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!
One of the more interesting recent shrines in Tokyo is the Nogi Shrine in Nogizaka just north of Roppongi. It is an easy walk from Roppongi station, past Tokyo Midtown and not much further. Nogi Shrine is one of the three shrines most associated with the advancement of Japan from a closed feudal society to a modern industrial nation in the late 19th century. It is dedicated completely to the General Maresuke Nogi and his wife Shizuko. General Nogi was born in 1849 to a samurai family and his wife to be was born in 1859 in a physicians family in modern day Kagoshima prefecture. Being born into a samurai family meant that Nogi was destined to become a warrior and in 1871 he was appointed a major in the new Imperial army that took over from the antiquated Shogunate army after the 1866 restoration of the emperor Meiji. His young age at the appointment shows the pressing need the emperor had to fill his new army with fresh, modern thinking officers rather than the old guard of classical samurai.
In 1887 now Major General Nogi was sent to Germany to study modern warfare and he came back with the idea that Japan needed a modern military based on the old samurai code of bushido. In 1894 he took part in the first war of modern Japan, against the Qing dynasty of modern day China. In 1904 he was tested again, this time against Imperial Russia where he became a national hero after the siege of the Lushun fortress in Port Arthur (then Russia, now China). The siege lasted from July 1904 to January 1905 and was one of the first battles that introduced the horrors of what would later categorize World War One: the Japanese and the Russians learned first hand how costly trenches, howitzers, machine guns and rapid firing bolt action rifles would be. It was also the first time that the world saw other technological advancements used in warfare, such as arc lights, naval mines, radios and even radio jamming. It is hard to calculate the number of people killed but probably many tens of thousands.
General Nogi was very chivalrous with the defeated Russians and allowed the enemy officers to keep their swords and their honor. One of the most famous photographs of that era was taken when the Russian and Japanese officers and officials posed together in one of history’s most epic group photographs. It is hard to tell that they had just fought a terrible battle.
General Nogi came back a hero, being responsible for the first victory of an Asian country against a modern European empire with the use of modern technology and warfare. He lost his two sons in the battle though, and to atone for the many soldiers killed he petitioned the emperor for the right to commit suicide. Famously, the emperor forbade him: “Not until I have left this world”. His wife was not one bit less of a samurai than her husband, as during battle she had sent her husband and son each a bottle of perfume, a symbolic gesture to show that she did not expect them to return (the perfume would be used in the funeral ceremony). General Nogi then spent two years touring Japan to show his grief to the many families who has lost family members in the war, and he invented an artificial arm for amputated soldiers. In 1907 he was appointed the headmaster of the Gakushuin school (in Tokyo’s modern day Mejiro, Toshima ward), where he as dedicated as usual, sharing accommodations with his students. During this time he became the personal hero of the young man who would become Emperor Showa (1901-1989).
In 1912 Emperor Meiji died and on the day of the funeral General Nogi and his wife committed seppuku (or harakiri as it is sometimes called in the west). The general used his sword and his wife fittingly used a dagger. In honor of their many sacrifices a shrine was dedicated in 1923, on the grounds where you can still see their home and stables. The shrine burnt down in the bombing raids of 1945 but was rebuilt again in 1957 (the buildings you see in these photos).
I have visited Nogi Shrine several times, it is beautifully laid out with the general’s private gardens still preserved, and it is a very popular spot for weddings. It is also a beautiful place to visit for your Hatsumode, the first shrine visit of the new year on New Year’s night or the fist few days of the year. For real history buffs I can also recommend one of the very few Japanese war movies, Hill 203 (203 kochi or 二百三高地), that tells the story of General Nogi, his family and the war against Russia. For a movie from 1980 it is quite interesting, with the master actor Mifune portraying Emperor Meiji and the less famous but fantastic acting by Nakadai as General Nogi.
The other shrines in the classic trio of Meiji related shinto shrines of Tokyo are Meiji Shrine and Togo Shrine, some people would also add Yasukuni shrine to complete the collection.
Today, November the 15th is the second of the annual Torinohi, two or three days in November when traditional tornoichi markets are being held in many shrines and temples throughout Japan. The fact that both religions, shinto and buddhism, celebrate this tradition is interesting, the only difference between them is their reason for doing it. In all places the main object is to trade in the traditional kumade (熊手, or bear’s hand) decoration pieces, sometimes as small as 500 yen coin, and sometimes big enough to cover a small wall, there are all kinds of kumade and all the traders take great pride in displaying as much of their wares as possible. The basic form of the kumade comes from the humble garden rake, and the kumade is said to symbolize the raking in of health, happiness and health. It is traditional for local business to buy one each year to display in their shops. Whatever your belief is, the magic of the kumade actually works as it attracts customers. I personally always stop in front of a shop displaying a good kumade, giving the proprietor of the shop a chance to wheel me in and make a sale. The tradition is always buy a larger kumade than last year, so if you plan on following the tradition I would recommend starting out as small as possible, even though the sly tradesmen will always try to sell you their biggest!
The torinohi is counted using the old sexagenary system, where each cycle has twelve days, so in every year there will be two or three cycle endings. It is said traditionally that years with three torinohi in November are especially prone to house fires so sales of kumade with additional fire prevention prayers stuck to it increases. This is one of those years, and the third torinohi this year is on the 27th.
But today is also Tokyobling’s blog’s 5th year anniversary! The first post was on November 15th 2008. Time really does fly. I didn’t mean for it to become a daily job though. When I started I was inspired by the Boston Globe’s blog, The Big Picture which was started in May 2008 by Alan Taylor. The Big Picture is easily one of the best news sites in the world and very significant in the way news media has evolved online since then. The idea behind the blog was to tell news and stories through big images, with little or no text. Taylor was a web guy who was not satisfied with how the newspaper he worked for used photography online, so he started the blog on his own initiative. I could relate to that as I was in very much the same situation, seeing a lot of gorgeous images coming in and then being cut down so small that they hardly mattered in online news media. I was also reading a lot about photography online and I was very unhappy with the way so many talented photographers felt the need to diminish their work by reducing it in size and load the images with their names and watermarks and logos in an attempt to combat online image theft. I decided that I could do better than that by using the example of The Big Picture blog and post large images without useless copyright notices or logos inside them (people will steal your images no matter what you do if they are good enough to be stolen). Back in 2008 an image being 1200 x 798 pixels (my standard size, but only if you click them, the actual display is much smaller: I couldn’t find a good WordPress theme to use back then) was plenty large enough but these days I feel that it is much too small. Ideally someday I would like to find the time (and the skills needed…) to revamp the blog and start posting much larger, full size images at about 4000 x 2400 pixels or similar. Sure, it would be much more work, since I can hide quite a lot photographical errors by reducing images in size (soft photos, bad focusing, etc.) but I think it would be useful in the end, for me and for the viewer, you.
You can read more about the philosophy behind the blog at my About page. Now, let’s get on with working towards the 10 year anniversary in 2018!