Proposals on Surveys and Pensions

Oh dear, it really has been too long since I posted to this blog. I’ve just started a new job, at the Japan Institute of Logic, so I’ve been extremely busy. I may have to start tweeting, since they’re supposed to be really short.

Anyway, today we had another meeting of the Kawasaki Representative Assembly for Foreign Residents. There are only two more left, so it was quite important that the process of drafting our proposals for the mayor move forward. While getting a couple of dozen foreign residents together to discuss life in Kawasaki is one of the purposes of the Assembly, its main purpose is to produce concrete proposals for the city government to act on and make life better for the foreign, and Japanese, people who live there. So getting the proposals together is very important.

Obviously, they have to be in Japanese, but fortunately the secretariat does the detailed drafting for us. We decide on the content, they draft something, and then we look at the draft and ask for changes. Last time, we decided on the content of the proposal for a survey concerning the foreign residents of Kawasaki. This would cover such things as experiences of discrimination, problems with services, education, or housing, the distribution of information, and the ways in which foreign residents were participating in civic life. Kawasaki did do a similar survey, in 1993, but nothing large scale has been done since, so knowledge of the current situation is a bit limited. We’re asking for the survey to be done every five years, and to have questions that overlap with similar surveys in other countries (the EU did a big one a few years ago) so that the situation in Japan can be objectively compared with other places. We are, of course, asking that the results be public. The hope is that this data will help the Representative Assembly to address the most important issues, as well as helping other organs of the city government.

Today, we looked at the draft that had been prepared, and asked for a number of changes. Some of them were because we’d changed our minds since last time (the first draft said once every two years, which is a bit much), but most were because we wanted a slightly different emphasis from the way the proposal had been drafted. The changes are pretty straightforward, and all were agreed unanimously, so I think the revised draft will be very close to what we want.

We also discussed the pension problem. As I’ve mentioned before, the Japanese pension system is not very good if you come from a country without a pension treaty with Japan and stay for more than three years, but go home before you retire. This is obviously a problem for people who are working here, and the Assembly addressed it before, in 2003, asking for the amount of money paid back when you leave the country to be increased.

That hasn’t happened, so we agreed to ask again, but also to encourage the conclusion of more treaties with foreign countries, so that more people can take advantage of that and sort out their pensions that way. In addition, since those two points are things that only the national government can do, we agreed to ask the city to prepare multi-lingual and easy-to-understand explanations of the system.

We’ll have the draft to look at next time, so we can get a revised version made before the final meeting. Thus, we’re in good shape to meet the deadline. In fact, we have a rather nice problem, in that it’s not clear that we will need all the time we have for discussion at the next meeting; we finished about 15 minutes early today. The other subcommittee don’t have this problem, shall we say, so it’s going to be a bit tricky to balance the overall running of the final meetings, but I’m sure we’ll manage.

Personally, I don’t expect too much from the pension proposal, although we’ll probably get the multi-lingual explanations. Japan is in the process of reforming the whole pension system anyway, so these problems might well go away and be replaced by different ones. It’s important to remind the decision-makers of the foreign residents, but we’re still a very small group. On the other hand, I very much hope that the survey will happen every five years, because it would provide immensely useful information. If that happens, I’ll feel that my time on the Assembly was very well spent.

Visit Tohoku! Hiraizumi

Last weekend, we went on another trip to Tohoku, this time to Hiraizumi, in Iwate Prefecture. Hiraizumi was the base of a powerful regional family in the twelfth century, and is particularly famous for its Buddhist temples and gardens. Indeed, in June those sites were registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a bit of good news that was particularly welcome at the time.

The soba on the table, with Mayuki peering through the handle of one of the bowls

Wanko Soba

We travelled up by shinkansen and train, as usual, and Mayuki seems to have got to like the shinkansen. Our only plans for the first day were to eat and take it easy at the hotel, so that’s what we did. First, we ate “wanko soba” at a restaurant near the station. That’s noodles in very small bowls — 24 of them. The idea is that you can have different toppings with each bowl, so you also get a big tray of toppings. After we’d eaten, we went to the hotel.

We stayed at Musashibo, and I was quite impressed. The accommodation is nice, and it is a hot-spring hotel. The baths are indoors, and while you wouldn’t go there just for the baths, they are good. One has the hot water coming out between rocks (probably artificially placed), while the other has a view of the mountains. Men and women swap between the baths each day, so if you stay overnight and take a bath in the evening and the morning, you will be able to see both.

The food was also good. The morning buffet was fairly standard, but nice, and the Japanese evening meal was very good. Yuriko commented that the menu was rather different from the areas around Tokyo or Kyoto, and it was true; we got the regional cuisine. There were the standard elements (rice, raw fish, tempura), but also a number of unusual vegetables and other items. One that Yuriko passed on was a tiny whole crab, cooked in its shell. You were supposed to eat the whole thing so, based on my principle of trying anything once, I did. It was fine, actually, although I don’t think I’d specially order it. We had ordered the children’s meal for Mayuki, and although she fell asleep at the table on the first night, she really enjoyed it on the second.

What really impressed me, though, was how they handled a foreign visitor. They are obviously set up for foreign guests, with translations on most of the signs and English meal tickets, but the receptionist was very apologetic as she handed me an English ticket, remarking (in Japanese) that I obviously didn’t need one. Based on the brief panicked “meal ticket, meal ticket” that I heard as I was filling in the register, I guess that they had misplaced the Japanese ones… I did get a Japanese one for the next day. She also asked whether I was living permanently in Japan, and when I said I was, she said “That’s fine, then”. The law is that when a foreigner without a permanent Japanese address stays at a hotel, the hotel must note the passport number. However, if the foreigner is resident in Japan, that’s not necessary.

This impressed me because, not only were they ready to handle foreigners who couldn’t speak Japanese, they were also ready to deal, in Japanese, with foreigners who could. In other words, they were adaptable. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to have an English web page, but if you use English on their enquiry form, I suspect they’ll find a way to manage. (From the top, name, name again (Japanese people put the reading in here), phone number, email twice to confirm it, and then the content of what you want to ask.)

Another thing that Mayuki seems to really like is the onsen, hot spring baths. As soon as we got to the hotel, she wanted to go to the onsen. Yuriko wanted to go for a walk, so she went with me, and then again with Yuriko later. She also went with me both mornings, and with Yuriko on the second evening. Unfortunately, there is no family bath at the hotel, so we couldn’t all go in together; Mayuki wanted to, but she accepted that we couldn’t when we explained. Yuriko did wonder how long she could keep going into the men’s bath with me; I think the official upper limit is twelve (the end of elementary school), but, at any rate, it’ll be fine until she starts school.

On our full day, we went to visit the World Heritage Sites. The first visit was a bit delayed, because Mayuki hadn’t had enough breakfast, and so was hungry and fractious. We stopped for a snack outside the gates, and Mayuki was a lot better after that.

The pool at the heart of the garden, with a leaning rock standing in the middle

Motsuji Pure Land Garden

The first proper stop was Motsuji. All of the original temple buildings here have burned down, but the garden has been preserved, in part, and in part restored based on archaeological evidence, so the garden is the main attraction. It was designed to call to mind the Pure Land of Amida (Amitabha), and while my Buddhist theology is not good enough to comment on how far it succeeds at that, it is certainly a beautiful garden. It is centred on a large pond, and as you walk around it, the view changes. The weather was changeable while we were there, including a heavy shower, so the changing skies also contributed to its attractions. I wasn’t sure how good it would be before we went, but it is a wonderful place.

Mayuki is hopping down a path in the garden at Motsuji

Look! A pine cone!

Of course, I’m not sure how far Mayuki appreciated its sublime beauty. She certainly enjoyed playing with us as we walked round, and as the rain finished and the sun came out she did stop and watch the light sparkling on the water with us. The Buddhist halls also caught her attention. She’s more used to shrines, and temples are rather different in their construction and impact. She liked the statue of the supposed founder of the temple (he might have actually founded it, but I gather that the evidence is not great), and prayed at one where we stopped to get out of the rain. Naturally, she prayed Shinto-style, but I’m sure that’s OK.

Then we went to Chusonji. We had lunch at the rest house outside the entrance and, unusually for somewhere in Japan, I don’t recommend it.

A view of mountains and fields, from a mountain

The view from the top of the mountain

Chusonji is spread out across a mountain, so the path up to it is quite steep. Mayuki decided that it looked a bit too steep, and decided that she wanted to be carried. Very soon I am going to give up climbing mountains while carrying her, as she is really getting rather heavy, but not quite yet. However, the view from the top of the mountain makes it worth it. This is actually the view from a cafe at the top; if you’re visiting, I’d recommend waiting until you get here to eat. We didn’t actually try the food, but the staff were nice, and the view is as you can see.

Buddhism is, of course, a religion that rejects worldly things, and values poverty and austerity. Naturally, then, the main attraction at Chusonji is a gold-plated temple, Konjikido. This was built in the early twelfth century, and has managed to survive all the vicissitudes since then. It is now housed in a very solid concrete building, protected by glass, and looks likely to survive for some time longer. It is quite impressive, but I have to confess that I don’t particularly like gilded buildings. It’s not the expense; I do like the ones that are lacquered. There’s something about the colour and the effect that just doesn’t appeal to me.

Mayuki getting water from a rock basin in front of a thatched Noh stage

Purification and the Noh Stage

After the gold-plated temple, we visited the shrine on the mountain top, Hakusan Shrine, where the tutelary deity of the complex is enshrined. The most notable feature of the shrine precincts is a large, thatched Noh stage, which is a National Important Cultural Property. It is still used for Noh Performances. The shrine itself is quite small, although there was a priest present, so I was able to get a Goshuin. There was also a set of twelve small shrines to the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac. Since Mayuki and I are both boars, we went to that shrine to pay our respects together.

Mayuki was agitating to go back to the hotel by this point, but Yuriko wanted to quickly visit the museum. At first I didn’t want to, but I gave in, and it was a good choice. The museum contains a lot of Buddhist images, and one of them is a standing wooden statue of Thousand-Armed Kannon. As soon as Mayuki saw it, she was hooked. “Hasn’t it got a lot of hands!” she said, and refused to go and look at anything else. In the end, I stayed with her while Yuriko looked at the rest of the museum, and we bought her a postcard of the statue when we left to go back to the hotel.

On the way down the mountain, Mayuki fell asleep riding on my shoulders, so I had to take her down and carry her with her head on my shoulder, which is more effort. I was thus quite tired when we got to the bottom, but we made one more stop before returning to the hotel. This was at a lacquer-ware shop that has been in the town for some time. Their traditional product is called Hidehira ware, named after one of the twelfth century nobles of Hiraizumi, and uses red, black, and a gold-leaf diamond design. They also have a number of newer designs, some of which were very nice; wooden cups with lacquered interiors, for example. In the end, though, we bought a pair of traditional soup bowls and some chopstick rests. We’ve already used the bowls, and they’re very nice.

Yuriko and Mayuki in front of a large cliff and the river


On our final day, we went on a side trip to Geibikei. This is a river gorge with impressive towering cliffs, but the river itself is very shallow, so you can go up and down part of it on a punt. Unlike Cambridge, you don’t get to punt yourself, but rather go on a guided tour. The punt operators tell you about the river, and the names of the various cliffs, and then you get out and walk past some rapids to see the last and possibly most spectacular cliff. It has a small cave on the opposite side of the river, and apparently if you can throw a small clay ball into it, you get good luck. Mayuki wanted to try, but couldn’t do it. One of the other people on the boat, however, managed to get his in; I think he must have played baseball as a young man. I might have been able to get the ball across the river, but certainly not into the cave by anything other than pure luck.

Mayuki throwing fish food from the boatOn the way back, Mayuki fed the fish. She wanted to feed them on the way out, but we didn’t see any. That was because they were all on the other side of the boat, so when we turned round to go back, there they were. Mayuki had a lot of fun, also telling off the ducks who kept stealing the fishes’ food.

The gorge was spectacular, and because we were on the noon boat, the sun shone into it, so we got reflections off the river onto the cliffs. After we got back, we had lunch at a small restaurant near the boat pier, and I ate river fish, which was delicious. Then we headed back home on the train. Mayuki enjoyed the shinkansen, playing the “piano” on the ledge under the window, but fell asleep on the train home after that. Of course, when we got home, she woke up again, and was lively until quite late.

I really liked Hiraizumi and Geibikei, and I’d definitely recommend them as a destination (although I’m not sure how the people at Geibikei would cope in other languages). Being inland and on very solid ground, both suffered very little from the earthquake. Indeed, according to the young woman at the shop at Geibikei, nothing even fell off the shelves there. So, go and visit.

Hayashi Razan’s “Honchō Jinja Kō” — Shinto Texts Course 7

The summer holiday is over, and yesterday the Shinto Texts course at Kokugakuin University started again, with a lecture on Hayashi Razan’s Honchō Jinja Kō. I am confident that very few of my readers will have heard of either the author or the text, but both were of great significance in the history of Shinto, which is why they were covered in the course.

Hayashi Razan was born in Kyoto in 1583. His academic ability was noticed early on, and at the age of 13 (Japanese style) in 1595 he went to study at a Zen temple, Kenninji. However, he did not take vows as a Buddhist monk. Instead, he encountered some medieval texts on Shinto, and became interested in Japan’s native traditions. He was also, however, a very notable Confucian scholar, and when he was 21 he started giving public lectures on the Analects. This led to him being sued by a representative of a family that had made its living by monopolising Confucian instruction. However, the case was quickly dismissed by Tokugawa Ieyasu, the new shogun. The lecturer, Professor Nishioka, suggested that part of the reason for this was that Ieyasu had risen to be shogun from a fairly undistinguished background, so he was not inclined to support family privilege against ability.

In fact, Razan went on to work directly for Ieyasu, primarily as a Confucian scholar. Because these advisory posts had traditionally been held by monks, Ieyasu directed Razan to shave his head and take a new name, Dōshun, as monks did, although Razan still did not become a monk. Razan was strongly criticised for this by other Confucians. They argued that your hair was something you inherited from your parents, so that shaving your hair off was a serious failure of filial piety. As Razan was employed by the shogun and several important daimyos, and his critics were not, I suspect that he was able to take the criticism fairly easily.

Honchō Jinja Kō, or “Investigation of the Shrines of our Country”, was published some time between 1638 and 1645, although the precise year is unknown. It was divided into three parts, each consisting of two volumes. The first part discussed the shrines in the 22 Shrine System, a late Heian period (eleventh to twelfth century) group of shrines that received direct Imperial patronage and worship. The Grand Shrines of Ise were, of course, the most important of these shrines, and most of the others were around the capital, Kyoto. The second part discussed other shrines throughout Japan, while the third part also looked at legends from various areas.

We can get an idea of the importance that Razan placed on various shrines by looking at the number of pages his discussion takes up in a modern edition. The Grand Shrines of Ise unsurprisingly get the most, at 17 pages, but Hiyoshi Taisha, near Kyoto, gets eight and a half, and Kitano Tenmangu, in Kyoto, gets ten and a half. In the second part, the section on Shōtoku Taishi, an early seventh century figure, is six and a half pages long.

Kitano Tenmangu is a shrine to Tenjin, Sugawara no Michizane, a kami of scholarship, so it is, perhaps, not surprising that a scholar like Razan gave quite a bit of space to this shrine. However, in the case of Hiyoshi Taisha, the article is long because Razan uses it as an opportunity to criticise aspects of contemporary Shinto.

Razan was, in fact, highly critical of the current state of Shinto. As is fairly well know, at this period Shinto had a lot of Buddhist elements, and vice versa. Buddhist monks read sutras to the kami, who were often regarded as manifestations of Buddhas or Bodhisattvas, or the Buddhas were regarded as manifestations of the kami, and Buddhist images were sometimes used as the sacred object housing the kami in a shrine. This was regarded as perfectly natural, which is unsurprising because it had at least four or five hundred years of history behind it by Razan’s time. However, Razan pointed out that Shinto kami were originally completely separate from Buddhas, and that some people who venerated the kami had opposed the introduction of Buddhism. Thus, this could not be the original state of things, and therefore, he argued, was not natural. Rather, people had been brainwashed into thinking it was normal because no-one had spoken out against it.

Thus, in the section on Hiyoshi Taisha, Razan was very critical of Ryōbu Shinto, which is either a heavily Buddhist version of Shinto, or a heavily Shinto version of Buddhism, depending on how you look at it. He went beyond that, however, to describe Buddhism as a “religion of foreign barbarians”. That didn’t go down well with Buddhists, and they were apparently still publishing refutations of his claim two centuries later. When, in the section on Yoshida Jinja, he considered Yoshida Shinto, the dominant version at the time, he was no less scathing. While Yoshida Kanetomo, the founder of the tradition, had asserting the primacy of kami over Buddhas, Razan pointed out that he had taken passages from Buddhist texts and claimed them as his own ideas, and that many of the ideas in Yoshida Shinto were Buddhist in origin. He was also highly critical of Shōtoku Taishi, who is famous for, among other things, his vigorous promotion of Buddhism in Japan.

Razan, then, argued strongly for the removal of Buddhist elements from Shinto, on the grounds that they were foreign additions that did not belong in the tradition. One of his students put that into practice a little later, getting the Buddhist elements removed from Izumo Taisha, and the idea was to become very influential, culminating in the 1868 law separating kami and Buddhas, which essentially created Shinto in its modern form. Of course, there was an internal conflict in Razan’s thought. He was pushing for the removal of foreign elements from Shinto, but was himself a Confucian. Confucianism is, of course, not a Japanese school of thought, and no-one in Japan has ever thought that it was. It was, therefore, natural that some people would develop Razan’s thought in the direction of removing Confucian influences as well. That was Kokugaku, or National Learning, the tradition within which Kokugakuin University was founded, and which directly influenced the law separating kami and Buddhas.

The roots of a strong separation between Shinto and Buddhism thus go back at least as far as the seventeenth century, and were already influential, if not mainstream, at that time. I’m not sure whether it can be traced back before Razan; obviously, there are records of people holding this position in the sixth century, but there is probably not a continuous tradition from them to Razan, despite the persistence of a separation between Shinto and Buddhism at the Grand Shrines of Ise. If Razan was responsible for starting the modern form of the idea, then he is arguably the individual who has had the largest influence on the form of modern Shinto.

Shirahata Hachiman Daijin Festival

The annual Grand Festival of Shirahata Hachiman Daijin, our local shrine, was held last weekend. The festival itself is on the Sunday, and on the previous day, the Saturday, there is a children’s mikoshi procession. A mikoshi is a portable shrine, based on the palanquins in which the nobility were carried in Heian times (about a thousand years ago), and the processions take the kami around the area under the protection of the shrine (the parish, if you like) to see what is going on, and to be livened up by the fun of the event.

As I normally work on Saturdays, I hadn’t been to the procession before, but this year I happened to have an open slot that coincided with the procession setting out from the shrine, so I went along to see what happened. The procession is organised by the Children’s Group of the Taira Residents’ Association, rather than by the shrine, but there’s a significant overlap between the officers of the Residents’ Association and the shrine’s Ujiko, and the areas are very similar. One exception is that, although we live in the shrine’s area, we have a different Residents’ Association. This is presumably why the event is not advertised in the immediate vicinity of our flat.

The female priest purifies the mikoshi with the haraigushi

Purifying the Mikoshi

Although the organisers are not the shrine, the shrine is deeply involved. First, the event starts at the shrine, and starts with a Shinto ceremony. The adults involved in the event gathered in the shrine for a ceremony, during which the mikoshi was purified, and the kami invited to enter it. The mikoshi seemed to be purified twice, once with the harai-gushi (as shown in the picture), and once with water splashed with a twig of sakaki. In each case it was purified four times, once from each side, and the Japanese drum that would be taken around with it was also purified.

As you can see from the photograph, this ceremony was performed by the younger woman in the shrine family. I think she qualified as a priest a couple of years ago (at least, that’s when she started wearing hakama in priest’s colours for the Grand Festival), but this was the first time I’d seen her perform a ceremony. I gather that it’s not at all uncommon in local shrines for all members of the family to be ordained priests, because that means that they can all help with what is, after all, the family business. Female chief priests are still a bit unusual, though, as are female priests at larger shrines.

The mikoshi is tipped on its side to get it through the torii

Up a bit, left a bit...

After the purification, the tamagushi that had been offered in the shrine were put into the mikoshi, to be offered to the kami there, I assume. Then, the mikoshi had to be taken out of the shrine and down the steps for the procession. There was an immediate problem: the mikoshi frame was wider than the torii. The solution, of course, was to tip it on one side to make it narrower, so that it would fit through. The torii at the bottom of the steps was made even narrower because there was a takoyaki (deep fried octopus) stall next to it, so the mikoshi had to be turned vertically to get it through there. This didn’t seem to disturb anyone, and, indeed, it is traditional to shake the mikoshi in a lot of festivals, to liven the kami up. Mayuki likes that sort of thing, so I guess the kami do, too.

Everyone gathered in the car park at the base of the steps. The children were pulling the drum, which was on wheels, rather than carrying the mikoshi, as the mikoshi was probably too heavy, and one thing I noticed was that, although the adults all had the traditional festival happi coats, there were none for the children. I thought that was a bit of a shame, but checking online afterwards revealed that it would be quite pricey to get enough happi to go around, so I imagine that’s the reason.

The procession was led by two children carrying metal staves with rings in the top: Buddhist staves. Behind the mikoshi were two more with giant fans, and bringing up the rear was a truck with traditional musicians on. The procession was quite lively, and went around the area for most of the day, even after I was back at work.

The chief priest, in mask and costume, dances in the shrine

Sacred Dance

I’ve talked about the Grand Festival before, and it was, of course, more or less the same as ever. I’ll just mention the points that were different. First, the young female priest was fully involved for the first time, sitting with the other priests on the dais and participating in the ritual, rather than just reading out the order of service and instructions (although she was doing that as well). Second, I offered my tamagushi at a different place in the ritual, so I’m not at all sure how they decide the order now. The head of the Ujiko goes first, and last is someone who can represent all of the Ujiko so that they can pay their respects with him, but I’m no longer at all sure how they work things out in the middle.

Mayuki came during the ceremony, to watch the children’s sumo contest and eat shaved ice (and feed some to her toys), and she stayed for the sacred dance. She said she was frightened at first, but it wasn’t very convincing, and she was soon showing no signs at all. During the final two dances, she was dancing along with the drum beat, so I hope the kami appreciated the extra entertainment.

Once again, the festival went off successfully, but maybe with small changes to adapt to modern conditions.

Thinking About the Report

This session of the Kawasaki Foreigners’ Assembly is coming to an end. We still have about six months to go, but that’s only four normal meetings, so we have to get started on deciding our final report and suggestions to the city government.

In Sunday’s session, the Life and Society Subcommittee did manage to get started on that, but first we discussed the participation of foreign residents in society. It’s obviously very easy for foreigners to get isolated; it’s common to arrive knowing no-one, and there’s often a language barrier as well. There are a lot of ways for foreign residents to get involved in life in Kawasaki, such as committees run by the city, and the local organisations called Jichikai and Chonaikai. As far as the secretariat could discover, there are no city committees that exclude foreigners from membership, and the local organisations certainly don’t. However, the problem is how foreigners who have newly arrived in the city can find out about these organisations, and, once they’ve found out, how they can make the first approach. One representative suggested that the children’s groups that most of the local organisations run are a good way to start, and that’s certainly true for people who have children. Not everyone does, of course. The city probably can’t give information about newly resident foreigners to the organisations, because that would be a privacy violation, but it might be possible to tell new residents about the organisation; since the city knows your address, it can tell you exactly who to contact in your area.

Once people are involved in society, a lot of other problems get solved, not least the problem of a sense of isolation, and it can help with a lot of the problems of information flow. Once a foreigner has Japanese friends, then even if they don’t read Japanese, they have people they can ask to find out about things. Equally important, a foreigner who is involved in local society can make positive contributions to it. Of course, easier integration would also help Japanese people moving into the area, and there are quite a lot of them in Kawasaki, so if we do take this to the final report, I would definitely want to think about approaches that would be useful to both Japanese and foreign residents.

After that discussion, we went on to talk about what we would like to see in the report. We can make two, or just possibly three, recommendations. (The Education Subcommittee also gets to make the same number of recommendations.) On Sunday, we only got as far as everyone saying which subjects they would like to make recommendations about, and saying why. Everyone contributed, and I didn’t even have to encourage them too hard. Quite a lot of people wanted to address participation in society, some sort of survey of foreign residents, and the general flow of information to foreign residents. The residence conditions for parents, support for finding good accommodation, and the pensions issue were also raised.

So, the last thing we agreed on was how we would start the next session. First, we will vote on whether to have two or three recommendations. (I think we should go for two, because deciding on three in four sessions strikes me as very ambitious.) Then, we’ll vote for the issues. Everyone will vote for the same number of issues as there will be in the report, the lowest-scoring issue will be eliminated, we’ll all vote again, and so on until the right number is left. Since we are only going to vote, not discuss the issues, I think we should be able to get through that in about fifteen minutes, which will leave most of the session for discussing concrete content for the recommendations.

I thought the last session went very smoothly, a sentiment that was echoed by one of the other representatives. It’s a bit of a shame that we’ve got good at working together at the end of our term, but it’s also not really surprising. I am, at least, optimistic that we’ll be able to produce recommendations that we all support.

Visit Tohoku! Aizu

I’ve been to Tohoku again, this time on a family trip in the middle of July. We spent two nights and three days in the Aizu region of Fukushima Prefecture. Yes, that is the Fukushima Prefecture that has the broken nuclear power station. However, it’s one of the largest prefectures in Japan, and the Aizu region is at the other side, a hundred kilometres or so from the nuclear power plant. In terms of radiation, it’s safe, as evidenced by the fact that this is where a lot of the people who used to live near the power station have been evacuated to.

The Aizu region is in the mountains of southern Tohoku, and apparently gets a lot of snow in the winter. While we were there, the temperature was generally pleasant, although there were occasional showers that held our sightseeing back a bit. On the up side, the train ride from Koriyama (where we got off the shinkansen) to Aizu Wakamatsu (where we were staying) was very pleasant, winding its way along mountain valleys, and through occasional tunnels. Mayuki certainly enjoyed herself, but I don’t think that was primarily the scenery; she was having much more fun climbing all over us.

Yuriko and Mayuki in front of the Aizu mascot, a stylised red cow

At Aizu Wakamatsu station, in front of the Aizu mascot

The original plan was to get the bus from the station to the ryokan where we were staying, but that left us about 45 minutes to kill at the station. Fortunately, there was a festival/market being held just outside the station, and Mayuki decided that she wanted to go there, and eat shaved ice and fried noodles. This is hardly a local speciality, being standard festival food in Tokyo, but that is presumably why Mayuki wanted to eat it. Since she was enjoying it, and we were on holiday, I decided that we would get a taxi to the ryokan, so that we didn’t have to worry about the times. We left the festival as they were starting to clear up, and got in the taxi just as it started raining, so the timing was perfect there.

The ryokan where we were staying, Kutsurogijuku Shintaki, is in Higasiyama Onsen, on the edge of the town, and the area is very pretty, in a steep-sided forested valley, with most of the ryokan along the river. Quite a bit of the ryokan was accommodating evacuees, so the number of tourists was fairly small. That meant that we could book the open-air bath by the river on both nights of our stay, and go in as a family. Mayuki really enjoyed that, and since no-one else was there, she could play without Yuriko getting worried, or having to avoid bothering other people.

Me, Yuriko and Mayuki, with a samurai.

People in samurai costume walk round the town and pose with tourists for photographs, free.

We spent our full day looking around the town of Aizu Wakamatsu. This was the centre of one of the important domains of feudal (Edo-period) Japan, and is famous as the site of one of the important battles around the Meiji Restoration, in the late 1860s. There is a very well-known tragic story associated with it, as well. The domain had a number of groups of samurai, divided by age, and the White Tiger Group was made up of boys aged 16 to 17. When the domain was attacked, they were sent to relieve one part of the army, and attacked unexpectedly. Many of them managed to escape through a tunnel to a hill overlooking the town, but when they got there they saw the castle wreathed in smoke, and thought that it had already fallen. All but one of them committed suicide. The castle had not fallen, however. As a result of this, Aizu Wakamatsu is strongly associated with samurai.

It’s also associated with a number of traditional crafts, and we spent quite a lot of our time looking at those. One is lacquer ware, and we visited a shop with centuries of history, full of beautiful items. Another tradition is a particular style of cotton, while a final one is the manufacture of candles with lovely pictures of flowers on. We did quite a lot of shopping, partly to support the local economy, and partly to get presents for the people we would be visiting in the UK.

Apart from the samurai, the region’s other claim to fame is that it was where Hideyo Noguchi was born and raised. He was a famous Japanese scientist (a bacteriologist), and is the face on the current 1000 yen note, so he’s become very well known. He trained as a doctor in Aizu Wakamatsu, and we had a break at a cafe in the building that used to house the hospital where he pursued his initial studies.

Around that time, Mayuki fell asleep on me, and I was also getting a bit tired, so we debated going straight back to the ryokan. Yuriko, however, wanted to go to see the collection of Edo period houses, which were on the way back, so we did, getting there just before closing time. They were very interesting, in part because these were houses for more ordinary samurai. One was, admittedly, the former house of a chief retainer, but the chief retainer to a domain lord is a long way down from the shogun. One interesting point was that the toilet reserved for the head of the household had no ceiling, so that assassins could not hide between the ceiling and the roof.

I really like the traditional Japanese architecture, from an aesthetic viewpoint. From a practical standpoint, I’m not good enough at sitting on the floor to really be comfortable living in a house that was all Japanese style, and I’d need to find somewhere to put my books, but if I can ever afford an actual house somewhere in Japan, I’d like to have a Japanese-style section, not just a Japanese room.

Yuriko and Mayuki taking up a lot of space in the upper deck lounge of the tourist boat

Away From The Crowds

On our final day we went to Inawashiro, a small town on one of the larger lakes in Japan, Lake Inawashiro. The first thing we did was go out on the lake on the tourist cruise. We were the only passengers on the boat, so we went to the upstairs lounge and took it easy, enjoying the scenery and the commentary. The fact that we were there on a weekday outside high season probably partly accounts for how quiet it was, but I fear that the nuclear accident may also have been scaring people away.

From the boat, we went to a late nineteenth/early twentieth century house that was built for a member of the Imperial family. Yuriko finds these really interesting; I find them very similar to a lot of houses in the UK. Indeed, the main difference between this house and my friend’s house that we stayed at in the summer is that my friend’s house is bigger… After we’d looked around, Mayuki enjoyed watching the ants hunting for food in the lawns outside the house, before we got a taxi to our lunch stop.

Yuriko and Mayuki inside a reconstructed farmer's house

The cones are not historic

This was also on the shore of the lake, and as well as the restaurant it had several museums and similar. One was the Aizu Folk Museum, where several houses from the region had been reconstructed. These were farmers’ houses, so they were smaller than the samurai houses, and much more practical. Most only had one tatami room, with earth floors elsewhere, but they had upper floors, both for living and storage. Mayuki really liked one of the houses, and went round it three times. There was a route marked out, so that at busy times people would keep flowing, but Mayuki was able to go in whichever direction she wanted.

The other museum was the Hideyo Noguchi museum, because this is where he was born. If I understood the explanations correctly, it is literally where he was born; one feature of the museum is that house, and there was no indication that it has been moved and reconstructed. A famous part of Nogushi’s story is that, when he was eighteen months old, he fell into the hearth at home and burned himself very badly, so badly that the fingers of one hand fused together. Because the house is in the museum, you can see that hearth, and the story made a really big impression on Mayuki. She kept wanting to see the hearth again, and asking about the accident. When we got home, we bought her a picture book biography of Noguchi, and she still asks for it to be read. When Noguchi was in his early teens, his friends got together to pay for an operation on his hand, which was a success, and that is what set him on the path to studying medicine.

After we’d seen the museums, we still had a bit of time before our train, so we went to the big glass shop across the road and had a drink in their coffee shop. While Yuriko looked around, Mayuki and I “painted” the milk and syrup pots using the paper on the end of the straws. When we’d finished, we put everything back the way it had been, and Mayuki didn’t even need much prompting.

Mayuki fell asleep on the train back, but woke up when we got on the shinkansen, and immediately started crying that she didn’t have a packed meal like Yuriko and me. So I took her to find the lady with the trolley, where I bought her a drink and a box of chocolate almonds. That cheered her up, and she happily took bits from our meals to eat, in between dozing a bit.

It was a very nice part of Japan, and apparently it’s glorious in autumn, when the leaves on the mountains all change colour and get reflected in the lake. I’d like to go back, but I don’t know whether we’ll get round to it; there are so many new places to go. In any case, I can recommend it to people visiting Japan.

Japanese Prime Ministers

I’m sorry it’s been so long since I updated this blog; we went to the UK in the summer, and that ate up a lot of time. I have a bunch of things to post, and I’ve started working on them, so I’ll keep this entry short, just to bring some life back to the blog, and get on with writing more substantial articles.

As you probably know, Yoshihiko Noda has just become the new Prime Minister of Japan. He is the sixth person to hold that post in Mayuki’s lifetime. Mayuki is still three years old.

By way of comparison, there have been eight Prime Ministers of the UK in my lifetime. I am thirteen times Mayuki’s age.

It’s not entirely fair to describe Japan’s political system as “unstable”, but it certainly doesn’t encourage long-lived Prime Ministers. According to a news article I read a few days ago, the longest-serving post-war Japanese Prime Minister did not serve for as long as the average tenure of post-war German Chancellors. I’m just waiting for the Japanese people to take inspiration from the Arab spring and pour onto the streets of Tokyo waving banners saying “We don’t want regime change!” and “We demand that the Prime Minister doesn’t resign!”.

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.

Ōharaikotoba — Shinto Texts Course

Yesterday we had the fourth of this year’s Shinto lectures at Kokugakuin. The lecturer was Professor Okada, and the theme was the ÅŒharaikotoba. The ÅŒharaikotoba is a purification prayer, and one of the most important norito (ritual prayer) in Shinto. Indeed, it is almost certainly the most important single norito, which is why it earned a whole lecture to itself on the course. It’s about 900 characters long, so probably around 500 words in English. If it’s recited at a stately pace, it takes about ten minutes, which is why it isn’t a standard part of Shinto ceremonies, although purification certainly is.

“Kotoba” just means “words”, although with the kanji used in this case it means “specially composed words”. “Harai” is purification, and the “ÅŒ” prefix indicates a public and official purification. The norito was originally used at the twice-yearly ÅŒharai in the capital, where all the government officials and palace staff would gather outside the main gate, the Suzaku gate, of the imperial palace to be purified of everything that had built up over the past half year. The prayer was read out by a member of the Nakatomi family, so it is also known as the Nakatomi Harai. The earliest ÅŒharai referred to in historical records was in 676. (There are earlier ones, but they are said to have happened under emperors who didn’t actually exist, and so the records are not believed to be trustworthy.) This was an exceptional one, held in the eighth month, as opposed to the ones that later became standard, in the sixth and twelfth months. The first reference to those is in 702, when the record states that the ÅŒharai was not held in the capital, although the corresponding regional ceremonies were. Since it only makes sense to say that something was not held if there was an expectation that it would be, the regular system must have been set up before that. A new set of Chinese-style laws was introduced in Japan in 701, so it is thought that the ÅŒharai was instituted at the same time.

In the past it was quite common for Japanese people to know the ÅŒharaikotoba by heart, but that’s much less common today. Professor Okada commented that all the students in the Department of Shinto Studies knew it by heart by their third or fourth year, but they didn’t understand it. That is hardly surprising; it’s in archaic Japanese, and as he went through Professor Okada commented on some points for which the interpretation is still unclear.

The norito starts by telling the story of the descent of Ninigi (the ancestor of the imperial line) to earth. At the beginning it mentions the male and female ancestor kami of the imperial line, but it does not say, specifically, which kami it means. The most common interpretation seems to be Takamimusubi and Amaterasu, respectively, and that fits pretty well with the Kojiki and Nihonshoki. However, some people apparently replace Amaterasu with Kamumusubi. The norito also talks about gathering kami from across Japan, thus emphasising that Japan and Takamagahara, the High Plain of Heaven, are not separated. It then describes Ninigi’s descent, and the construction of an imperial palace.

Next, there is a list of the things that cause pollution. This is split into two groups, the Ama tsu Tsumi, or “Crimes of Heaven”, and the Kuni tsu Tsumi, or “Crimes of Earth”. As the norito is used today, the crimes are not explicitly listed, although they were in the original version. Professor Okada’s explanation for this was that it is inappropriate to say such things in a shrine; they are words that should be avoided. Originally, the norito was not read in a shrine, so it was fine, but the situation changed.

All of the Ama tsu Tsumi are connected to rice agriculture. They include breaking down the banks between fields, filling in irrigation ditches, sowing extra seeds, and something to do with excrement. If you look at the legend of Susano-o in Takamagahara, the Ama tsu Tsumi are basically all the things he is reported to have done, which suggests that the last one, written with two characters, for “excrement” and “door” or “village” in the Japanese, refers to desecrating ritual sites with excrement.

The Kuni tsu Tsumi are much more varied, falling into five categories. The first two concern wounding people, either so that they die, or so that they don’t. The next two are illnesses. Being white is apparently a Kuni tsu Tsumi; in Japanese, it’s written as “white person”. However, it means a skin disease, like leprosy in the Bible. Then there is a group concerning sexual behaviour. Incest and bestiality apparently cause impurity. The next group concern disasters happening to you: attacks by insects, lightning strikes, and problems with birds. The possibility of birds and insects destroying the rice crop are, I take it, obvious. The last one is a form of sorcery.

“Tsumi” is normally translated “sin” or “crime”, but the reason I’ve been avoiding that should be obvious; having a disease or being struck by lightning is hardly a sin. They are, however, things that disrupt the community, and therefore need to be purified so that the community can rebuild. The emphasis of the norito is on these impurities being washed away and destroyed, and the way in which that can be done, not on punishing the people responsible. Indeed, punishment is not mentioned at all.

The reference to “washing away” is not metaphorical. People would transfer their impurity to a small, stylised doll, wooden and first, but paper by the twelfth century, and the doll would then be cast into a river to flow away to the sea. (This custom has had to be abandoned in many places now, because there are enough dolls to damage the environment.) The last section of the norito describes four kami who are responsible for this purification. The first, Seoritsuhime, is a female kami who dwells in the swift current of rivers. The second, Hayaakitsume, is another female kami, who dwells in the mouths of rivers, where they enter the sea. The third, Ibukitonushi, is a male kami who lives out to sea, and the fourth, Hayasasurahime, is another female kami, who dwells in the underworld. These kami are not mentioned in any other classical sources, but the association of rivers and the sea with purification is a very widespread motif in Shinto.

There were quite a few points in the norito that Professor Okada did not have time to go into, and as interpretation of the ÅŒharaikotoba was extremely popular in the middle ages, several books could be written about its position in the history of Shinto. However, a 90 minute lecture can still give a useful introduction.

A Wedding and The Grand Shrines of Ise

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

Mayuki in a blue dress and tiara

I'm a Princess!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mayuki picking up stones

Stones are very interesting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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