Japan has nothing if not some seriously devoted fans! One of the more popular recent anime shows is the Girls und Panzer (ガールズ＆パンツァー), which is basically about teams of girl high school students using WWII tanks in mock battles as a sport. Not having seen or read any of the anime or manga I can’t comment on it but in the series, which focuses on a fictional school in the real city of Oarai in Ibaraki Prefecture the famous Oarai Isosaki Shrine is featured. As such, the shrine has been inundated with fans from all over Japan and have even created a special ema votive plate hanging spot. Not only the shrine but the entire city is taking advantage of the spotlight placed on it and if you walk around in town you can see plenty of signs and posters and cardboard figures with the many characters of the show.
The ema are all handmade by fans and many are extremely well done. Not a small percentage of them were hung by one particularly devoted fan that has created a mini story out of the hudnreds of numbered ema he has produced, some of which are pretty worn from hanging outside for months. Of course all of these ema will sooner or later be taken down and burnt on a ritual pyre. Sorry about all the photos! It was easy to get carried away and so many good ones!
Here are some more photos from my visit to the grand Oarai Isosaki Shrine in Ibaraki Prefecture to the north east of Tokyo a few weeks ago. But first a few thoughts on the nature of shrines in Japan.
If you have visited Japan you might have noticed something peculiar with shrines, namely that they tend to be located on higher ground, and looking further you might notice that the higher the shrine is located the more of them belong to the Izumo-branch of shrines or the Hachiman branch. Most peculiar of all is that these shrines tend not to be located on the highest ground possible but at a very specific point that is found again and again all along the coast of Japan, namely just above the highest reach of any historical tsunami. In the pre modern era, Japanese people knew that when a tsunami was approaching you started running and preferably towards either a Izumo or Hachiman shrine. Not only would they most often be safe against tsunamis but they were usually constructed relatively earthquake proof and usually with ample space to safeguard it against spreading fires. Many shrines also had access to wells and ponds which would be useful in the case of natural disaster. When government researchers catalogued the 215 shrines inside Miyagi prefecture that was within the immediate disaster zone only 53 of those actually suffered damage (partial or complete), a much lower rate than secular buildings or temples, and no shrine older than 1000 years were damaged by the tsunami.
In conclusion, the old folk customs and religions of Japan has managed to transmit an awful lot of information that directly affects risk management and survival mechanisms to this day. Mapping shrines (and their age and type of deity) can be a useful part of any local risk management toolbox.
While Ibaraki was not particularly devastated by the tsunami in 2011, several lower outbuildings and two of the tori (gates) of the Oarai Isoaki Shrine were damaged or destroyed. By 2015 all of that damage has been restored though and the shrine looks as good as ever. Unfortunately they were still renovating the main shrine building by the time I visited so I had to focus my picture taking on the minor buildings!
Located on the top of a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean in the city of Oarai lies the Oarai Isosaki Shrine. Founded in 856 A.D., it was destroyed during the wars of 1558-1570, but rebuilt since then and is now the most important shrine in the area. Being so close to the ocean means that is associated with sea faring and ships, and there is also a ship museum on the shrine grounds. However, when I visited a few weeks ago the shrine was undergoing major renovations so I could not see half of it. More photos to come though!
My goal for every New Year’s is to perform my Hatsumode at three shrines before the rise of morning sun. Personally I don’t ask for anything when I pray at these shrines, I just express gratitude for being alive and in good health to see the start of a new year, and to pay my respects for the coming year. The last of the three shrines I visited this year was right in line with the large Yasukuni Shrine and the tiny Tsukudo Shrine, it was in fact the parent shrine of that last little shrine, the hill top Tsukudohachiman Shrine (筑土八幡神社). It’s origins have been lost in time and war, but the original shrine was inaugurated here sometime between 809 AD and 823 AD, after an old man in the area claimed to have heard from the god Hachiman in this spot. In 1945 AD the shrine was completely destroyed by the US Air Force in one of the many raids of that year, only the Torii (built in 1726), the gate, remained mostly unharmed from shrapnel and fire and it is today the oldest Torii in Shinjuku ward. I didn’t get a good photo of it unfortunately.