A while ago I visited one of the most famous “obscure” shrines in Japan, the Myotogi Shrine (夫婦木神社, or the Couple Tree Shrine) in Yamanashi Prefecture, west of Tokyo. It is located in Mitake-Cho (御岳町), about 45 minutes by bus from Kofu City. Unfortunately I was not very lucky as the shrine was closed on that day and I was unable to see the mythical tree that is venerated inside the shrine. About half a century ago, a 1000 year old chestnut tree was brought down from the mountains. It has a large, peculiarly shaped hollow inside it, with an even more peculiar growth inside the hollow itself. The huge tree stump reminded people of, you know what (you might have guessed it already). In 1958 a shrine was the tree. It is said that couples that enter the tree together and pray will be blessed with both fertility and longevity and the shrine is full of the earnest prayers of couples wishing to have a baby. For 300 yen a priest will open the shrine for you and explain the necessary ceremony to maximize your chances to conceive. Even though I went there alone I would have loved to see it!
Since shintoism, the original religion of Japan, is an animistic religion there are quite a few shrines, ceremonies and rituals associated with human reproduction and all things related to it, although these days it is downplayed quite a bit to not offend western morals.
The area around the shrine is famous as a “power spot”, especially since it is exceptionally rich with rock crystals. The formations of rocky crystals were first discovered about a thousand years ago but it took off as products for the export market in the Edo period when skilled carvers were invited from Kyoto, to develop the local industry. Today there are quite a few souvenir shops selling crystals and stone decorations in Mitake-Cho (the last two photos show one of these shops, and one that had a massive block of gorgeous deep blue sodalite by the entrance.
When I started this blog it was always my ambition to tell a story with the photos. I soon realized that photos alone was not enough and that I needed a story to go with them, but I can’t write and I wanted only the simplest stories. Some stories are almost impossible complicated though. This blog post has been sitting on my to do list since May this year. I just couldn’t figure out how to tell it. Here goes. I’ll give it a try. It is extremely simplified.
In the very long ago mythical past of Japan, the people thought that there were many Gods in the lands. The ice-age myths were alive and well. They told stories of animals, springs, rocks, mountains, clouds and skies being inhabited by a kami, a God. Humans were Gods in the making as well and these Gods could never be killed, they stayed around at family altars and watched over their descendants gathered around the hearths and homes. There was no need to build temples since everywhere was already inhabited by a kami. In the 7th century the cool new thing, buddhism came over from China and they started building nice temples that filled up with rich offerings and gathered monks and nuns around them. The priests who communicated with the kami were miffed, and so to stay competitive they started building shrines of their own, honoring the most important or strongest of the kami. Japan would be very lucky to have two peaceful non-competitive religions coexisting in quite a bit of harmony. The kami enshrined in these buildings sometimes grew bored and needed to be taken out for a bit, and so the festivals you still see today, with the portable shrines, the omikoshi, were born. To spread the benign influence of the kami around, the shrines started erecting Otabisho, which are in essence mini-shrine motels, places where the kami in the omikoshi can rest for a little while or even spend the night as they travel around the parish. These Otabisho were built in specially significant locations, sometimes within the shrine precincts, sometimes just outside, sometimes even an hours walk away. Since the kami now inhabited these otabisho they were considered extraordinarily holy and lay people were forbidden to enter while the kami was there. Armed guards with sharpened swords would be placed outside to protect the kami while they rested. Today, many hundreds of years later, a few very old shrines still preserve this tradition, one of them being the Okunitama Shrine (大國魂神社) in Tokyo’s western Fuchu City. The first photo shows one of these modern day warriors in front of the Otabisho, holding up his sword, luckily it was not necessary to unsheathe it that night. He is accompanied by city elders, friends, Boy Scouts and curious locals of all ages. Inside the kami of the Okunitama shrine rests safely. Traditionally you are not supposed to see the inside of the Otabisho but I think the residents of the apartment building right next to it can get a pretty good view of the Otabisho enclosure just by opening their front doors!
There is one more complicated and interesting ritual taking place at this spot on the same night, the Lucky Arrow. In a procession from the main shrine to the Otabisho the head priest rides a black horse and shoots an arrow at a target presented by a lower ranking priest or assistant. Hitting the target means that the kami are in favor of the city and will protect them during the coming year. To be on the safe side the mounted priest is very close to the target and shoots as many little arrows as necessary, although the first one rarely misses. Now, the really interesting and absolutely terrifying aspect of this ritual is that the people of Fuchu, which happens to be the home of a horse race track a few kilometers away, believe that possessing the arrow shot by the head priest in front of the kami while mounted on a live horse, is going to bring them extremely good luck in betting on the horses. For horse racing fans there is no stronger talisman in the entire country so a few of them (only the burliest needs to bother) will show up to try and catch the arrow as it bounces of the target, usually in mid-air, usually within the kicking distance of a very proud horse! I consider myself fairly used to horses and if it is one thing I always remember it is to never walk behind a horse within kicking distance. These men however seemed absolutely fearless as their quest for the lucky arrow almost ended in a big brawl. It was actually quite scary and I had a very hard time concentrating on taking photos, hence the poor documentation of this interesting folk custom of Fuchu City!
These rituals take place during the Kurayami festival, which is a night festival that used to take place under the cover of darkness. When Japan opened up to foreigners in the late 1860′s however, they were so embarrassed about this festival that would be sure to shock the sensible western missionaries and traders to their very bones, so they quickly changed it to a daytime and early evening festival. Fuchu is still a very dark city after nightfall though, and the photos I took actually looks brighter (thank the kami for modern technology!) than it was in real life, hence the dark blurry and grainy shots. If I am lucky and get a chance to see this again I will be better prepared to take better photos!
At last weeks budo tournament in Tokyo’s Meijijingu grand shrine I saw this procession of archers making their way from the shrine ceremony to the archery, kyudo, range or dojo. There had been a big tournament and hundreds of archers had been ranked and tested. Unfortunately as much as I wanted I wasn’t able to gain access to the archery range itself. Maybe next year! They are wearing ceremonial clothes and carrying shrine ornaments and holy bows. Of course I couldn’t help myself from taking snapping a photo of a little boy eager to test his running skills next to the procession. Don’t worry, his mother was right behind him!
Many festivals in Japan feature the huge wheeled shrine platforms called dashi (山車) that often carry dancers and musicians. Some of these have engines, others rely on manpower and others a combination. Some are so large that they have to be lifted up and rotated because they can’t turn! On the first day of the Akasaka Hikawa Shrine festival a week ago they only had the one dashi out, but it’s a beauty. It is always so fun to see these very traditional handmade wagons being pulled around a modern city center, full of glass, concrete and neon signs. Very few people still live in these commercial districts so the omikoshi teams usually rely on staff from local companies and shops and even night clubs to help out, which makes for a friendly bunch of fun loving people, as you can see in some of these photos.
Still the festival season isn’t over, although it is drawing towards a close as the weekends see fewer and fewer festivals. Better enojy it while it lasts!