A trip to the most sacred of Shinto shrines that begins with nihonshu (sake) in a paper cup at 8:00 in the morning is going to be an interesting one. So began my journey to Ise Jingu, the Grand Shrine, in Mie prefecture. My ticket on the Kintetsu train placed me next to three gregarious septuagenarians with the same destination and a bottle of nihonshu. I smiled. The morning sun burned through the windows as the train cut across ugly suburbs and then opened up into countryside. I lost my travel companions after we arrived at Iseshi Station. This was fine as I didn't want to be guided or directed. This was a solo trip. The outer shrine, or Geku, dedicated to Toyo'uke-no-Omikami, the guardian of well-being, is a short walk from the station. It was cool and quiet despite the hundreds of visitors. The architecture is striking, unlike any shrine I've seen. The characteristic vermilion red that colors the gates and buildings of every other shrine is no where to be seen. Everything is the natural gray-brown of raw wood aged over time. There are subtle touches of gold high up, close to the heavens, like on the katsuogi (decorative logs on the roof ridge). But it is all clean lines here, no ornamentation, a sort of minimalist interpretation of Shinto. Apparently it is forbidden for other shrines to copy this architectural style. I feel Geku is something like a warm-up for Naiku, the inner shrine.
There are three routes from Geku to Naiku the woman at the information center explained. She recommended route number 3. I pictured a beautiful mountain trail connecting the two shrines, maybe a view of the ocean. Instead I traveled along an ugly road with cars speeding by. I kept waiting for a sign with a big arrow that would lead me into the forest, to someplace more serene. I grew more and more angry the further I went.I cursed the woman at the information counter. I felt cheated. Route 2! Route 2 was the one I wanted. Exhausted and irritated I arrived at Naiku. The approach to the shrine is a charming, if touristy, "old town" called Oharai Machi. (Built, or re-built, in 1993 the buildings are actually reproductions of Edo Era architecture.) I bought a beer and went down to the river to eat the bento lunch I had brought. My mood brightened. Naiku is dedicated to Amaterasu-Omikami, the sun goddess and ancestral deity of the Japanese people. It has enjoyed Imperial patronage from the very beginning, with the first recorded structure being built some time in the late 7th Century by Emperor Tenmu. But the buildings here now are not 1,300 years old. In fact, they are just 6 years old because a tenet of Shintoism requires a shrine to be rebuilt every 20 years. This mysterious and secretive ritual is called Shikinen Sengu and takes about 8 years to complete. There is what amounts to a sacred vacant lot adjacent every sanctuary here. Called a Kodenchi, this is both the former and future site of the next divine palace. This never ending cycle of rebuilding means Ise Jingu is simultaneously ancient and contemporary, always and forever.
Much of Ise Jingu is veiled or otherwise obscured. It is almost impossible to get a clear view of anything, let alone take a photo (anyway, photography is strictly prohibited). Layers and layers. Visitors are restricted to the extreme periphery. Even the priests, it seems, do not have all-access passes. Yet there is very little signage and no security. It is a tacit compliance. The mystery is what is so fascinating, at least for a gaijin. What lies beyond the barriers? Is there anything on the inside at all? Is it just a void? God dwells in the void. There is a quiet strength here. The power comes from deep inside. It comes from the mountain and the ancient trees, the river. Nature. The heart of the Shinto religion. Ise Jingu doesn't need a monumental gate, or 10,000 gates; it doesn't need brilliant vermilion or gold. It is somehow above ostentation. It is simply and sedately awesome - in the truest sense of the word.
New Year's in Japan. The layers of ritual. Every year a little more is revealed, I learn something new. This year it was shimekazari. This is a highly symbolic New Year's decoration that is hung above the entrance to a house. A traditional shimekazari is made of a braided straw rope (shimenawa) shaped into a circle, like a wreath. There is usually some greenery like fern fronds or pine sprigs included in the design, as well as sacred paper strips (shide)and a bitter orange (daidai). These might appear to be just beautiful, festive decorations, but each element of the shimekazari holds a deep meaning. The shimenawa and shide are used in Shinto to demarcate holy spaces. The daidai is auspicious because of the kanji used to write the word. Pine is a symbol of longevity and power because it is an evergreen, and the fern fronds represent the desire for a happy family life. Besides their decorative purpose, the shimekazari has a symbolic function, which is to welcome the god of the New Year, Toshigami. There are hundreds of different styles of shimekazari, from the simple to the elaborate. There are the made-in-China supermarket variety, and there are exquisite hand-made pieces that are genuine works of art. This year my friends gave me a shimenawa and some pine and cedar sprigs to make my own shimekazari. Though not professional, I was satisfied with my effort. Shimekazari go up between December 26th and 28th (the 29th is bad luck and the 31st is considered last minute and thus disrespectful to the gods). They generally come down on January 7th. On the 15th they are burned with other New Year's decorations at a shrine in a ritual called dondoyaki. It is believed the visiting Toshigami is released and sent back to the heavens this way.
I went to Matsunoo Taisha shrine for this. I was expecting something similar to the bonfire that burns on New Year's day - giant logs crackling, people tossing old talismans onto the fire with a respectful bow. No. Dondoyaki takes place in the parking lot, firehose at the ready. A sort of metal cage was erected and two attendants took the shimekazari from visitors and tossed them in. It was a sizeable heap already when I arrived at 9:30. It looked like any other pile of rubbish. All the beauty and art, the fervour and joy of the holiday season had given way to something totally mundane. The head priest and his entourage arrived and set everything alight. There was some solemn chanting as the flames grew higher. I watched. Myself and a couple dozen other people watched 2018 burn up. Maybe I'm just sentimental, but there was something a little sad about this ceremony. But then I suppose it is less depressing than seeing Christmas trees piled onto the sidewalk for garbage collection in New York on December 26th.
In 1953, photographer Yasuhiro Ishimoto visited Katsura Rikyu (Katsura Imperial Villa) for the first time. He was returning to Japan after 14 years in the U.S. Edward Steichen, then head of the photography department at MoMA, had commissioned him to take some photos of the villa. The results were stunning. Ishimoto's beautiful compositions reflected his deep admiration for the "New Bauhaus" in Chicago where he had studied, and evoked a modernism more commonly associated with Western art and architecture. These photos would later be compiled and published in a book called Katsura: Tradition and Creation in Japanese Architecture with accompanying essays by legendary architects Kenzo Tange and Walter Gropius. Tange, pursuing his own architectural agenda, would become over-involved in the project pushing Ishimoto into the background. While perhaps different from Ishimoto's original vision, this book would nonetheless become an influential touchstone for Japanese architecture.
Ishimoto's gorgeous black and white photos of Katsura Rikyu were featured in an exhibition entitled "Modernism of Katsura" at the Museum of Kyoto last summer, which I was lucky enough to see. Inspired by this, I decided to visit the villa again myself. I wanted to see the Katsura RIkyu that Ishimoto saw. Completed in 1615, Katsura Rikyu is widely regarded as one of the finest examples of Japanese architecture. It is so thoroughly and thoughtfully planned it is hard not to be impressed. Each building took into consideration both the seasons and the cyclical lunar path in its design and construction. It is, as Tange asserted, completely modern. It is also graceful, effortless and unassuming. Were it not for the tightly organized tours, it is a place in which you could easily drift through an entire day enjoying the splendid architecture and tranquil garden as Prince Toshihito might have so long ago.
I have generally regarded tourists dressed in kimono (or yukata in the summer months) with amusement and mild disdain. It is akin to someone visiting the States and dressing up in a cowboy hat, chaps and spurs for a day. The kimono is a deceptively simple and stunningly elegant garment. There are more than a thousand years of history behind this four panel, T-shaped robe cut from a single bolt of fabric 11.5 meters long. It has remained more or less unchanged since the Edo period (1603 - 1868). It is so quintessentially and thoroughly Japanese that anyone wearing one without pure Jomon bloodlines appears a little strange, silly even. For some reason it just doesn't quite work. There is a something a little off, like buttoning up a shirt in the wrong holes. So it was with some ambivalence I decided to don a kimono recently. My friend, Murakami-san invited me to a kabuki performance at Minamiza in Kyoto. This venerable theatre on Shijo-dori just east of the Kamo River was founded some four hundred years ago. The current building, built in 1929, had recently undergone an extensive renovation. This was the the grand re-opening, the first kabuki performances since 2016. In addition, November always marks the beginning of the kabuki calendar which is celebrated each year with the "kaomise" - a special performance featuring the top kabuki actors from across Japan. A grand occasion to say the least. One that called for something more than an ordinary suit and tie. In the West this would probably be a tuxedo for a gentleman and a formal gown for a lady. But this is not the West, this is Japan. A friend of mine, Miyagawa-san, is in the kimono business. He designs kimono and has a small shop in Katsura where he sells and rents new and vintage kimono. I told him I was thinking about wearing a kimono to Minamiza and asked him what he thought of gaijin in kimono. He convinced me it was okay because a) he doesn't stock the cheap, made-in-China, rayon kimono seen on tourists around the city, and b) I'm not a tourist.
He put me in a stylish gray kimono made of light-weight wool bouclé, and a black silk haori (kimono jacket) that he had customised. We agreed on a deep green obi and wood beaded haori-himo (accessory). Because kimono have no pockets afuroshiki (wrapping cloth) served as a bag for my wallet, glasses and things. Finally, white tabi (split-toe socks) and zori (sandals). I thought it a very cool ensemble, but a look in the mirror at my Euro-American face and I almost balked. The first thing I noticed when I left Miyagawa-san's shop is that, while a kimono is loose and comfortable, it does not allow for large strides when walking. A person dressed in a kimono sort of shuffles along. It is effortless and graceful when performed by a maiko or geiko, almost like floating. I feared everyone would be staring at me. Somehow I made it from Katsura to Gion with barely a glance at me. The kimono seemed to have made me invisible. Only once did my appearance illicit a comment. "You look wonderful." an older gentleman said to me near Minamiza. An oft discussed subject among foreign residents in Japan is the concept of uchi and soto (inside and outside), the distinction between social groups. Visitors are by default soto and even long-term foreign-born residents fall into this category. One could live 20, 30, 50 years in Japan and never quite be accepted. Dressed in a kimono I felt oddly more uchi. Rather than standing out, I seemed to almost fit in with the smartly dressed kabuki crowd. The kimono grew on me. It was strangely transporting. I felt somehow more deeply embedded in Japan. When I finally undressed and returned to my ordinary street clothes there was a sort of Cinderella effect. I was just another gaijin in Kyoto.
Japan has been battered this summer. The Kansai region (western Japan including Kyoto and Osaka prefectures) has been the most abused. The gods are angry for some reason - earthquakes, floods, heatwaves and typhoons. In ancient times something would have been done to appease them. Prayers would have been said, fires lit, dances danced, processions processed. In modern times we just suffer the assault. We're too wise for invocation and ritual. Typhoon 21 (or "Jebi" in Western meteorology) was well-hyped in the media before its debut. "The most powerful typhoon in 25 years!" It began like any other typhoon. Late in the morning on September 4th the winds began to blow and the rain began to fall. It quickly grew into something more violent and frightening. The rain stopped "falling" in the traditional, gravitational direction. Instead it was whipped sideways in wide, vicious sheets. This horizontal rain lashed my windows with such force it seemed to be coming from a water cannon, and the volume was so great my apartment appeared to be submerged in water, a sort of reverse aquarium. The wind was totally indecisive, like a drunk in a brawl, lunging forward then back then right then left. It shook not just my windows but interior walls, the whole building trembled. We've all seen "The Wizard of Oz" and a dozen other films featuring hurricanes. Objects unhinged from somewhere began flying past my window. Not just leaves and twigs, not a plastic shopping bag dancing in the wind, but large debris, things normally attached to buildings, were hurtling through the silver sky like busted arrows from a crazed archer. Outside, all around, I could hear things breaking, the sound of an impetuous, angry child on a rampage. I waited for the roof to tear off. This went on for several hours. My tension grew. I poured myself a beer. I watched. I listened. Eventually things stopped flying, things stopped breaking. The storm passed just before dusk and an eerie stillness fell across the city. The fury and havoc of the previous hours seemed almost a dream.