At Tokyo’s famous Yasukuni Shrine earlier this year I saw a performance of Nihon Buyo, traditional Japanese dances, one of which was a rather funny mime dancer doing a near perfect fisherman routine. I have seen a lot of Nihon Buyo over the years but never something as funny as this. Unfortunately I didn’t get a program for the performance that day.
Few shrines in Tokyo has as great stages as Yasukuni shrine. Most weekends have something interesting being performed and since it is always free to watch it is always worth a visit. It is close to Kudanshita subway station or a not too far walk from Iidabashi train station.
This year too I made sure to visit the famous Yasukuni Shrine on the night of New Year’s eve. It was on last on my list of shrines to visit (the list was unusually long this year) and so things had quieted down considerably by the time I got there at around two-three in the morning. There were still thousands of people around and the line to the shrine altar was an hour long even at this time of night. The most photogenic aspect of New Year’s at Yasukuni was as usual the Scouts standing honor guard at several places around the shrine. How they manage not to kill themselves by pneumonia I have no idea! The fire is warm but at the distance where they stand it is barely perceptible. The new ema, showing the horse that symbolizes this year, was up, and there was a long line to buy the holy shinto arrows, good luck charms and fortune telling slips. Hatsumode is the name of the first visit to a shrine at New Years, and people do it individually, with their family or even with the office as a large group of workers visit the local shrine on behalf of their company or corporation.
On the third of January every year there is a very formal archery ceremony at the Yasukuni shrine in central Tokyo. Only the very best practitioners of the Japanese archery called Kyudo are invited to take part in this ceremony.
Kyudo is also known as zen archery, and both the philosophy behind the act, the bow itself and the way to draw and aim is as different to western archery as flower arrangement is to speed skating (well, at least it feels like it). Hitting the target, which is much closer than a target in western archery, is of secondary importance. Hitting is just a function of stabilizing your body and mind, which in turn is just a function of breathing and drawing the string, which ultimately is nothing but a function of your mind, consisting of equal parts acceptance and determination. It doesn’t matter how well you aim if you didn’t pull the string in the correct fashion, and this form of archery is the only one where even blind people would be able to compete on equal terms.
In these formal archery ceremonies, it is customary for archers to bare one breast, in order to be able to control their bow without clothes getting in their way. These days this rule only applies to male archers though, and in non-ceremonial competitions it is done away with completely. Becoming good at Kyudo is an extremely long term project. Most archers are not comfortably good until they have practiced for decades, and you can see it at the ceremonies. I have practiced Kyudo myself, in my university days, so I can vouch for the fact that this is a sport that manages to be almost like meditation. More photos to come!
The first and last stop of most omikoshi, the portable shrines (believed to actually house the Gods) carried around town during shinto festivals, are usually the main shrine of the neighborhood. Not always, but usually. You can usually tell by writing where the omikoshi is from as the name of the neighborhood is written on lanterns or uniforms worn by the townspeople carrying it. In this case I saw the omikoshi of Kojimachi town entering Yasukuni Shrine at the Mitama Matsuri in July this year. It was proceeded by a music teams complete with drums and flutes in the darkness of the night. I think you can get an idea for how crowded it was near the head of the shrine, and the closer the omikoshi got the more crowded it got too. I did not get as close as I wanted, but sometimes it is okay to just stand back and observe as well.
If you are in Tokyo or Saitama today and want to see one of the biggest autumn festivals of the year, then do not miss the massive Kawagoe Matsuri today and tomorrow!