to be understood. I fear, however, that deeper knowledge of the tea ceremony will fall victim to lack of time; while I’d love to know more about it, I have other things to study first.

I am really grateful to have been given this opportunity. Actual experience is really a very important part of understanding a culture, and the tea ceremony is an important part of Japanese culture. I think my friends are spoiling me.

The Colour of Traffic Lights

A notorious peculiarity in the Japanese language is that they think that the “go” light on traffic lights is blue. That is, the word that is normally translated as “blue” (ao) is used to describe the “go” light, rather than the word normally translated as “green” (midori). This is something that foreigners, particularly Western foreigners, are said to argue with Japanese people about. Indeed, on one site of “evidence you’ve been in Japan too long”, “you think the “go” light is blue” was listed as one of the signs.

On Monday, I took Mayuki to Ginza, one of the main shopping centres in Tokyo, because I had a couple of jobs to do there. When we were waiting to cross the road, I pointed at the pedestrian signal and asked, “What colour is that?”

“Red!” she replied, in Japanese. (She almost invariably speaks Japanese, even though I address her in English.)

Moments later, it changed, so I said we could go.

“Oh, it’s turned green!” Mayuki said, again in Japanese.

“Actually, in Japanese you say “blue”,” I told her.

“What? That’s green!” she retorted.

So there we have it. A neutral observer, at two years old, has declared in favour of the westerners.

The “go” light is green.