I took this photo of a shrine maiden on duty in Shibuya’s grand shrine, the Konouhachimangu (金王八幡宮) at the annual festival last year. Some of these shrine maidens, or mike (巫女) are full time employees of the shrine but the vast majority are temporarily employed part time workers. Most of them are high school students or university students doing it for the experience and for pocket money. Although most people are impressed by young women with miko work experience there are also other bonuses, such as learning about customer service and Japanese culture and traditions. I have also heard ex-miko who mention that their math skills improved as they learned to calculate quickly in the heads when working over the main holidays selling votive plates, charmes, etc. I also think it is impossible to find any service job in the world where the staff are treated with more respect than this! On the negative side, in the winters the thin uniform and the hours spent outside can make it an almost unbearable experience for many. Some miko are also quite tired of the often very repetitive work as well as tired of constantly being photographed. This last complaint hits hard with myself, especially!
For their stoic service and hard work in the cold of winter or heat of summer a typical part-time miko can expect to earn between 8000 and 12 000 yen per day, depending on age, experience and length of work. This is a typical part time salary here in Tokyo and higher than many full time positions out in the prefectures. Good work, if you are unmarried and reasonably stoic!
On the beautiful Sunday morning walk through the northwestern end of Tokyo’s Shinjuku ward I visited Akagi Shrine, in the famous Kagurazaka district. I have blogged about this beautiful and very modern looking shrine before, but this is the first time I have seen it covered in snow. I have also visited it just before dawn on the New Year’s Day of 2013, and I have several posts about the fabulous Akagi Shrine festival held in September every year (here, here, here, here and a gorgeous shrine dancer here).
This branch shrine here in Kagurazaka is a tributary of the three main Akagi Shrines in Gunma Prefecture’s Akagiyama. It was originally constructed in 1300 in modern day Ushigome, just a short distance from where it was transferred to in 1555. The original 1300 building burned down in 1842 and the reconstructed shrine was again destroyed in the bombing raids of 1945. It was rebuilt again in 1951, as a kindergarten which was closed in 2009 and the task or redesigning the shrine minus the kindergarten but with attached apartments and a cafe gallery went to the famous architect Kengo Kuma in 2010. The level of the shrine was raised drastically in the 2010 rebuilding and now it has a set of very impressive stone stairs leading up the smaller shrine building. Underneath this are storage areas, garages and offices. Even before 2010 the shrine was located right on top of Kagurazaka hill but now it stands even higher.
As I walked up the steep stairs I could already see people busy shoveling snow from the shrine grounds, and people were again busy in the street leading up the front of the shrine. The white of the snow, the red of the shrine and the blue of the skies made it a wonderfully beautiful sight!
We just passed the height of the university exam seasons and teenagers all over the country have been busy cramming as much as possible before sitting for one or several of these exhausting exams. The entrance exams to university is a big deal in Japan, but maybe less so these days, than in Korea or China. Many students wish to enter the most prestigious nationally famous Tokyo universities and even hotels are doing well catering to the students that traveled far away to sit out the exams in Tokyo. Many universities and colleges have their own exams but there are also national level exams administered centrally by the National Center Test for University Admissions, called the central exams, or sentashiken. Starting in 1990 with 148 universities, this year 843 universities took part, of which 80% were not national or public universities. Testing took place in 693 locations, from testing centers located on tropical islands to centers covered in thick snow. Managing such a massive event must be incredibly difficult but the authorities usually make a good job of it. The test is closely watched by millions of people and is a hot item in news media and the slightest problems or mix ups are widely reported. This year the biggest problem was small mistake in the geography section of the test, and apparently a handful of students in a southern location were given the wrong testing sheet for another section. Considering that 560 672 students took the test the problems were relatively minor. That number includes both students who take the test a second time after having failed to get into their first choice of university the first time around. Those students are called “ronin”, as a reference to the masterless samurai from the old days. They spend a year in limbo, studying hard. Some people even spend years as ronin before giving up or finally being accepted into the university of their choice. If you ask a Japanese parent how their son or daughter did in the test and they use the term “ronin-chu” (in the middle of being a ronin), you know now what they mean!
In order to maximize their chances for the university exams, a lot of students visit one of the shrines dedicated to the Gods of learning and scholars, and offer a votive plates, ema, with their prayers. Tokyo’s most famous shrine dedicated to learning is the Yushima Tenjin, near Ueno, where I took these photos late last year. The ema were hanging over a meter thick in some places and there were many of these ema rails in front of the shrine. Most were dedicated by the students or parents themselves, but some were dedicated by relatives, or even teachers praying for their students success and listing whole rows of names on the back of the ema! It is quite touching to see such concern. Yushima Tenjin is famous with non-students as well, and I also had a look at their gorgeous Chrysanthemum exhibition.
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.