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.
In the middle of Tokyo’s electronics and anime heart there is a hidden shrine, quite possible the least visited shrine in Tokyo. As much as I have searched I can’t find any information on the old Hanabusa Shrine (花房神社), but in the old Edo period it must have been much more accessible than it is these days. It is located on private land but there is no road or street to access it, a sure sign that it must have been conveniently “overlooked” by the city office or construction companies back in the days when it was still a free standing structure on its own piece of land.
To reach Hanabusa shrine you walk towards Akihabara station on the main street, until you reach the huge Donki store (1st photo). When you do, enter the small side street (2nd photo) and keep walking until you reach the tiny opening between two buildings (3rd photo). From there you squeeze yourself through the alley until you reach the shrine on your right. The entrance to the alley from the other side is obscured by the back entrance to a Liberty store (selling manga and toys). When I visited there were fresh offerings on the altar for the new year, so it is obviously being looked after by someone, maybe even the head priest of the shrine? Hanabusa Shrine is easily the smallest full shrine I have ever seen. According to the Chiyoda city office, the legal status of the alleyway is unclear so it is possible that I was technically trespassing on private property when I entered the ally, so if you chose to check this hidden shrine out for yourself, be careful, don’t litter, don’t smoke and make yourself as small and inconspicuous as possible! I have been in Akihabara hundreds of times over the last decade but I love that it is still possible for me to make these sort of really strange discoveries here!
Sorry for the 100% black and white photos of this post, I thought this sort of gritty street scene demanded a similarly gritty B&W photos series!
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!