Nara, Day Two

On the second day of our visit to Nara, we started by visiting Todaiji, home of the largest bronze Buddha statue in Japan. Todaiji was founded in the mid-eighth century, to get the protection of Buddha for the Japanese state, but it was burned down a couple of times in civil wars, and the head fell off the Buddha, to be finally rebuilt by the Tokugawa Shoguns in its current state. The hall housing the Buddha is, apparently, the largest wooden structure in the world, even though it’s only two-thirds the width of the original version.

Mayuki coming out of the hole at the bottom of the pillar

Here I come!

As you might expect, it’s a major tourist attraction, which is why we planned to go fairly early in the morning, before it got too packed. We didn’t get out quite as early as I’d hoped, but the temple is only a short walk from Edosan, so we still got there quite early. There were, however, a lot of school parties. Todaiji is, unsurprisingly, a popular destination for school trips; as I mentioned, Yuriko went on a school trip last time. Just walking up the main road to the temple gave us the opportunity to see a wide-ranging sample of Japanese school uniforms; quite a lot of schools don’t use the sailor suits you see in anime.

Inside the temple, Mayuki was a bit scared of the big Buddha, and my mother and I agreed that the statue was rather more effective if viewed from off to one side, rather than straight on. Much like an English cathedral, the Buddha hall includes some exhibitions about the history of the temple and a gift shop. The other important site is one of the pillars supporting the roof, which has a hole through the bottom. It’s quite a big pillar, and a substantial hole, and the superstition is that if you can get through it, you will have good fortune. A group of elementary school students were being photographed coming through it by their teacher, and some of the boys found it a bit of a squeeze. Watching them overcame Mayuki’s initial reluctance, and she had no trouble at all. Obviously, the way to be lucky is to go to Todaiji when you’re young.

Mayuki running away from the camera, pulling the deer behind her

Let's go!

As we left Todaiji, Mayuki’s attention was caught by a red inflatable deer on wheels being sold in one of the stalls lining the path through the temple. Yuriko decided to buy one for her, a decision about which I was initially sceptical. However, Mayuki was really taken with the deer, pulling her everywhere for the rest of the day. It was nice to watch her when she reached obstacles that she couldn’t just pull the deer over, because she would stop and think about the best way to get herself and the deer round, and then, when she had succeeded, run off on the other side. It was only when Mayuki got sleepy and needed carrying that the additional item became a problem.

Yuriko, Mayuki, and my mother standing in front of the south gate to the palace complex

The rebuilt Suzakumon, the southern gate into the Imperial Palace

Our next stop, to which we got a taxi, was the site of the old Imperial Palace in Nara, which was also the main site for the celebrations of the 1300th anniversary. There is nothing original left at the site, although the outer gate to the palace has been reconstructed, as has the main hall, although one person told us that the main hall was a temporary structure; a very large one, if so. The Imperial Palace in Nara was enormous, as was Nara. It was built to the same pattern as the contemporary capital of Tang China, but on a larger scale. A fairly superficial knowledge of history will inform you that Tang China was the larger state, by a substantial margin, and I believe that Nara was never fully populated before the capital was moved again, to Kyoto.

One particularly interesting point at the palace site was a reconstructed garden. The site had been excavated, and the pattern of paths, ponds, and stones could be inferred from the results. Pollen and the like revealed the plants grown there, and provided hints as to where. Based on this information, the garden has been replanted, so that you can see what an eighth century Japanese garden looked like. It’s rather different from a contemporary one, but you can see where some elements have been continued.

In the evening, we went to the Nara National Museum. The Shosoin, which we visited on the first day, was a store room for items that had been used by, or important to, Emperor Shomu, dedicated by his empress when he died. For centuries it was opened once a year to air the items, and this created almost ideal conditions, so that even fabrics have survived in astonishingly good condition. Quite a few things have gone missing, due to rulers of Japan demanding private viewings and taking souvenirs, but the surviving items are priceless. These days, some of the items are displayed to the public once a year in the Nara National Museum. The exhibition is only on for three weeks, but we were lucky enough to be there during it.

We went in the evening because the staff at Aobajaya (the ryokan where we stayed the second night, which had absolutely nothing wrong with it but lost out in comparison to Edosan) told us that it wouldn’t be so crowded then, and they were right. We didn’t have to queue to get in, although the exhibit hall was still crowded. The central exhibit this year was a biwa, a musical instrument like a lute, decorated with mother-of-pearl, and still in good enough condition to be played, after about 1300 years. They don’t play it much, of course, but there was a recording of the last time it was played, about sixty years ago. I do suspect that the strings needed replacing, but things like that have survived in very good shape, so maybe not.

There are two classes of treasure from the Shosoin. One is the valuable and beautiful items that are displayed in the museum. The other is the bits of paper they were wrapped in, which were used records from the central government, and provide a staggering amount of detail on how that period worked. Obviously, they don’t look like much, but in historical terms they are far more informative. I’ve read quite a bit based on them, so I was about as excited to see them for real as to see the biwa.

Mayuki was getting a bit fractious by this time, so we called it a day after the museum.

Progress Report

There was another meeting of the Kawasaki Representative Assembly for Foreign Residents on Sunday. Because the Open Meeting has a completely different format, this was the first normal meeting for over two months, with the result that most of us had more-or-less forgotten what we had been talking about. Fortunately, the secretariat had a summary for us, which made things a bit easier.

Two members of the assembly moved out of Kawasaki, and so had to resign. There aren’t many absolute requirements on members of the assembly, but being a foreign resident of Kawasaki is one of them. As a result, the first business of Sunday’s meeting was the formal appointment of their replacements. This was followed by three reports on what had happened in the Open Meeting, because the format meant that each representative only attended half of it; we had to be at the sub-meeting for our own subcommittee, and so missed what happened at the other one. This report let everyone catch up.

The next order of business was the progress report from the city. Every year, the Assembly makes concrete proposals, which the city is required to take seriously, and to report back on. The issues that the city has not judged to be dealt with are brought back every year. Some, like trying to persuade the national government to change the pension system, have been unresolved since the Assembly was established. The pension system problems might get solved by accident in the near future, because the government is planning a full-scale reform, but it won’t be anything to do with that recommendation. Others, addressed directly to the city, seem to be making progress. One, in particular, sounded from the report as though it will be completed by the time the city reports next year.

This is obviously a very important part of the process, but it did take quite a bit of time, leaving us without much time for discussion. Nevertheless, we did make progress. We wrapped up our discussion of immigration, agreeing to revisit it when we were deciding on what to make formal proposals. We also finished discussing the library system, and that probably won’t make it to a formal recommendation, because the current situation seems pretty good. We can recommend and donate foreign-language books to boost the holdings, but they aren’t at all bad already.

We then moved on to talk about support for foreign students. It seems that the budget crisis has led to scholarships being cut, but one representative commented that it would actually be more useful to provide support for finding relatively cheap places to live, and part-time work to help pay the tuition fees and living expenses. Another point raised was the importance of pastoral support. Going to university can be isolating at the best of times, even more so when you are going to a foreign country. The provision of somewhere to go and talk about problems, probably outside the university, would be useful, but a more positive approach was also called for. That is, it would be good if it was someone’s job to check up on the foreign students and make sure that they were coping and didn’t have any serious problems. When you are faced with serious problems and get depressed, it’s not uncommon to not think to look for help, so someone actively coming to check on you can be a literal life-saver.

Finally, we had time to quickly look at the documents for the housing support services provided by the city, ask for documents for the next meeting, and make our plans for next time, which include starting our consideration of the deeper problems we listed in our first meetings.

Actually, before our discussions we spent quite a lot of time talking about the process by which our annual reports and recommendations are put together. That didn’t advance our discussions, but it was important, because it means that everyone is now clear on what will happen when, and how these things are decided.

In any case, the assembly is still going well, and I think we will have useful recommendations to make by the end of our term in March 2012.

Nara, Day One

We visited Nara in early November, when my mother came over for Mayuki’s Shichi-go-san. Nara was basically the capital of Japan from 710 to 794 (with some breaks), before the capital moved to Kyoto. As a result, it has a number of very important shrines and temples built in those years, although many of them burned down and had to be rebuilt several times. It is also, unlike Kyoto, not currently a large city, which gives the whole place a very different feel from Kyoto. Mum had never been, Yuriko hadn’t been since she was in school, and I’d only done a day trip while I was at Yamasa, so it seemed like a good choice.

Another reason for going last year was that, as you can tell from the dates, last year was the 1300th anniversary of Nara’s foundation, and there were a number of events held to celebrate that. We were visiting right at the end of the celebration, but we were still able to take advantage of it.

We got the Shinkansen from Yokohama to Kyoto, and then an ordinary JR express to Nara. We actually walked from the station to the ryokan, which was a little further than I anticipated, especially since Mayuki was asleep most of the time and I had to carry her. I’d walk it next time if I was going by myself, but we did get a taxi back to the station on the last day. We left our bags at Edosan, and then set off on our first bit of sightseeing.

Mayuki standing by the pillar of the first torii of Kasuga Taisha, which is much wider than she is.

The first torii of Kasuga Taisha is, apparently, hundreds of years old, and one of the largest wooden torii in Japan

I’d planned our schedule to avoid being at the most popular locations at their peak times, so for the first afternoon we headed for Kasuga Taisha. This is the shrine to the tutelary kami of the Fujiwara family, and I’ve written about the Shinto tradition around it before. As I mentioned, Edosan is just inside the first torii of the main entrance road to the shrine, so we were well located.

The walk takes you through Nara Park, which is beautiful and full of deer. Mayuki was fascinated by the deer, but scared if they got too close. That was a reasonable reaction, as the deer are taller than she is, and as long as I was holding her out of their reach, she was fine with them. The deer are sacred to the kami of Kasuga Taisha, and the symbol of Nara.

At the shrine itself, we looked around, and Mayuki practised “writing” in one of the waiting rooms. We did see the main things, but obviously I’d like to see more. I can’t really do that when other people are with me, however, as they’d get bored.

From Kasuga Taisha, we went round the back way, along the hills, to Todaiji Temple. That is the temple with the largest bronze Buddha in Japan, but we didn’t go to the main hall on the first day. Instead, we visited some of the locations up in the hills.

The first was Hitokotonushi Shrine, which is attached to Kasuga Shrine. The name of the kami means “Master of One Word”, and it is said that if you ask for exactly one thing at the shrine, your wish will be granted. However, you must not ask for more than one thing.

Next, we came to Tamukeyama Hachimangu. This is a very significant shrine, because it was probably the first shrine deliberately founded to enshrine a kami from another shrine; Hachiman came from Usa Hachimangu in Kyushu to help with the creation of the Great Buddha, and this shrine was founded for him. This started the trend of enshrining important kami all over Japan, and also indicates the very close relationship between Hachiman, in particular, and Buddhism. We got there just before the shrine closed, so I managed to get my Goshuin, but they closed the gates behind us as we left.

A view over Nara and the Great Buddha Hall at sunset

The view from Nigatsudo. The large building is the hall containing the Great Buddha.

From there, we went to the Nigatsudo of Todaiji. This hall, which is called “Second Month Hall”, is the site of a ceremony in the second month. It is also on top of a hill, with a large platform veranda that affords spectacular views over Nara. We went down the covered steps into the main temple precincts, but instead of going on to the Great Buddha Hall, we went round the back, along some very quiet and rather charming roads.

The Great Buddha Hall at Todaiji, reflected in a large pondThese roads take you to Shosoin, an eighth-century storehouse about which I will say more later. You can only see the outside, and we couldn’t even do that, as we were just a bit too late, and the gates had closed. So, we continued round the back of Todaiji, to a point where you can get very nice photographs of the Great Buddha Hall. So I did. Mayuki was, unsurprisingly, getting a bit tired by this point, so we headed back to the ryokan for dinner.

I think I may have planned slightly too much walking for the first day, but only slightly too much. We did manage to avoid the crowds for the most part; Kasuga Taisha and Nigatsudo were busy, but not heaving with people. We also saw a couple of places I hadn’t been to, because we didn’t go to Tamukeyama Hachimangu or Nigatsudo when I came on the day trip. Overall, it was a very good first day.

Edosan Ryokan in Nara

A Japanese-style room with a large table, and a decorated folding screen in the background

This is where we ate, and where my mother slept, after the table had been moved.

At the beginning of November, when my mother came over for Mayuki’s Shichi-go-san, we all went to Nara, one of the ancient capitals of Japan. I do plan to write about our whole visit, which was very good, but first I want to write about where we stayed for the first night.

We stayed at Edosan, a ryokan in Nara Park. It was superb, so I want to recommend it. I should say up front that I don’t think the staff speak much English, but they do have forms for foreign guests to fill in, and I’m sure that they’d make an effort to communicate. The website, however, is all in Japanese, although you can see pictures.

First, there is the location of the ryokan. It is actually in Nara Park, the site of Todaiji and Kasuga Taisha, two of the major tourist attractions (and World Heritage Sites) in Nara. Because it’s in the park, the only noise at night when we stayed in November was that of the deer calling to each other. Every room is in a separate small building, scattered around near the first torii marking the edge of the precincts of Kasuga Taisha. The rooms all have toilets and wash basins, and there’s another small building with two private-use Japanese style bathrooms, which are also extremely nice, and very up-to-date in their fittings and facilities.

Then, there are the rooms. The buildings are all traditional Japanese style, some with thatched roofs, and the interior rooms are also traditional Japanese. You sit on the floor to eat, although there are back-rests provided (you can see one in the photo), and you sleep on a futon spread out on the floor, laid out by the staff when you are ready for bed. Our room was, I assume, typical, and was decorated with delightful traditional Japanese objets d’art, including the screen you can see in the photo.

The food, both evening and morning, was delicious. We had a full kaiseki meal (lots of small courses) for dinner, and a traditional Japanese breakfast (rice, grilled fish, and lots of other things); they don’t, as far as I know, serve western food.

My family, gathered outside the gate into the garden outside our room at Edosan

The entrance to our room

The service, however, was what really stood out. It was generally excellent, considerate and efficient, and the person responsible for our room even helped carry our luggage to the ryokan where we were staying for our second night. The most impressive thing, however, was how they dealt with Mayuki.

First, I need to say that I didn’t pay anything for Mayuki. At three years old, the website says that she should be half the adult price, but when I phoned to book (admittedly, you have to do that in Japanese), the ryokan said that she was probably too small to eat even half of the dinner, so it would be better not to pay for it. Then, in the evening, they still provided a chair, place setting, and rice, furikake, and seaweed for Mayuki to eat. Since this is just about all she eats anyway, she was very happy with it, and with the same again in the morning. After dinner, the staff brought a small basket of cheap toys, and let Mayuki choose three, as gifts. She really enjoyed that.

Overall, it was a candidate for the best ryokan experience I’ve had in Japan, and it was far from being the most expensive: it’s about 20,000 yen per night for an adult. Thus, it isn’t cheap, but it is, in my opinion, extremely good value. The contact email address is, although I should emphasise, again, that I only ever communicated with them in Japanese, and they apologised for not being good at English. If you email in English, keep it simple.

My only criticism is that, as it was high season, they would only accept a booking for a single night. I would like to go back to Nara, as there is still quite a lot we didn’t see, and I definitely plan to stay at Edosan again.


A kamidana is a Shinto household shrine to the kami. According to a 2009 survey (reported in Ishii 2010 『神道はどこへいくけ』, page 21), about 43% of Japanese homes have one, although only 28% have one in the 14 largest cities. Since most of Japan’s population lives in the 14 largest cities, this means that kamidana must be very common in more rural areas. They are an important part of Shinto practice, but a bit difficult to find out about in English. However, one of the important jobs at New Year is taking everything off the kamidana, cleaning it, and then putting everything back on, with new o-fuda. (I’ll explain o-fuda below.) That provided a good opportunity to take lots of photographs to use in this blog entry.

A wooden shelf, high on the wall, with a wooden beam above it. “Kamidana” literally means “kami shelf”, and the name is accurate, as the traditional kamidana is, indeed, a shelf. The photograph shows the shelf part. As you can see, it is set high on the wall, and the base of the shelf is supposed to be slightly above eye level. You should put it in a clean part of the house, and not in one of the busiest parts. It shouldn’t be over a door, for example. Normally, it should face either east (to the sunrise) or south (to the noonday sun), but ours faces west, because of the layout of the flat, and because you can see Mount Fuji in that direction, from the room the kamidana is in.

The shelf does not normally extend all the way to the ceiling, but ours is quite deep, and to keep it above my eye level, it had to be fixed to the ceiling. Even then, the base is really at my eye level; I’ve walked into it a couple of times, and whacked myself on the temple. Fixing it to the ceiling is a slight problem, because it means that there is no easy way to hang a shimenawa (sacred rope) from the top. We are thinking about adding a couple of hooks.

The character for "clouds", in wood, stuck to the ceiling over the kamidana.The decoration in the wooden panel across the top of the kamidana is, I think, supposed to look like clouds, because you are supposed to put it somewhere where no-one will walk over the top of it. However, in blocks of flats, that is impossible, unless you live on the top floor. Since most Japanese people live in flats, Shinto priests have come up with a workaround. You stick the chinese character that means “clouds” to the ceiling over the kamidana (ours is wooden, and stuck just inside the front of the shelf). This apparently fools the kami into thinking that it’s the sky above them, or maybe mollifies them because you’ve obviously made an effort.

These days, shrines are very clear that you do not need a traditional shelf for your kamidana, and, indeed, in our old flat I had it on top of my bookcases. This is because it is difficult to impossible to add a kamidana to modern flats, and, despite the name, the shelf is not actually the important part.

Three o-fuda, partially overlappingThe important part is the o-fuda. O-fuda are obtained from shrines, either directly, by visiting and making an offering (usually about 1,000 yen, which is about $12.50 at the moment), or, in the case of the o-fuda of the Grand Shrines of Ise, which are called Jingū Taima, from any shrine affiliated with Jinja Honchō. Physically, an o-fuda is a thin wooden board wrapped in paper, about 25cm long and about 8cm wide, with the name of the shrine or kami written in black, with the red seal of the shrine over that.

The question of what they are religiously is controversial, because Shinto tends to be vague on central points like this. They may be purely symbolic. However, in general they seem to be taken to be dwelling places of the kami in question; the kami is thought to be present in the o-fuda, and hence on the kamidana. That’s why the o-fuda is the most important part of the kamidana, because without it you have no kami on your kami shelf.

There are three classes of o-fuda on a standard contemporary kamidana. The first is the Jingū Taima, representing Amaterasu Ōmikami, of the Grand Shrines of Ise. The Association of Shinto Shrines insists that every kamidana should have one of these, and that it should be placed in the most honourable position. The second is the o-fuda of the household’s ujigami-sama, or local tutelary deity. In most cases, this means the o-fuda of your closest shrine, although there are some cases where the shapes of the regions covered by a shrine mean that the ujigami-sama is not actually the closest shrine. In our case, it means the o-fuda of Shirahata Hachiman Daijin, which is, obviously, a Hachiman shrine. This o-fuda goes in the second place. The final class is the o-fuda of shrines you, personally or as a family, respect or have links to. These can be any shrines; in our case, it is Yushima Tenmangū, which is the shrine where Yuriko and I got married. These o-fuda go in last place, and it is often said that you shouldn’t have too many of them.

The miyagata with the railings and front wall taken offBecause the o-fuda may embody the kami, they are supposed to be treated with respect, and not just piled up on the shelf. Shrines provide free simple stands for them, but it’s much nicer to get a miyagata, which means “shrine model”, to hold them. This is, astonishingly, a wooden model of a shrine, and the o-fuda go inside. Although the miyagata normally does have doors on the front, like a shrine, you can’t normally get the o-fuda in through the doors, as the inside of the miyagata is not much bigger than the o-fuda. There are various ways to solve this problem, but in our case, the front of the miyagata comes off altogether, giving easy access to the interior.

The miyagata with o-fuda in, but with the front still off so that you can see themWhen the o-fuda go in a simple, one-space miyagata like ours, the place of honour is at the front, so that the Jingū Taima goes in front, with the ujigami-sama o-fuda behind it, and the o-fuda of other shrines behind both of them. The o-fuda in the photograph above are in the right order. Miyagata with three chambers are also quite common, and in that case the place of honour is the centre, with the space to the right as you look at it as the second place, for the ujigami-sama, and the space to the left for the other shrines. It is also possible to get miyagata with five or seven spaces, and while the central position is still the first, I’m not sure whether all the spaces to the right are ahead of all the ones to the left, or whether it alternates, so that the fourth most honourable location is the second on the right. Miyagata with that many spaces are really not common, because not many people have enough space for them.

The miyagata on the kamidana, in the centre at the back.Once the o-fuda are in the miyagata, you can close it up and put the kami on the kami shelf. The miyagata goes in the centre of the shelf, towards the back. Next, you can put other things on the shelf.

The kamidana should, unsurprisingly, not be used for normal storage. You should also really not use it as a place to hang washing, but the kami seem to be quite forgiving about that, and I do encourage Yuriko to move it as soon as possible. However, there are certain things that you are supposed to put on the shelf.

The wooden o-fuda have been added to the kamidana, lined up either side of the miyagata, against the wallFirst, when you go to a shrine and have a formal prayer performed in the worship hall (haiden), you usually receive a wooden o-fuda, which is a bit bigger than the ones that normally go in a miyagata, and which typically has your name and the purpose of the prayer written on. These o-fuda should be kept on the kamidana. In general, you are supposed to return the o-fuda to the shrine that issued them after a year, or more generally at the new year after you receive the o-fuda. If you got an o-fuda from the other end of Japan while you were on holiday, returning it to your local shrine is acceptable. However, I don’t do that for o-fuda that mark important events. So, for example, the o-fuda from our wedding and Mayuki’s Hatsumiyamairi are still on the kamidana. However, when we went to Shirahata-san this afternoon for a new year prayer, we got an o-fuda marked “First Prayer”, and I will take that back next year. After all, we’ll get another one. In any case, these o-fuda are supposed to be kept on the kamidana, next to the miyagata, until you take them back.

Engimono have been added to the kamidana, in front of the o-fuda, to either side of the miyagataThe second class of things that you keep on the kamidana are the so-called “engimono”, “good luck things”. This includes o-mamori, which are amulets issued by shrines for various purposes, and other similar items. One that you can see in the photograph, on the left, is a hamaya, a good-luck arrow that shrines distribute at new year. (The meaning of the name is disputed, but it is normally written with the characters for “magic destroying arrow”.) Most of these items are also supposed to be returned to a shrine after a year; again, I don’t always. Sometimes they have significant meanings, such as the two o-mamori Yuriko and I got when we performed a ceremony to announce our wedding at Shirahata-san. Sometimes, they’re interesting, and from shrines hundreds of kilometres away that I’m unlikely to visit again. The hamaya, however, does go back to Shirahata-san every year.

Two bunches of sakaki in white ceramic holdersFinally, there are the standard “furnishings” for a kamidana. The first of these is two bunches of sakaki twigs. Sakaki is an evergreen tree endemic to Japan, and it is used in a lot of Shinto ceremonies. The sakaki in the picture is new year sakaki, and you may be able to see that there are pine branches in the front; regular sakaki doesn’t have those. You are supposed to change the sakaki every two weeks, on the first and fifteenth of the month, and for a few days before that florists in Japan sell prepared sakaki bundles. If you forget to buy replacements, the sakaki tends to look very forlorn by the time they come round again. On the old Japanese lunar calendar, the first and fifteenth (or sixteenth) were the new and full moons, respectively, but these days the replacement is done according to the solar calendar, and so has nothing to do with the moon.

The sakaki have now been added to the kamidana, in front of the o-fuda but behind the hamaya

One bunch of sakaki goes on each side of the miyagata

Next, there are three things that I don’t have on my kamidana. First, it is common to have a polished metal mirror in front of the doors to the shrine. This is because a mirror is a very common symbol of the kami, most famously of Amaterasu. Second, people often have light sources, generally electric these days because of the risk of fire, to either side of the miyagata. Finally, a shimenawa, or sacred rope, across the top is also common. We don’t have one of them because I haven’t sorted out how to fix it yet. The mirror and the lights are missing because I haven’t been able to afford them yet…

Five ceramic vessels on a wooden platformFinally, there are the offerings to the kami. These offerings should not be placed directly on the kamidana, but instead on a special tray called a “sanbō”. The name means “three directions”, and comes from the fact that there are decorative holes in three sides of the base. The side of the base without a hole is the front, and should be placed facing towards the kami. The offerings are placed on top of it, often, as here, in white ceramic containers. There are four standard offerings.

The first is rice. This can be cooked or not, although we normally offer it uncooked, because it keeps longer. This is the most important of the offerings, and is placed nearest to the kami.

A photograph with labels to show the arrangement of the offeringsThe second is sake, rice wine. This is next in importance, and it is normal to have two bottles of sake in the offerings.

Finally, water and salt are offered, and these two are furthest away from the kami.

In principle, you are supposed to change the offerings every day, but that doesn’t happen at our house; they get changed when I change the sakaki, so normally every two weeks. Normally, you eat the things that have been offered to the kami after they are taken down, but because the rice has been sitting out in the open for a couple of weeks, I just throw it away. The sake, however, is poured into a jar to be used later; the sake jars, as you can see, have lids, so it is fine.

[Edit 2021/01: Well, I wrote that ten years ago and it is no longer true. I would not recommend that anymore, even though it is standard practice and the form that some priests recommend; rather, I recommend that you put the offerings on the kamidana immediately before you pay your respects, and take them down immediately afterwards, so that there is no problem eating them. Paying your respects every day is still the ideal. My guide to Shinto Practice for Non-Japanese has more details, and my Mimusubi blog has more details on why this is not as straightforward as you might think.]

You can also offer other things to the kami, particular food that you don’t see very often. Rice, water, salt, and sake are the staples, so seasonal vegetables and sea food are standard offerings. It is unusual, although not unheard of, to offer meat to the kami. You can also offer inedible things, like books or flowers. As with the standard offerings, you would use the item after it is taken down; that is, in fact, the main point. A central part of Shinto worship is the common meal with the kami, where you eat the food offered to them.

The offerings are placed on the kamidana, in front of the miyagata, which is why it is placed towards the back. Once the offerings are in place, the kamidana is complete, and you can properly venerate the kami at your own household shrine.

The kamidana with the offerings added in the front centre, in front of the miyagata

Since writing this article, I have written An Introduction to Shinto, and a guide to Shinto Practice for Non-Japanese, both available from Amazon. I’m also writing a series of in-depth essays on Shinto, supported through Patreon. If you are interested in learning more about Shinto, I invite you to have a look, and consider becoming a patron.


Shichi-Go-San,or Shichigosan, which means “Seven-Five-Three”, is the name for the traditional Japanese ceremonies performed to mark the maturation of young children. The name comes from the ages at which the ceremonies are performed: three years old for both boys and girls, again at five years for boys, and at seven years for girls. The origins of the ceremony go back about a thousand years, when each stage referred to one change from children’s clothes to adults’. At three, parents stopped shaving the child’s head and let the hair grow, while at five boys first wore hakama, the trouser skirts like the ones I’m wearing in the pictures. At seven, girls started wearing adult kimono, with a proper belt rather than a single cord. These ceremonies are still very occasionally performed in something close to their original form, but this seems to be limited to families that have traditions going back that far.

Mayuki, Yuriko, and I, all in kimono, arrive at the shrine

It was a long walk, but we're here now

These days, the ceremony takes the form of everyone getting dressed up and going to a shrine (usually) or temple for a blessing. The star of the show almost always wears Japanese dress, and it’s not at all uncommon for the mother to do so as well. It is, however, very unusual for the father to do so, so a lot of people stopped to look as we walked from our flat to Shirahata Hachiman Daijin for the ceremony. In this form, the ceremonies date back at least three centuries, as they are described in very similar terms in the Onna Chōhōki, a book written in 1692. These days, it is becoming more common for parents to just have a photograph taken with their child, and not actually bother with the shrine visit. It’s even less common for the whole extended family to attend, but I think it’s a good idea. However, in November the major shrines are still very busy with small children having their Shichi-Go-San, so if you want to see a lot of really cute Japanese children in traditional dress, it’s a good time to visit a shrine. The timing of the ceremony, incidentally, is said to derive from the date on which it was performed for the son of one of the Tokugawa shoguns, so holding it in November does not have as long a history as the ceremony itself.

The ages at which the ceremony is performed were traditionally measured Japanese style, in which you count every calendar year in which you have been alive. So, if you are born at four minutes to midnight on December 31st, you are two before you are five minutes old. However, the advice from the shrines, and the people who rent out the kimonos (no, you don’t buy them), is that, for the first one, you should probably wait for the full age. For a child born late in the year you might do it just before the third birthday, but two-and-a-bit is too young. This was certainly true in our case; a year ago Mayuki would not really have been able to cope with the ceremony, but this year she did very well.

As you can see from the pictures, Mayuki is wearing a sort of jacket over her kimono. This is standard for three-year-old girls, because they can’t wear a proper kimono with an obi. Instead, the kimono just ties shut, and the jacket hides the fact that there is no obi, as well as being in a contrasting colour. This makes it much easier and quicker to dress the child, which is a good thing. She’d sat in the chair for an hour having her hair done, so I think her patience might have been running out, and getting me, Yuriko, and Yuriko’s mother all dressed in our kimonos took quite long enough.

Mayuki and I filling in the forms at the shrine

I can write my name, too!

Once you arrive at the shrine, you have to fill in a form giving your address and the child’s name, along with his or her age. In our case, at Shirahata-san, this is largely redundant, because they know who we are, but if you’re one of thirty groups being done at once at a big shrine, it’s quite essential. The names and addresses are incorporated into the norito, the prayer to the kami, so that the kami knows who the priest is talking about. When Mayuki saw me filling in the form, she wanted to do it as well, so we gave her one, and she carefully filled it in. Obviously, she can’t really write yet, but she was filling it in with small letter-like bits, in the spaces, rather than scribbling all over it. This required great concentration.

The Shinto priest, in his vestments, beating the taikoThere are several advantages to doing the ceremony at a local shrine, one of which is not having to take a three-year-old long distances in a kimono. Another, and to my mind more important, one is that at most local shrines the priests will do one family at a time, rather than half a dozen at once. Of course, if you do it a local shrine you attend frequently, they might even give you permission to have photographs taken during the ceremony, which is a little unusual. As I mentioned before, we didn’t do this ourselves; we hired one of Yuriko’s friends, who is a professional photographer, instead.

The ceremony starts with the priest banging a taiko, a Japanese drum, to draw the kami’s attention and announce that the ceremony is starting. This generally happens while all the attendees are finding their seats. For this ceremony, Mayuki sat in the centre, with me to her right and Yuriko to her left, and then my parents on my side and Yuriko’s on hers.

The priest waving the harae-gushi to purify us

Even Mayuki bowed her head

After the drum, and a greeting from the priest, the next element is the purification, or harae. First, the priest recites the harae norito while kneeling in front of the harae-gushi, or ÅŒnusa, which is also called a purification wand. This normally consists of a large number of strips of white paper on a wooden handle. When he has completed the norito, he performs the normal two bow-two clap-one bow ceremony, then takes the harae-gushi and waves it first over the inner shrine, then over the offerings, and then finally over the people gathered for the ceremony. While you are being purified, you are supposed to bow your heads, and even Mayuki did it.

Next, the priest goes deeper into the haiden, or worship hall, and kneels to recite the main norito. At a Shichi-Go-San, this is a prayer of thanks for the child’s safe development so far, and a request that she will continue to be healthy, and grow up strong, happy, and prosperous. On this sort of occasion there are standard noritos, and by the end of November the priests must be very good at reciting them. They probably even do it in their sleep.

Mayuki, Yuriko, and I kneeling on the platform in the worship hall of the shrineFinally, the child, with her parents, goes to pay her respects to the kami. The three of us climbed up onto the platform in the worship hall, and knelt on a mat, in the centre, facing in towards the honden, or sanctuary. The priest then explained what to do: “First, bow twice to say hello to the kami. Then, clap your hands twice to get his attention. Finally, bow once more to say thank you.” Mayuki has been to the shrine quite a few times, and we do the same thing in front of the kamidana (household shrine) when we do “thank you things”, so she had no problem following the directions, and then going back to her seat.

It’s very important to note that we did not enter the honden, the sanctuary, to perform the ceremony. In the photograph above, you can see a mirror, and behind that two lanterns in front of a bamboo curtain, with another two lanterns behind the curtain. The sanctuary is behind the curtain, beyond the lanterns. The priest might enter it once per year to clean it, but otherwise no-one ever goes in. This has occasionally led to surprising historical discoveries in older shrines.

Almost all of our family, in front of the shrineAfter the ceremony, Mayuki was given a pack of traditional candy, which is much like a stick of rock, and given a choice of o-mamori, or amulet. There were amulets in three colours, all with Hello Kitty on, and Mayuki decided that she liked the blue one. Then the priest gave us the traditional bottle of sake and packet of bonito flakes, and the whole thing was over. Afterwards, the shrine family let us take a lot of photographs in the worship hall, the garden behind the shrine, and, finally, in the shrine precincts, in front of the shrine. Since I can’t put all of them up, I’ve chosen one of the family group ones taken in front of the shrine.

By this time, Mayuki was getting tired, and we went on taking photographs for a little bit too long, so that she started complaining and crying, and fell asleep on my shoulder on the way home. As I said at the beginning, she participated in the ceremony very well, and had very nearly enough endurance to cope with all the photographs we wanted to take. That would not have been the case a year ago, so we made the right choice for the timing. We might, however, do the next one on the traditional Japanese age.

Open Meeting

The Kawasaki Representative Assembly for Foreign Residents holds an Open Meeting every year, and this year’s meeting was held on Sunday. Anyone may attend any meeting of the Assembly, so the Open Meeting isn’t particularly open in that sense. The difference is that, at the normal meetings, only the representatives are allowed to speak, whereas at the Open Meeting only the people who aren’t representatives are supposed to speak. That’s a slight simplification; the meeting is chaired by representatives, and the chairperson of the assembly gives a short speech about the assembly and what it does. However, the main aim of the Open Meeting is to get opinions from other people, both Japanese and foreign, with the aim of broadening the input to the assembly’s discussions.

I’ve been to two previous Open Meetings, as a non-representative, and given my opinions. This time, of course, I was a representative, and chairing the sub-meeting for Society and Daily Life.

This was a rather harder job than it seemed in previous years. This year, a group of people in Kawasaki who are opposed to the activities and existence of the assembly decided to attend the meeting in order to express their opinions. That is, of course, fine. Almost all of them followed the rules, raising their hands and waiting for me to call on them, and then making their points calmly and briefly. They even waited quietly when I asked whether there was anyone who hadn’t spoken yet who wanted to say anything, and didn’t complain when I gave priority to those new people who did raise their hands. Only one of them broke the rules, and all he did was shout while expressing his opinion. He was shouting about taking Kawasaki back for the Japanese, which isn’t really necessary, given the percentages and lack of influence that foreign residents have.

However, even though they were polite about it, it did create a rather tense atmosphere in the room, at least for me. It quickly became obvious that there were four or five people with similar opinions, as well as a slightly smaller number of people (both Japanese and foreign) who really didn’t agree with them. I had to ask people to change the subject rather than get into debates, as the Open Meeting is not really for debates, and, to everyone’s credit, they did.

There were a lot of useful opinions, even from the people who were not favourably disposed to the meeting as a whole. Everyone who spoke was in favour of conducting a survey to find out the current situation of foreigners in Kawasaki, to avoid basing policy on old data, for example. Some of the critical opinions were also not unreasonable; for example, in response to the opinion in the handout that it was difficult for foreign students in Japan to find jobs because they didn’t speak Japanese, one person commented that this is Japan, so that’s natural. That’s a reasonable point; there are going to be serious limits on the jobs you can do if you don’t speak Japanese, no matter what. There were also useful opinions for more favourably inclined people. For example, one person said that, when we talk about visas for parents, we need to look at the wider situation, such as support for elderly foreigners, rather than just consider “parents” as an abstract category. We had already touched on that sort of issue, but it is something we will have to consider carefully when putting our final submission together, along with the length of visa we want to ask for.

At any rate, I was exhausted when my bit of the meeting finished. After an hour and a half of chairing the meeting, I just wanted to sit down quietly, so I spent quite a bit of the post-meeting party doing just that. The party, fortunately, was much more relaxed than the meeting had been, apparently because the opposition group had gone to stage a protest outside.

We knew in advance that the opposition group were going to come, because they posted about it on their website. In fact, they’ve attended a couple of the ordinary meetings as well, so things actually turned out much as we imagined. They didn’t say anything at the ordinary meetings, because they weren’t allowed to, so we, or I, at least, expected that they would be as rule-abiding at the Open Meeting, as indeed they were. City Hall did, however, send rather more staff than normal, to make sure that there were enough people there to handle things if there was any trouble, and it was made clear to us that they would support us as necessary. Indeed, when the one man started shouting, a number of the staff went to talk to him and calm him down, so that he didn’t disrupt the meeting. Most of the Japanese people there were very supportive of the Assembly, and the representatives, and even those who weren’t stayed well within the bounds of courtesy and reasonable exchanges of views. The views expressed were not straightforwardly racist, either.

So, in the end, I think the Open Meeting was a success, if rather tiring for me. I hope that at least some of the other attendees felt the same way.

Libraries, Scholarships, and the Open Meeting

This entry has been very delayed, because my parents were over for Mayuki’s 7-5-3, and I didn’t have much time for writing the blog. I’ve not written about the 7-5-3 yet, because I’m waiting for Sonoe’s photographs, but I do plan to. I also plan to write something about our visit to Nara. Today, however, I want to write about the most recent meeting of the Kawasaki Representative Assembly for Foreign Residents, which was on the 7th.

The first, and most important thing, is the Open Meeting. If you are actually reading this from Kawasaki (or, indeed, somewhere close by), please come to the Open Meeting, on December 5th, at the Takatsu Shiminkan, which is at the top of the Marui building in Mizonokuchi. It starts at 2pm, and there is more information in Japanese here. The whole meeting will be in Japanese, so some competence in the language would be useful. Mind you, the same is true if you are living in Japan.

The Open Meeting was also an important part of our discussions at the meeting on the 7th. After commiserating over the lack of a Citizen’s Festival, which was cancelled due to a typhoon, we split into our subgroups. The first thing we, in the Life and Society group, had to discuss was how we would limit the number of topics suggested at the Open Meeting, to make things easier for people. I could have handled this discussion better; it went on for far longer than I would have liked for such a purely administrative matter. One problem was making it clear that the suggested topics would not limit what the attendees said; rather, they were to give some idea of what people might like to comment on. Then there were a number of procedural problems, including the subcommittee agreeing on a resolution, then drifting towards changing its mind, before the secretariat reminded us that we would have to have another vote to do that. We decided to stick with the original resolution, and picked three topics to suggest to the Open Meeting.

Then we were able to get back to our proper job. We revisited family visas briefly, agreeing that our recommendation should be focused on one thing, and phrased gently, rather than attacking the government (because, as I’ve mentioned before, the Japanese immigration system is not at all bad from a global perspective). However, since that is one of the topics we will suggest to the Open Meeting, we then left it, since we have lots of time to finalise our recommendation. It makes sense to listen to what other people have to say before deciding.

The next topic was foreign language books in Kawasaki libraries. As with the weekend opening hours of the ward offices, the situation was rather better than most of us expected. There are a lot of foreign language books, and the council has a deliberate policy of buying them. The main concerns were that the foreign books tend to be a bit old, and that there may be a bit too much bias towards English. However, it is possible to recommend books, and the library committees have a basic policy of buying books that are recommended (which I suspect explains the seven Sanskrit books), so we asked for the details on how to do that. We also asked for the details of how we can donate books to the libraries. These are, of course, ways that we, and foreign residents of Kawasaki more generally, can improve the library book situation, rather than just asking the council to act, and this is an important part of how the committee is supposed to work.

We also looked at the information the secretariat had provided on scholarships and support for foreign students, but there wasn’t time to do more than go through the information and get some clarifications. As a result, I suspect that we will discuss the same three topics at the next standard meeting, in January. I think we’ll be able to finish discussions on immigration, and we may be able to finish discussions about the libraries as well, but I don’t think we’ll finish with student support, nor with housing issues. Still, it is possible that we will get through the short topics within our first year, which would be a good achievement.

Shinto Traditions Course — Hachiman

This year’s Shinto course at Kokugakuin University came to an end this week, with a discussion of the Hachiman shrines. By one measure, this tradition boasts the highest number of shrines, and unlike most other traditions those shrines are spread evenly across the whole country (apart from Okinawa, which is a special case). The count, which is based on the names of shrines, misses one Hachiman shrine just down the road from me, because it takes its name from the area, but it does include Shirahata Hachiman Daijin, which is our local shrine. While you can debate the details of the count, the Hachiman tradition is, without doubt, extremely large and prevalent.

The first question, then, is why. This is generally traced back to Tsurugaoka Hachimangu, the newest, and furthest east, of the three great Hachiman shrines. It is in the city of Kamakura, southwest of Tokyo, and was moved to its present location, and prominence, by Minamoto no Yoritomo, the shogun who founded the Kamakura government in 1192. He was devoted to the Hachiman kami, and made a habit of visiting the shrine, with all his retainers, on the first day of the new year. This appears to be the beginning of the custom of a new year shrine visit, which is now, by a large margin, the most widely observed Shinto custom in Japan. As a result, Yoritomo’s retainers also developed a devotion to Hachiman, whether genuine or politically motivated, and when they were given land elsewhere in Japan, they often founded a Hachiman shrine as part of developing the area. This practice was continued into later centuries, with the result that Hachiman became closely associated with the samurai class, and now is often described, in western accounts, as a kami of war. Ironically, Hachiman’s sacred animal is the dove.

So, why did Yoritomo place so much importance on Hachiman? This goes back to Iwashimizu Hachimangu, the second oldest and second furthest east of the three great Hachiman shrines. In 858, Emperor Seiwa took the throne at the age of nine, and Hachiman announced that he wanted to protect the new emperor. He was brought to the capital, Kyoto, and enshrined on a hill south of the city, forming Iwashimizu Hachimangu. This shrine was specifically dedicated to protecting the emperor, as the capital was protected by the Kamo shrines. This connection with the imperial family rapidly became stronger, with Iwashimizu Hachimangu becoming the second shrine of the imperial line, together with the Jingu at Ise. It was also connected with the Minamoto, because the Minamoto were the descendants of Emperor Seiwa, their ancestors having been made into commoners. Thus, Yoritomo was continuing a family tradition when he founded Tsurugaoka Hachimangu.

The next question is, why did Hachiman decide he wanted to protect the emperor? This goes back to the oldest and furthest west of the three great Hachiman shrines, Usa Jingu, on the north coast of Kyushu. The direct connection between Usa Jingu and the imperial court starts in 749, when Hachiman announced that he wanted to help with the construction of the great Buddha in Nara, and the kami was enshrined anew in Nara. The connection became very close in 769. Dokyo, a Buddhist monk with a great deal of influence at court, aimed to become emperor when the emperor at the time abdicated. There was some opposition to this, so he sent Wakë Kiyomaro to Usa to ask Hachiman’s opinion. The oracle that Kiyomaro brought back said that only a descendant of the imperial line could become emperor, and this marked the end of Dokyo’s power. As a result of this oracle, Hachiman was honoured as a protector of the imperial line, and envoys were sent to announce the accession of each emperor, thus providing the opportunity for Hachiman to say that he wanted to protect Emperor Seiwa. It is an interesting feature of Japanese history that the oracle has been respected ever since; the emperor has always been a member of the imperial family, and there has never been a change of dynasty. None of the shoguns ever declared themselves emperor, even as they stripped the reigning emperor of all real power.

I mentioned in the previous paragraph that Hachiman sent an oracle that he wanted to help construct the Great Buddha at Nara. This indicates an important feature of the Hachiman tradition: it has always been very closely connected with Buddhism. The Ise tradition always maintained some distance from Buddhism, but the Hachiman tradition did not. Indeed, until the Meiji Restoration Hachiman was referred to as “Hachiman Dai Bosatsu”, which means “Hachiman Great Bodhisattva”, a Buddhist title. (After the restoration, norito began to refer to Hachiman as “Yahata no Ohkami”, using the Japanese reading of the characters, and replacing “bosatsu” with “kami”.)  This connection manifested in many ways, including the fact that Hachiman shrines were staffed primarily by Buddhist monks. While I do not agree with the theory that says that all pre-Meiji Shinto was just a kind of Buddhism, you could make a good argument for that in the case of the Hachiman tradition.

This connection appears to go all the way back to the eighth century, or even earlier. Hachiman may well have been a kami who came over from the Korean peninsular with refugees from the wars there, but, in any case, he was a patron kami of that group, and at least one of the priestly families at Usa was from the continent. The accounts of the foundation of Usa say that Hachiman was enshrined there in 571, which is around the time Buddhism was brought to Japan, and a period when there was a lot of contact with the continent. In addition, it seems that two local kami, Usa tsu Hiko and Usa tsu Hime (a male and female pair) were worshipped there before Hachiman, which tends to support the idea that Hachiman was an immigrant.

In any case, in the seventh and early eighth centuries there were serious problems on the Korean peninsular, and a substantial number of refugees. In the early eighth century, 5,000 of them were apparently settled in southern Kyushu, resulting in a rebellion by the Hayato, the original inhabitants, who didn’t like having all of these asylum-seekers turn up on their doorstep. Hachiman is said to have joined in suppressing the rebellion, in which many Hayato were killed.

What happened next is interesting. Hachiman is said to have expressed regret over his actions, and effectively converted to Buddhism to overcome the guilt of murder. Until Meiji, a distinctive feature of the Hachiman tradition was the “hojoë”, festivals at which living creatures, such as birds and fish, were released. Further, fish was never offered to Hachiman, much less meat, and when he was portrayed he was almost invariably portrayed as a Buddhist monk.

Professor Okada suggested that this also explains another unusual feature of Hachiman shrines. Ancient shrines are very often found near the base of a mountain, or a little way up the slope, but they are never found at the top; humans were forbidden to climb into the realms of the kami. The exception is Hachiman shrines. The main sanctuary at Usa is on top of a mountain, as is that at Iwashimizu. Climbing to the top of a mountain was something that Buddhist ascetics and Taoist sages did, when they wanted to meditate and overcome their sins, so Professor Okada suggested that the reason Hachiman’s shrines were placed near the top of mountains was that Hachiman was an ascetic, pursuing Buddhism and trying to purify his karma.

At this point, I need to change subject slightly. While “Hachiman” is the name of a kami, it does not necessarily indicate a single kami. It is worth remembering that Japanese does not distinguish singular and plural, so that “Great Kami Hachiman” could be a group, as well as an individual. At Usa, it indicates Emperor Ojin, the Princess Kami (Himegami), and Empress Jingu, Ojin’s mother. At other shrines, the Princess Kami might be identified as Tamayori Hime, or as the three female kami of the Munakata shrine. Empress Jingu might not be enshrined at all, or might be enshrined by herself. Instead of Emperor Ojin, you might find his father, Chuai, or his son, Nintoku. These are all “Great Kami Hachiman”, at least when enshrined in a Hachiman shrine. Professor Okada said that the differences arise because Shinto does not have a central authority in the way that Buddhism does. Thus, while all the temples in a particular Buddhist tradition have the same central Buddha, Shinto shrines get to choose their own interpretation of the kami. This, obviously, makes explaining a Shinto tradition rather more difficult than it might otherwise be, and Professor Okada gave the distinct impression that he didn’t go into any more detail because he couldn’t.

It’s been a very interesting series of lectures, but Professor Okada is taking a year off from doing everything himself next time. Instead, we’ll get a team-taught course on “Reading the Shinto Classics”. It should be interesting, particularly if the Sendai Kuji Hongi, Gobusho, and Yoshida texts are included.

Shinto Traditions Course — Ise

As the Shinto Traditions course at Kokugakuin University approaches its end, it has been covering the really big traditions within Shinto, the ones that it is hard to miss. This week’s lecture was about the shrines connected to Ise. The Grand Shrines of Ise enshrine Amaterasu Ohmikami, the kami of the sun and the legendary ancestress of the Imperial line, along with numerous other kami, the most important of which is Toyouke Ohkami. The Grand Shrines comprise 120 separate shrines, with the Kotai Daijingu (or Naiku, inner shrine), where Amaterasu is enshrined, at the head, and the Toyouke Daijingu (or Geku, outer shrine), where Toyouke Ohkami is enshrined, in second place. The Grand Shrines are the most important single shrine complex in contemporary Shinto, but given the diversity of Shinto this does not make them equivalent to the Vatican or Mecca; there are plenty of people who practise Shinto but do not pay special attention to Ise. However, there are relatively few who ignore it entirely.

Professor Okada started the lecture by talking about the origins of the Ise shrines. According to the earliest legends, written down in the eighth century, the Naiku was founded in the reign of Emperor Suinin. In the previous reign, that of Emperor Sujin, the mirror housing Amaterasu’s spirit had been moved out of the Imperial palace, because the emperor thought it wasn’t right for it to be close. In Emperor Suinin’s reign, Yamato Hime no Mikoto took it round central Japan, until she reached Ise, and Amaterasu told her that this was the right place for the shrine.

Now, Professor Okada didn’t explicitly say that this was just a legend, but it is; the consensus is that the emperors involved never existed, and the date attached is too early. Since Professor Okada went on to talk about other hypotheses for its origin, it’s fairly clear that he also does not believe the legend is literally true.

The point Professor Okada emphasised was that, if you draw a line from Makimuku, in Nara Prefecture, through Mt. Miwa (the sacred mountain of Ohmiwa Shrine), it goes just south of east to pass through Ise, and on to Kuzaki, a place on the coast which has always provided the abalone offered in the main festivals at the Grand Shrines. The lines isn’t exact, which is not at all surprising given that he was suggesting it was laid out around the fourth century, but it is a lot closer than chance would suggest. Makimuku is not yet well known outside Japan, because it has become famous as the result of recent (and still ongoing, I believe) excavations. It’s the area near Ohmiwa Shrine, at the excavations have uncovered a third century palace complex and capital city. This is particularly exciting because the dates match up with a mention of a Japanese ruler of “Yamatai” in Chinese historical documents, so there is a suspicion that this could be her palace. Although Chinese-influenced capital cities are normally laid out around a north-south axis, Makimuku is laid out on an east-west axis, matching the line to Ise. This suggests a foundation date for Ise around this period, right at the beginning of anything that can helpfully be called Shinto.

The Geku has a separate foundation legend. An early document from Ise states that Emperor Yuryaku had a message in a dream, where Amaterasu said she was lonely at Ise, and asked him to bring another kami, Toyouke hime, to the shrine, to serve her. The date given for this is 478. In this case, Emperor Yuryaku is a real historical figure, from the late fifth century. Two swords with inscriptions referring to him (as “Great King”, not “Emperor”) have been unearthed, one from Kyushu, and one from near Tokyo, so his existence is not in doubt, although the name “Yuryaku” is a later one; his name at the time was Wakatakeru. (Japanese emperors have always received new names on their deaths, although the practice is thought to have been applied retrospectively to some of the earlier ones.) Therefore, it is quite possible that the Geku was established in the fifth century, at the behest of Emperor Yuryaku, and that the Naiku was already there at that point.

The next big change in the Grand Shrines was the introduction of the Shikinen Sengu. This is the event in which all of the main shrines and shrine treasures are completely remade, once every twenty years or so. (The next one is in 2013, although the preparatory festivals have already started.) The Nihonshoki says that this was commanded by Emperor Tenmu in 685, and first carried out under his wife and successor, Emperor Jito, in 690. This date is generally accepted, because the first other record of the ceremony is a document from the mid eighth century listing the decorative metalwork required for it. The original document survives (in the Shosoin in Nara), so at the latest the ceremony started within 5o years of the date given in the Nihonshoki. Given that that’s only two or three occurrences, there is no reason to doubt the Nihonshoki date.

If you visit Ise near the time of the Sengu, there are two sets of shrine buildings at both the Naiku and Geku, the old and new structures. At all other times, there is one set of shrine buildings, and an almost empty area, where the last and next buildings were and will be. However, it’s only almost empty. A little way towards the back, there is a small hut-like structure. This covers the Shin no Mihashira, one of the most sacred and mysterious parts of the Ise shrines.

The Shin no Mihashira is never on public display, but records from people who have seen it say that it is a block of wood about 1.5m long and about 12cm thick. The bottom 50cm are set into the ground, so that it projects up by about 1m. It is underneath the main sanctuary of the shrines, but they have raised floors, about 2m from the ground, so the pillar is not structural. It is said to be directly underneath the point at which the mirror containing the spirit of the kami is kept in the sanctuary, and thus may provide symbolic support for it. The Shin no Mihashira has been called the central axis of Japan, and there are stories that it cracks when Japan faces a crisis. Until the Meiji Restoration, the offerings at the most important festivals at Ise were made in front of the Shin no Mihashira, underneath the shrine buildings, rather than in front of the doors. (Personally, I think they should go back to doing that as soon as possible, but that’s just me.)

There are a number of theories as to what the Shin no Mihashira is, but none have strong support. It could well be the original form of the shrines, because there is good evidence that, in early Shinto, the kami were summoned into trees or wooden pillars to participate in festivals. However, it could also be something unique to Ise. In this context, the important part is that it is the only part of the old shrine that is not disassembled. The new shrine is built around it, to ensure that it is in the right place.

The Sengu is very, very expensive. Originally it was paid for by taxes on the regions of Japan around Ise, but in the Heian period that was replaced by a national tax. In the Sengoku period of civil wars, the Sengu was suspended for over a hundred years, because the shrines could not afford to do it. When the country was reunified, however, the shoguns took over responsibility for it, and at the Meiji Restoration it became a state ceremony, paid for out of taxes. However, after the second world war, state contributions to Shinto ceremonies were forbidden. The first post-war Sengu was in 1953, having been delayed because of the occupation of Japan. However, much of the material for that Sengu had been gathered before the war, so the first one to be funded entirely by voluntary contributions was the 1973 Sengu; the 2013 one will be the third.

I think that the fact that it can be funded by voluntary donations shows that the Grand Shrines of Ise still have an important place in the Japanese psyche. This is despite the fact that, originally, people other than the emperor were strictly forbidden to make offerings at Ise, and having a shrine tablet (o-fuda) from there was a criminal offence. This rule was relaxed as the shrine came to rely more on the support of people in general, and low-ranking priests travelled the country, extolling the importance of Ise.

If you look at the contemporary distribution of shrines connected to Ise, there is a heavy bias towards eastern Japan, the area to the east of Ise. This was a surprising discovery, because most Shinto scholars had assumed that Ise was fairly evenly nationwide; certainly, the fact that there are no Ise-related shrines at all in Tottori prefecture was a bit of a shock. However, the reason seems likely to be that the priests recruiting supporters tended to head east, to the areas that formed the headquarters of the newly powerful warriors. Since the shrines tended to be founded on land given to support the Grand Shrines, they tended to be founded in the region targeted for recruitment.

Although Ise is closely associated with the Imperial family, it is also an important part of folk Shinto. It’s also a very old shrine complex, with fascinating customs that have very old roots. While it is certainly possible to exaggerate the importance of Ise in Shinto, both historically and today, it’s probably a bigger mistake to minimise it.

The next lecture will be the last one, covering Hachiman, the largest tradition in Shinto, and one that does cover the whole country fairly evenly.