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.

Nyotai Daijin and Wakamiya Hachimangu

Yesterday we had another meeting of the various chairpeople of the Representative Assembly, and afterwards I took advantage of being in southern Kawasaki to visit a couple of the shrines there. One of them, Wakamiya Hachimangu, is a little notorious, due to the nature of a second shrine found in the grounds, so the pictures in this article may not be entirely safe for work, or for those of an exceptionally sensitive disposition. On the other hand, both shrines have kindergartens in the grounds, so they can’t be that bad. To avoid offending people unnecessarily, however, you have to click on the “more” link to see the whole of this article.

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Hikawa Shrine

A red-and-white two storey gate, with copper roof, at Hikawa Shrine

The entrance to the main shrine compound at Hikawa Shrine.

A few weeks ago, I visited Hikawa Shrine, the Ichi-no-Miya of Musashi-no-Kuni.

That sentence probably needs a bit of explanation. “Hikawa Shrine” is the name of the Shinto shrine I visited; there are several other shrines called that, but this is the main one, and it is located in Saitama City, the capital of Saitama Prefecture, just north of Tokyo. Musashi-no-Kuni is one of the old (dating back to the seventh century or so) administrative divisions of Japan. They were all called “kuni”, using the Chinese character that is normally used for countries, and Musashi-no-Kuni covered the area of Tokyo, Saitama, and part of Kanagawa. The place where we live is within the boundaries of Musashi-no-Kuni.

“Ichi-no-Miya” means “Number One Shrine”. In the late Heian period (around the eleventh to twelfth centuries), the administrators of the kuni started formalising their duty to visit the shrines of their region. The most important shrine in the kuni became the Ichi-no-Miya, which was visited first, followed by the Ni-no-Miya (number two shrine), San-no-Miya (number three shrine), and so on. I’m not sure how low the numbers went, and it may well have varied by kuni, because this was not a centrally administrated system.

As a result of this devolution, there is some controversy in some areas over which shrine was actually the Ichi-no-Miya. Musashi is, in fact, one of the slightly controversial kuni, because at the “General Shrine”, where the kami from the main shrines were gathered to make things easy for the administrator, Hikawa Shrine is not the ichi-no-miya. However, the consensus is that Hikawa Shrine was the actual Ichi-no-Miya for the kuni.

A red-and-green open corridor, along the side of the main shrine complex at Hikawa Shrine

The cloister around the main shrine buildings

Visiting Hikawa Shrine was the first step in my plan to visit all of the Ichi-no-Miya in Japan. There were 68 kuni, so obviously this is a long-term plan. However, if I manage it, it will take me all over Japan, as well as exposing me to a wide variety of shrines. There were two reasons to start with Hikawa Shrine. The first is that, as noted above, it is the Ichi-no-Miya for the kuni where I live. The second, related to that, is that it is easy to get to. It was a short day trip, and the railway station, which is called “Big Shrine”, is close to the shrine.

The main shrine enshrines Susano-o, Inada-hime, his wife, and Ohnamuchi, his descendant (by how much depends on the legend) and the kami responsible for putting the finishing touches to Japan in legend. These kami are all originally from the Izumo area of western Japan, and it is thought that the name of the shrine comes from the Hi river (Hikawa) in that area, although it is not written with the same characters today.

I went on a Sunday, and the main shrine complex was quite busy, with lots of people having ceremonies done. I saw a lot of families with babies, doing their Hatsumiyamairi, and one wedding party. People who wanted ceremonies gave their names, and the nature of the ceremony, at the shrine office, and then waited until there were enough people to do a ceremony. Then everyone went into the hall of worship, and all the ceremonies were done at once.

I have to say that I much prefer the atmosphere at Shirahata-san, where you get an individual ceremony rather than having to share with lots of people, some of whom are having completely different prayers said. On the other hand, Hikawa Shrine is a famous shrine, and a lot of people want to have their ceremonies done at such a place. I suppose that’s a matter of taste. Of course, for some people Hikawa Shrine is their local shrine.

Like most large shrines, there are several shrines in the grounds, dedicated to various kami. These are divided into Sessha and Massha. Sessha enshrine kami who have some sort of close relationship with the main kami, while Massha enshrine those without such a relationship, at least in general. The Sessha at Hikawa Shrine enshrine Inada-hime’s parents, Susano-o’s daughters, and Sukunahikona, who is, in a sense that is rather obscure, a part of Ohnamuchi. The Massha include an Inari shrine, a shrine to Amaterasu, and a shrine to Sugawara no Michizane, all kami with no real connection to the main kami.

However, one of the Massha enshrines Ohnamuchi and Sukunahikona. This is a little peculiar; you would have thought that that qualified as a close relationship. I don’t know what the reason is, but I can offer an hypothesis. The shrine in question is “Mitake Jinja” (or possibly “Ontake”; both readings are used). This is a completely separate Shinto tradition from Hikawa, centring on a mountain in the Japan Alps. I’m pretty sure that it was heavily influenced by Buddhism, and the nature of the Shinto kami may not have been properly defined before the Meiji period. Thus, the shrine might have been established as a Massha at a time when the kami were not thought to be connected to the main kami of Hikawa, and then, when its status was fixed, the kami were changed to actually be one of the main kami. This is only a guess, however.

It was an interesting visit, and the normal rules applied. The main shrine compound was very busy, but if you wandered around to visit the other shrines in the precincts, things were much quieter. The shrine grounds are quite nice, with several ponds and, of course, a lot of trees, but they aren’t extensive enough to find anywhere really quiet, at least not on a pleasant Sunday.

One thing that I realised again on this visit is that I’m still working out what I want to know about the shrines I visit. That’s another reason for visiting Hikawa Shrine early in my program of visiting the Ichi-no-Miya; I can go back when I’ve worked out what I’m doing.

Kamimeguro Hikawa Shrine

A torii on a flight of steps sandwiched between a building and a wall

The back entrance to the shrine

Kamimeguro Hikawa Shrine is a fairly ordinary urban shrine, its precincts sandwiched between high buildings and lacking in old, impressive trees. “Kamimeguro” is the name of the area, and the “kami” just means “upper”; it is, apparently, not connected to the word for Shinto kami, although quite a lot of people have thought it was. (The evidence relies on technical arguments about sound changes in Japanese in the eighth century; apparently the two “kami”s originally had different “i” sounds. Not everyone is completely convinced.)

The main shrine building at Kamimeguro Hikawa Shrine

The main shrine building, with flags for the first visit of the New Year outside.

The Hikawa shrines are only found around Tokyo, and the overwhelming majority are in Tokyo and Saitama prefectures. There are one or two in the other adjacent prefectures, and none further away. This sort of situation is fairly common in Shinto; particular shrine groups tend to be found in a local area. Indeed, about the only shrine group that is truly national is the Hachiman group; even Inari seems to have a significant bias towards eastern Japan. This does mean that you cannot walk around visiting the shrines in one area to get a sense of which types of shrine are important; that will just tell you what is important near you.

The reason I was talking about shrine groups rather than kami is that the main kami of the Hikawa shrines is Susano-o no mikoto, the younger brother of Amaterasu ÅŒmikami, who is enshrined in many other places as well. For example, he is the main kami of the Gion shrines, which tend to be found in western Japan, and of several shrines in Shimane prefecture, on the Japan Sea coast. Indeed, “Hikawa” is thought to come from the Hi river in Shimane, which is closely associated with Susano-o’s legends. However, traditions and festivals seem to be more often associated with the shrine type than directly with the kami, so it is generally more useful to keep track of the shrine type.

An additional complication is that sometimes the kami is not the same in all shrines of the same type, and even when it is that is sometimes just a result of Meiji period rationalisation. Another result of such rationalisation can be seen at this shrine. As well as Susano-o, the shrine enshrines Amaterasu and Tenjin, Sugawara no Michizane. Now, while Amaterasu is connected to Susano-o, Tenjin is not, and is only here because he was moved from another local shrine, one that was being closed down, in the Meiji period.

The shrine precincts also include an Inari shrine and a Sengen shrine. The Sengen shrines are dedicated to the kami of Mount Fuji, and thus are only common in areas from which Mount Fuji can be seen. The presence of other shrines in the shrine grounds, called sessha (for shrines to kami closely connected to the main kami, in theory) or massha (for other kami), is quite common. The Grand Shrines of Ise cover 125 shrines if you add up all of the sessha and massha, although some have special names in that case. Some sessha and massha are even outside the shrine grounds, sometimes quite a long way away. These days, I think that the key point is that the sessha and massha are not independent religious corporations; they are administered by the corporation of the main shrine.

Because of my route, I entered the shrine through the rear entrance, and left from the front. The stone steps at the front are almost two hundred years old, and lead to and from the ÅŒyama Kaidō, but as soon as you reach the top of the steps, the fact that you are in the heart of Tokyo is inescapable. There’s something about triple-decker roads that destroys any sense of peaceful isolation.

Steps going down next to a tall building,  towards triple layers of roads

Little of the traffic visits the shrine these days.

Mitake Shrine, Miyamasu

The first actual shrine that I passed walking along the Ōyama Kaidō was Mitake (mee-ta-kay) Shrine, on Miyamasu Hill in Shibuya. This is the main road on the opposite side of the station from the famous junction with the enormous screens that it almost always used as an establishing shot of Tokyo in foreign films. It is, therefore, about as urban as an area can get, and the shrine is squeezed in between two large buildings, one of which is a main post office. As is often the case, there is a flight of stone steps up from the street to the main precincts of the shrine.

There are three things that struck me as unusual about this shrine, but as the shrine office was closed and, in any case, I couldn’t spend too long there if I was going to get to the end of the day’s route, I wasn’t able to check in detail. At some point I may go back, since it isn’t very far away, and try to find out.

The shrine precincts, with the buildings visible beyond the torii and tall buildings to either side.

The shrine precincts. Note the buildings to either side, and that the whole surface seems to be paved.

You may be able to tell from the photograph of the precincts, but, in addition to being squeezed between buildings, the shrine looks rather as though it is on top of a building; the structures to the side seem to be built into the “ground”, not next to it, and all of the surface is paved. This is surprising because, according to one of the lecturers at Kokugakuin a few years ago, the basic rule of the Association of Shinto Shrines is that a shrine must be “On the earth, under the sky”. A shrine on a building or inside is, as far as the Association is concerned, just a glorified kamidana. So, most shrines are built directly on the ground. Now, Mitake Shrine may be, in fact, on a hill. The bits of the hill to either side could have been carved away to make room for the buildings; that’s fairly common in Japanese cities. On the other hand, it might not be recognised by the Association; there is no law requiring shrines to have such recognition, and, indeed, some very famous ones (Meiji JingÅ«, Fushimi Inari) are not. Either way, the absence of an obvious natural earth surface under foot is unusual.

Three stone Buddhist images

The images of Fudō Myo-ō enshrined in the precincts.

The second unusual point is the presence of an image of Fudō Myo-ō in the shrine grounds. According to the notice next to it, this image has been worshipped in the area since the late seventeenth century, and it is a Buddhist image. Now, as I have mentioned before, in the late nineteenth century the government required that all Buddhist images be removed from shrines. Unlike Toyokawa Inari, Mitake Shrine is clearly a shrine, which raises the question of why it has a Buddhist image.

One possibility is that it was moved to the shrine after the second world war, as a result of the development of the area around Shibuya station. That sort of thing happens quite a lot; there are a number of religious images noted in the Ōyama Kaidō guidebook as having been moved from their original sites due to building and development.

Another possibility arises from another historical event recorded on a big noticeboard at the shrine. In 1870, the Meiji Emperor made a royal progress from the palace, and on the way out and back he stopped at Mitake Shrine for a rest, paying his respects at the shrine. If the Fudō Myo-ō was near the shrine at that time, and the Emperor paid his respects to it as well, it would be difficult to move it away. So, it might have been just outside the shrine, thus formally within the law, and protected by an imperial association.

Whatever the history, the fact remains that the Buddhist image is now clearly within the shrine precincts, although there is a second torii between the small shrine for the image and the main hall of the shrine. Whether or not this can actually be called Shinto-Buddhist syncretism, given that, as far as I could see, it was just a matter of physical proximity, it is still a reminder of the close links between Shinto and Buddhism.

A bronze statue of a dog or wolf.

The open-mouthed koma-inu.

The final point concerns the koma-inu. Although the name means “Korea Dogs”, these statues normally look nothing like dogs. Rather, they look rather like lions, with curly hair and, occasionally, horns. They stand in a pair in front of the shrine buildings, protecting them from evil influences, one with its mouth open and the other with its mouth closed. At Inari shrines, the koma-inu are almost invariably replaced by foxes, and at Hie shrines they are sometimes replaced by monkeys. In both cases, these are the animals particularly associated with kami in question. On the other hand, I’ve never seen a Tenjin shrine that uses cattle, or a Hachiman shrine that uses doves (the animal associated with the kami of scholarship is the cow, that associated with the kami of war is the dove).

As you can see from the photograph, the koma-inu at this shrine look a lot like dogs, or possibly wolves. “Mitake” refers to a sacred mountain, and wolves used to live in Japan’s mountains, so it is possible that the animals associated with the kami of this shrine are wolves, and that the koma-inu are wolves. Alternatively, since there are no formal rules for how they look, the chief priest of this shrine, or the donor, may just have decided to make them look like dogs. In any case, this is definitely unusual.