Trip to a Shinto shrine

This past Sunday, the program graciously offered us a tour of some of the local sites of note, and the excursion included a Shinto shine, a vineyard and winery, and a Buddhist temple. I was thrilled to get a chance to see some traditional Japanese cultural artifacts after the plethora of bright modern shiny places I’ve been and things I’ve seen, so I headed off with nearly 60 of our students and one of the other “newbie” faculty members for a delightful morning of site-seeing. I’m going to break the trip up into three bits so that I can focus on the details of each stop, and today I’ll showcase the Hakkaisan Shrine.

Ascending the heights

Ascending the heights

This is the second of three sets of stairs up to the main complex, but it gives you a sense of the scale. On this level, there are some smaller buildings and a set of seven carved lesser gods who protect the site:

My weapon is music

My weapon is music

By way of overview, Shinto is the ancient religion of Japan, evident some say extent as early as 600 years BCE. As far as scholars can tell, it has no founder, no sacred texts, and no official doctrine. Rather, emphasis is placed on traditions and rites. The gods of Shinto, called “Kami” (I assume that is one above) are sacred spirits that represent aspects of nature, such as the wind, the ocean, and the mountains.

Worship here

Worship here

There is indeed a lovely animistic feeling to this place, as well as the sense (ley lines?) that people have been worshiping here for a long long time. The buildings themselves are relatively new (the industrious Japanese replace and renew them on a regular basis), but they are built in the traditional style, perhaps as exact replicas, but I don’t know this for sure. In this shot below, the sign is apologizing that there is some construction work in progress. Note the respectful bow:

Apologies for spiritual inconvenience

Apologies for spiritual inconvenience

This particular Shinto shrine we were visiting is is specifically for the worship of mountain gods. The main annual event here is the Firewalking Festival, held in the latter part of October. Timber is piled up in front of the main altar and burned through. Devotees then apparently walk across the bed of embers as a way of trying to ensure health and prosperity for the coming year (not so sure about the health of their feet, though). This I’d like to see, but alas I’ll be long gone by then.

In preparation for worship apparently, one should have clean hands (this is a strong tradition here for many activities). Here’s the spring pool where ritual cleansing occurs, and you can see a number of our students participating as well as just to cool down a bit:

Clean hands, happy gods

Clean hands, happy gods

Here’s just another out building on the site, but I think this gives a nice sense of the peace and serenity found here:

Small shrine

At the top of yet another set of stairs, we reached the main building, perhaps where the fire is actually held:

No embers today

No embers today

….and a close-up of the entrance. You can see, perhaps, through the railing, the face and fan of the priestess guarding the gate:

Shrine interior

In truth, she and the other staff member in attendance were quite cordial and welcoming to the horde of us who descended on their quiet morning. The priest, decked in his ritual radiance, graciously allowed the inevitable photo ops that the students requested. Below are three of my students from Indonesia (a Muslim), Myanmar, and Cambodia:

Ecumenical moment

Ecumenical moment

…but I was far more charmed when I spotted the same fellow above soon after obliging a local resident by blessing his new set of wheels:

Bikes have spirits too, apparently

Bikes have spirits too, apparently

After seeing the shrine, we trooped nearby to a lake created by a dam and some hungry carp. Then back on the bus for our next stop, which I’ll share with you later.

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