Yasaka walking

Yesterday was a glorious sunny day in Kyoto, and armed with the guidebook Shinto Shrines and Hugo Kempeneer’s Yasaka postings on the Kyoto Dream Trips blog, I set off with Chris Cooling (Communications Assistant at Jinja Honcho) for a walk to Yasaka Jinja.  Afterwards we took the pathway leading to Kiyomizu temple before backtracking through Yasui Kompira Shrine, which led us into the Gion district around the time that the geisha set off for their evening engagements.  It’s one of my very favourite walks, guaranteed to throw up something interesting, and this occasion was no exception as you can see in the photoessay below…..

Kyoto looking good in some late summer sunshine


On a sunny Sunday queues to pray at Yasaka can be surprisingly long, and some take the opportunity for a photo pose before the massive worship hall (the roof of which, unusually, covers both haiden and honden)


Two women paying respects to the kami at the beautification subshrine (as featured in a Green Shinto posting 'Beauty shrine (Yasaka Jinja)'. There are so many subshrines it is said you can pay respects to all the country's kami at Yasaka alone.


Chris Cooling takes the opportunity to splash on a bit of beauty water too


Passing through Yasaka Jinja and the Maruyama Park behind, we set off along the route to Kiyomizudera and discovered that the Gionkaku (Gion Pavilion) and Daiun-in temple had a special opening – a rare event.


The temple was originally built by Emperor Ogimachi for the repose of Nobunaga's soul in 1587, and it only moved to its present site in 1987. The Gion Pavilion next to it was erected in the 1920s by a member of the wealthy Okura family adjacent to his second house.


The interior of the pavilion is covered with Daoist-inspired murals


View from the top of the pavilion over Higashiyama towards the Yasaka-no-to (Yasaka Pagoda)


Further along the pathway was a small Inari shrine with unusually cute ema


The stone lanterns were unusual too – first time I've seen a fox cut-out.


At the Yasui Konpira Shrine the queues were even longer than at Yasaka – because of the pulling power of the 'enkiri enmusubi' rock


Climb through the hole in the rock one way and it cuts off bad relations – climb through again the other way and it will bring you a good relationship in future


Along with the love hotels that surround the Yasui Konpira Shrine is a new addition - catering for the morning after perhaps.


No walk through Gion would be complete without sight of a geisha – or someone dressed up as a geisha. End of a stimulating afternoon, and thanks to Chris Cooling for his company.



For more about Yasaka Jinja, see the following links:


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Kojiki translation

The mythological beginnings of Japan, according to Kojiki


Green Shinto reader, Quin Arbeitman, has written in about the just published new translation of Kojiki (712), Japan’s oldest writing.  As he says, it’s “A much needed development, as the Basil Hall Chamberlain translation is generally considered a needlessly difficult read, and the well-regarded Philippi translation sells for hundreds of dollars due to the fact that reprints are prevented by legal squabblings over his estate.”

The new translator, Gustav Heldt, is an associate professor of Japanese literature at the University of Virginia and the author of The Pursuit of Harmony: Poetry and Power in Early Heian Japan.  Green Shinto is very grateful to Quin for his first impressions of the book, which has been out for less than a week….


Quin in his guise as a jazz musician (courtesy fukuoka.now)

I am finding this new Heldt edition extremely readable. It goes down quite smooth and easy.  Its language is simple but suitably evocative. It is in marked contrast to the Chamberlain, who in fact argued that the language of the Kojiki “…sounds queer and bald in Japanese, … and it is therefore right, even from a stylistic point of view, that they should sound bald and queer in English.”  I don’t have the familiarity with Old Japanese to make this judgment for myself, but I for one am grateful that Heldt has not adopted Chamberlain’s approach to his prose!

Even leaving aside artfulness of the translation, there is one more very important reason for a new translation.  One of the most frustrating aspects of the Chamberlain edition is that he, proper Victorian gentleman that he was, chose to translate anything which he considered “indecent” not into English, but Latin. This results more than a few long tracts of Latin text at important moments in the narrative, as well as several odd sentence constructions such as “…the women weaving the heavenly garments were so much alarmed that impegerunt privatas partes adversis radiis et obierunt.”  (In Heldt as “Startled by the sight, Weaver Woman of Heaven slammed her weaving shuttle into her privates and died.”)  And this is the only edition of the Kojiki that most bookstores have ever sold! It’s frankly rather amazing that it’s taken 132 years for a new widely available translation to appear in English.

The new translation of Kojiki has Ise's Meotoiwa rocks on the cover, said to reprsent the primal mythological couple of Izanagi and Izanami

Heldt makes the choice to translate all Japanese names etymologically by their kanji.  For instance, Amaterasu (天照) appears as a character named “Heaven Shining”, and Okuninushi (大國主) as “Great Land Master”.  He is even more poetic in his approach to place names, for instance giving Ise (伊勢) as “Sacred Streams”, and Izumo (出雲) as “Billowing Clouds”.

On the whole, I quite like this approach, as the sheer number of personal and place names in the Kojiki is rather dizzying even in simple English, let alone in the cumbersome cipher of romanized Japanese. Besides, tales of the Great Land Master adventuring through the land of Billowing Clouds has a certain mythic scope and poetry to it which is rather appropriate for a work such as this.

There is also a pair of maps at the back of the book, which give a useful layout of Japan in the Mythical Era. It is far more readable than the rather vague, borderless map included in the Chamberlain, and makes for fun comparisons with modern Japan.

I do have one fairly major gripe with this new edition, though. This is to do with how Heldt has chosen to deal with giving outside information. Unlike Chamberlain, who included pedantic footnotes quite literally as long as the text of the translation itself (resulting in a murder weapon-worthy 592 pages versus the Heldt edition’s 312), Heldt has chosen not to include footnotes or endnotes at all, so as to keep the text readable and flowing. I respect this, but unfortunately Heldt’s own system verges on unusable.

After more than 100 years, time for a new translation of this book too.

He includes three glossaries, one for “general terms”, one for personal names, and one for place names. The listings under “general terms” are sometimes interesting, but because there are no indications in the body of the text itself leading to the glossary, I would never think to look up words as mundane as “arrow”, “bamboo”, and “banner”– just to pick three from the first page– in order to read their enlightening entries. And as for the name and place glossaries, the worst problem is that they are listed alphabetically in order of Heldt’s own translations of them– and there is no cross-reference index by original Japanese name. Let’s say I want to look up all of the places where Ninigi shows up in the Kojiki. How the heck is anyone supposed to know that Heldt calls him “Ripening Rice Ears Lad”? There are literally hundreds of names in the Kojiki, so there’s no excuse for the lack of a cross-reference index for searching by romanized Japanese spelling, which would have taken all of perhaps four or five double columned pages.

Still. That’s only an issue if one wishes to use this text as part of fairly deep studies of Shinto. For the casual reader who just wants to read the oldest source of Japanese myth, free of “bald and queer” Victorian grandiloquence pocked with prudish Latin, this is the new go-to source. I’ll definitely be recommending it to others in the future.

Now here’s hoping for a modern translation of the Nihongi

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When nature is as beautiful as this, who would want to leave their rubbish on the beach?


You wouldn’t think litter has much to do with Shinto.  Indeed you might suppose a religion based on purity would lead to a culture that is vehemently opposed to littering.  And so it seems to the hundreds of thousands of visitors to Japan each year who come away amazed by the spotlessness of the city streets.

But a letter today in The Japan Times raises the very real issue of the contrast between clean streets and the desecration of nature by wanton dumping and littering.  For those of us who live here, it’s a striking phenomenon.  “If the Japanese are so clean, why is there so much crap on my beach?” asks an outraged Roberto De Vido.  (For the full article, see here.)

Beach gomi (courtesy Roberto De Vido)

Roberto lives near a beach and is concerned about the extraordinary amount of rubbish dumped there.  He has taken action to clean it up and prevent it.  And through personal experience, he has come to the conclusion that while Japanese feel ashamed to litter streets in full view of others, they have no such scruples when it comes to being in isolated places where the eyes of others are not upon them.

I too have often wondered about the contrast between clean streets and the unwarranted dumping of rubbish and domestic items in rivers or the countryside.

Previously I ascribed it to the ‘uchi-soto‘ (inside-outside) nature of Japanese culture.  You don’t despoil your own surrounds, but you can do as you like in places unconnected to you.  Such as nature.  (The idea helps explain too the WW2 syndrome of an essentially kind and considerate people inflicting horrific cruelty on ‘the other’.)

Roberto De Vido however makes a strong case for ‘shame’ as the motivating criterion.  It makes good sense.  It was a central concept of Ruth Benedict’s influential book, and Lafcadio Hearn said much the same thing in Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation.

Endo Shusaku gets at a similar point in one of his short stories where he considers how Japanese soldiers could have indulged in vivisection and cannibalism in the Second World War.  His writing was inspired by the notion that because of the Confucian sense of the collective, Japanese were likely to be motivated by situational rather than absolute ethics.  (Endo of course was a Catholic, and had a point to prove.)

There is a link to Shinto here, which refrains from matters of morality.  There is no dogma, no precepts written down in stone.  Nature is a force for destruction as well as creation.  Kami get angry.  War criminals are venerated at Yasukuni.  What matters is the endless cycle of renewal, not whether it’s morally good or bad.

If Roberto is right in his thesis, as I believe he is, it behooves the rest of us to speak out and shame those engaging in unacceptable behaviour, whether it be littering, sexual harassment or cruelty to animals.  Just because we are ‘outsiders’ does not mean we should be invisible.  Indeed, ‘gaiatsu‘ (outside pressure) can be all the more effective because of the stigma of losing face.

Thumbs up to Roberto for taking action to save the cleanliness of his beach.  Purity may be a vital part of Shinto, but it seems shame may be even more fundamental to the culture.

Shinto teaches purity, but away from the eyes of the kami its precepts may not always be followed

Posted in Japanese culture, Purity and pollution, Social values | 4 Comments

Day of the crow


Yatagarasu, the three-legged emissary of Amaterasu


Today being 9/9, it’s the day of the Crow Sumo Festival at Kamigamo Jinja.  (Green Shinto has carried a report on this unique event before; see here.)

Three has been a magic number with spiritual import since ancient times.  It is the basic underpinning of the religious impulse through its birth-death-rebirth template, and the tripartite view of life is reflected in Siberian shamanism (and thereby Shinto) with its upper, middle and lower worlds.  But if three has a potent significance, how much greater is that of three times three i.e. nine.  You can see this in the Shinto wedding ceremony with its 3-3-9 ritual (san-san-kudo).

Shamanic pillar with crow on top

Nine had a magical import for Mongolian shamans, and it’s interesting therefore that the very shamanic Crow Festival in Kyoto should take place on this day.  During the festival two priests hop and caw like crows in front of cones of sand representing the holy hill  of Koyama where the Kamigamo kami first descended.  This happened in prehistoric times when shamanism in Japan was still a living force, and one can presume that the kami descended into a human vessel, part man and part bird.  In fact a secret ceremony to reenact this takes place every May which involves a cloak of feathers.

Now here’s the interesting thing.  Kamigamo Jinja claims its founding kami was none other than yatagarasu, the three-legged crow of Kojiki mythology.  Say what?!  In the mythology the crow is a messenger of Amaterasu, sent by the sun goddess to guide her descendant across the dangerous Kii Hanto peninsula.  For Kamigamo Jinja, that guide morphed into a member of the Kamo clan and ended up in Kyoto.

Crows and the sun are linked in many ancient myths, and might well derive from the black sunspots visible to the naked eye.  A crow with three legs marks it out as being special, just as Siberian shamans are marked by a physical peculiarity to show their specialness.  The emissary from Amaterasu might then well have been a shaman, or manifest through the medium of a shaman.

Tribes descended from crows makes one think of North American totems, where ancestral kin are depicted as ravens and the ilk.  Indeed, the Crow Clan is a common feature of shamanic cultures, based on the shaman’s flight into the spirit world and an acknowledgement of the animal nature of humans – an instinctual understanding of evolution, you might say.

Emperor Jimmu seeks help from the three-legged crow

In this respect it’s interesting that in Siberia I once witnessed a crow dance by a shaman near Lake Baikal, and when travelling across Manchuria I came across a shamanic pole in the imperial palace at Shenyang from the top of which, explained a noticeboard, used to be hung a container with ‘grains and grounded meat to feed the divine bird (crow) in gratitude.‘

Food and gratitude are germane to Shinto.  Indeed, its rites have been characterised as ‘spirit feasts’, when food is put out for hungry kami.  One theory about the etymology of ‘kami‘ is that it is cognate with ‘kamu’, meaning to chew or eat, and in mythological and ritual practice, sharing food is a means of communion.  It’s why in Shinto you share food after rituals with the divine spirit.  And it’s why Christians symbolically eat the body and drink the blood of Jesus.

Crow-gods, crow totems, crows as emissaries of the divine.  We tend to look nowadays on the black-feathered bird as a rather annoying or comical creature, simply an urban pest.  But in times past those loud cawings were the voice of another world and those beady eyes portals into the divine.  We’ve lost the art of connecting with them.  We’ve lost the sense of magic.

On this day of days then, all hail the Crow!!  Caw, caw, caw, hop, hop hop……

Feathered performer at a festival in Tohoku's Shirakami, remnant of a shamanic past

Posted in Mythology, Shamanic connections | Leave a comment

Full moon rising

A bloated autumnal moon rising above one of the 36 peaks in Kyoto's Eastern Hills

Tonight’s the night!

Shrines in Kyoto will shortly be celebrating the autumn moon, and in the case of Shimogamo, the festivity showcases what to my mind is the very best of Shinto – the seasonal celebration of nature combined with the refinements of Japanese culture.

Koto and kagura provide the accompaniment to the rising of the harvest moon, as elegantly clad miko and hostesses perform the tea ceremony for paying guests. The emergence of the moon from behind the tree tops of the Tadasu no mori woods produces gasps of pleasure in the shrine compound, as the assembled crowd delight in the aesthetic pursuits of Heian aristocrats. Shinto, it should not be forgotten, is no less a guardian of the nation’s heritage than a religion derived from animism.


For a previous account of the Shimogamo moon festival, complete with pictures of the tea ceremony and special ‘moon dumplings’ see this page.  What follows below is an article from the Kyoto Visitors Guide for this month, accessible here:

No place could better suited for full moon viewing than timeless Kyoto. Of all the year’s 12 full moons, the autumn full moon, or harvest moon, is considered to be the most sublime.

Japanese refinement at its best - the elegant ritual of the tea ceremony

It is said that the moon viewing custom was introduced to Japan from China during the Nara (710-794) and Heian periods (794-1185). Harvest moon viewing took place on August 15th in the lunar calendar, and it was called jugoya, which means the night of the 15th. Jugoya in the present calendar changes every year and usually falls in September or October. The moon on jugoya is not always full, but it’s said that the moon on that night is the brightest and the most beautiful in the year.

In times past, and even today, it was not uncommon for people to set up small tables by the window to enjoy the full moon light while eating tsukimi dango (rice and sweet bean dumplings made specially for the occasion), and sato-imo (taro, a tropical root). Sprays of susuki (pampas grass), which resembles the rice plant, and other autumn grasses are displayed on the verandah, along with neat clusters of tiny rice dumplings. On a more public level, celebrations are held in temples and shrines.

The word, tsukimi (moon viewing), is used in Japanese food as well. For example, tsukimi soba and tsukimi udon are well-known. They aren’t food for moon viewing. Tsukimi refers to a cracked egg in Japanese cooking; the egg yolk represents the moon. Tsukimi udon/soba are hot udon/soba noodles served with raw egg toppings. McDonald’s in Japan even sells tsukimi burgers, which are hamburgers with fried egg fillings!

A full set of offerings and moon dumplings

Posted in Kyoto shrines, Rites and celebrations | 1 Comment

Sagan on Spirituality


The great mythologist, Joseph Campbell, saw Shinto as a religion of awe, and there are those who propose that its rituals are open to an interpretation in which the kami are viewed as a figurative expression compatible with atheism.  In this respect it’s interesting that the well-known atheist Richard Dawkins has talked of the almost mystical sense of awe that a scientific understanding of the cosmos can evoke, and in the piece below Carl Sagan is quoted to lyrical effect on a similar theme. (Photo and article thanks to the brainpickings website)


Carl Sagan on Science and Spirituality
by Maria Popova

“The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.”

The friction between science and religion stretches from Galileo’s famous letter to today’s leading thinkers. And yet we’re seeing that, for all its capacity for ignorance, religion might have some valuable lessons for secular thought and the two need not be regarded as opposites.

In 1996, mere months before his death, the great Carl Sagan — cosmic sage, voracious reader, hopeless romantic — explored the relationship between the scientific and the spiritual in The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. He writes:

Plainly there is no way back. Like it or not, we are stuck with science. We had better make the best of it. When we finally come to terms with it and fully recognize its beauty and its power, we will find, in spiritual as well as in practical matters, that we have made a bargain strongly in our favor.

The encounter with nature can lead to feelings of awe and reverence

But superstition and pseudoscience keep getting in the way, distracting us, providing easy answers, dodging skeptical scrutiny, casually pressing our awe buttons and cheapening the experience, making us routine and comfortable practitioners as well as victims of credulity.

And yet science, Sagan argues, isn’t diametrically opposed to spirituality. He echoes Ptolemy’s timeless awe at the cosmos and reflects on what Richard Dawkins has called the magic of reality, noting the intense spiritual elevation that science is capable of producing:

In its encounter with Nature, science invariably elicits a sense of reverence and awe. The very act of understanding is a celebration of joining, merging, even if on a very modest scale, with the magnificence of the Cosmos. And the cumulative worldwide build-up of knowledge over time converts science into something only a little short of a trans-national, trans-generational meta-mind.

“Spirit” comes from the Latin word “to breathe.” What we breathe is air, which is certainly matter, however thin. Despite usage to the contrary, there is no necessary implication in the word “spiritual” that we are talking of anything other than matter (including the matter of which the brain is made), or anything outside the realm of science. On occasion, I will feel free to use the word. Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or of acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.

Reminding us once again of his timeless wisdom on the vital balance between skepticism and openness and the importance of evidence, Sagan goes on to juxtapose the accuracy of science with the unfounded prophecies of religion:

Not every branch of science can foretell the future — paleontology can’t — but many can and with stunning accuracy. If you want to know when the next eclipse of the Sun will be, you might try magicians or mystics, but you’ll do much better with scientists. They will tell you where on Earth to stand, when you have to be there, and whether it will be a partial eclipse, a total eclipse, or an annular eclipse. They can routinely predict a solar eclipse, to the minute, a millennium in advance. You can go to the witch doctor to lift the spell that causes your pernicious anaemia, or you can take vitamin Bl2. If you want to save your child from polio, you can pray or you can inoculate. If you’re interested in the sex of your unborn child, you can consult plumb-bob danglers all you want (left-right, a boy; forward-back, a girl – or maybe it’s the other way around), but they’ll be right, on average, only one time in two. If you want real accuracy (here, 99 per cent accuracy), try amniocentesis and sonograms. Try science.

Think of how many religions attempt to validate themselves with prophecy. Think of how many people rely on these prophecies, however vague, however unfulfilled, to support or prop up their beliefs. Yet has there ever been a religion with the prophetic accuracy and reliability of science? There isn’t a religion on the planet that doesn’t long for a comparable ability — precise, and repeatedly demonstrated before committed skeptics — to foretell future events. No other human institution comes close.


In the present global age, the convergence of science and spirituality could offer a universal and ecological worldview, free of narrow-minded nationalism and consumer greed.




Posted in Animism | Leave a comment

Mountain spirit

Photo courtesy raynoah.com


Mountains are a vital part of Japan’s identity.  They are also a fundamental part of the country’s spiritual heritage.  Mountain worship is widespread across East Asia, and recognition of their sacred qualities has long been part of Chinese and Korean culture.  Physically they reach up towards heaven, and figuratively they draw the human spirit closer to the divine.  Many people have written of their inspiring nature, and how mountain climbing brings one closer to the awesome wonder of life.  Shugendo (mountain asceticism) has made ‘entering the mountains’ a religious rite.

For Shinto, mountains play a special role in being the abode of kami.  Some are even worshipped as kami themselves.  Many shrines are placed at the base of mountains, with their Okunoin (Inner Sanctuary) higher up or on the summit.  It’s usually where worship on the mountain began.

In the piece below, a Yomiuri staff writer goes in search of the self, which in essence means rediscovering the nature of human nature.  You don’t need to be a religious nut to appreciate the spirituality of mountains.  You just need the right attitude and a pair of boots.  As the old saying goes, one mountain many paths….


By Takashi Oki   Japan News August 31, 2014  (Photos below taken from the original article)

SAIJO, Ehime—Mt. Ishizuchi is a sacred mountain where Kobo-Daishi (774-835), the high-ranking priest who established the Shikoku pilgrimage, trained. Today, many ascetics, conspicuous in white robes, come together to reach its 1,982-meter summit in early July, when rituals are held during a ceremonial opening of the year’s climbing season.

The mountain, the tallest in western Japan, is particularly known for its climbing route with several sets of heavy metal chains dangling down a rocky cliff path leading up to the summit. In “Eien no Ko,” a novel by Arata Tendo, children seeking spiritual salvation struggle to climb the mountain by gripping the chains for support.  I decided to reach the summit myself, hoping to find a different self there.

The Ichi no Kusari set of chains dangles on the cliff. There are four sets of chains for climbers on Mt. Ishizuchi, including Tameshi no Kusari (test chains).

On July 17, I visited Saijo, Ehime Prefecture, at the foot of the mountain. To build up stamina for climbing the next day, I ate a popular pasta dish called Teppan Napolitan, a local specialty that is served on a hot iron plate.

At 8 a.m. the next morning, I took the day’s first ropeway service to Ishizuchi Shrine’s Chugu Jojusha, one of the shrine’s worship facilities, located 1,450 meters above sea level. Unfortunately, clouds hid the summit from view.

I began climbing from there, my mind on the weather. After climbing for about 90 minutes through a beech forest, I reached the Yoakashi-toge mountain pass about halfway up the mountain. The forest ended here, and my field of vision suddenly expanded.  “You can see the summit,” nature observation guide Yoshiyasu Imagawa, 38, said excitedly. I had asked him to climb with me.

Seeing such a dignified mountain, I felt refreshed and invigorated, ready to climb to the summit.  Climbing a little farther, we reached Ichi no Kusari, and the first set of chains running down the side of a cliff came into view. The thick chains run 33 meters down the cliff.  Each link in the chain consists of a short iron rod with a ring a little larger than 10 centimeters in diameter at each end.

Gripping the rings one by one while groping around for toeholds, I climbed up the cliff little by little.  It was tough for my arms to support the weight of my backpack and my own body, which has a little too much extra fat.

During the climb, I looked down and was seized by fear. It felt like I was dangling from the cliff. If I lost my grip and my feet slipped, I would fall straight down. The thought made me so frightened that I held fast to the chains with both arms. It is said that even primary school children can climb, but it felt almost impossible for me. I managed to finish the climb, but when I reached the top of the cliff, I felt dazed. I may have pushed myself too hard.

In Saijo, Ehime Prefecture, there are many artesian wells called uchinuki. Their water originates from Kamogawa river, some of the water in which originates on Mt. Ishizuchi, infiltrates underground, accumulates and springs up in the wells due to positive pressure.

After a while, we reached Ni no Kusari, the second set of chains. These run as long as 65 meters.  “The part we can’t see down here is difficult to climb,” Imagawa said.  I gave up on climbing this part.  Fortunately, however, there is a detour route for climbers like me.

San no Kusari, the final set of chains, was under repair. I was relieved to hear it and continued going on the detour route.  I saw some pretty flowers along the route, and Imagawa told me their names are ishizuchi mizuki and miyama daikonso.  “Ryu-ryu-ryui, ryu-ryu-ryui,” cried a bird in the distance.  “It’s the meboso mushikui [arctic warbler]. I hope we can see it,” Imagawa said, looking for the bird among the trees.

About two hours and 45 minutes after climbing from Jojusha, we finally reached the summit. Although it was not clear and sunny, I could see a foggy range of mountains in the distance. “I did it!” I found myself crying out.

At the shrine’s Okunomiya Chojosha worship facility in the summit area, I saw Atsuki Yamashita, 60, and his wife Riemi, 59, being given an incantation. Yamashita told me that he had just turned 60 on the day.  “I wanted to start a new life at Ishizuchi,” he said.

However, I had further to go in seeking my new self—Tengudake peak, which is the true highest point of Mt. Ishizuchi, which can be seen just across the summit area. It projected sharply through the fog like a fang.

The route from the summit area to Tengudake was rocky, but I had no alternative than to just keep going. I slithered forward little by little on my stomach on the rocky path. I knew it was pathetic for me to be so full of fear while climbing, but I couldn’t help it.  After a while, however, I finally reached Tengudake. When I stood at the highest point of western Japan’s tallest mountain, my surroundings became enshrouded in mist, enveloping me in what felt like a divine atmosphere.

I realized I can’t change myself so easily, but I found myself fully enjoying a sense of accomplishment all the same.

Travel tips
Iyo-Saijo Station, near the foot of Mt. Ishizuchi, is about 105 minutes from Okayama Station by express train. Visitors who fly into Matsuyama can reach Iyo-Saijo Station from Matsuyama Station in about an hour by express train. To climb Mt. Ishizuchi from Matsuyama, there is also a route from the Tsuchigoya starting point of the trail up the mountain.  For more information, call the Saijo City Tourism Association at (0897) 56-2605.

Posted in Mountains | 3 Comments

Jewish connection

The colourful old synagogue of Krakow, now serving as tourist sight. Only 200 Jews now live in the city, though before the war there was a thriving community of over 60,000.


My summer vacation this year has brought me to the charming town of Krakow, in southern Poland, where the castle, churches and old part of the city offer European culture at its finest.  One of the prime tourist sights is the former Jewish quarter, near which stands the factory where Oskar Schindler famously compiled his list.  Auschwitz is just 40 miles away.

As it happens, my maternal grandmother was a Czech Jew who died in the Holocaust, though for most of my life I was unaware of it.  Only after the death of my mother did I find out, for she had kept it secret from her children throughout her life.  Later I discovered that this was common amongst Holocaust survivors, in order to protect their offspring.

It was in Japan, oddly, that I first learnt the truth about my background, through a chance meeting with a Czech musician in Kanazawa.  It led me to trace my grandmother to the camp of Terezin, from where she was sent to Lvov  and shot.  Her husband, a high-court judge, had already died of natural causes, and my mother managed to escape to the West on a false passport via the south of France.

Model of the Ark of the Covenant. Many have noted its similarity to the mikoshi (portable palanquin) used to transport the kami at Japanese festivals.

Though I spent three years in the Middle East (Bahrain and Kuwait), I had never learnt much about Judaism.  Now however, wandering around the old Jewish area of Krakow, the similarities with Shinto come to mind, particularly how closely the two ‘world religions’ are identified with one particular race.  The subject was something I’d thought about before through reading such books as The Jews and the Japanese by Ben-Ami Shillony, professor of Japanese history, which notes the common characteristics of hard work, cleanliness and sense of the collective which led them to become ‘successful outsiders’.

Despite the obvious difference with Judaism and its emphasis on morality and monotheism, Shinto shares a vital characteristic in the notion of a ‘chosen people’ for whom their land was specially intended.  Commentators have suggested this leads to insularity and a tendency to see the world in terms of us and them.  As a result, race, religion and homeland are all closely bound up with the sense of identity.

There are those who go further, however, and claim there are actual historical links between Judaism and Shinto.  The theory supposes that one of the lost tribes of Israel made its way along the Silk Road and entered Japan in the early centuries, leaving their mark on the indigenous faith.  It’s not such a cranky idea as it might appear, since Jewish settlers are known to have existed in China from early times.  And arguments have been made for Japan’s influential Hata clan having Middle East origins.

For those interested in the remarkable similarities between Jewish and Japanese culture, the academic Kubo Arimasa has compiled a list at the following site.  They include linguistic oddities, such as the 500 vocabulary items which closely resemble the other language: http://www.biblemysteries.com/library/tribesjapan.htm

For those who prefer to watch a video, there’s a three-part truncated Japanese television programme with subtitles that examines some of the research being done into possible historical links.  Even if you don’t find the arguments persuasive, and some are clearly speculative or coincidental, there are fascinating questions raised by people willing to put their reputations at stake.  Take a look for yourself:



The following article comes from the Jerusalem Post in 2010 (click here for the original).

At Hebrew University, 26 Shinto priests from Japan conduct interfaith dialogue.
Though a polytheistic religion such as Shintoism, and the world’s oldest monotheistic religion – Judaism – seem worlds apart, followers of the two seem to think there is common ground. To that end, 26 Shinto priests from Nagoya, Japan, met last Thursday at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to conduct an interfaith dialogue with Israeli academics. Among the academics were Prof. Ben-Ami Shilloni of the Department of East Asian Studies, who discussed similarities between Jewish and Shinto beliefs.

Jewish scholars meet with Shinto delegates from Atsuta Jinja for discussions at Israel's Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 2010

According to Shilloni, followers of Shintoism, which believes in multiple gods, seek interfaith dialogues in an effort to get past religious barriers that are, in their eyes, the basis for much of the world’s conflicts. Shintoism, Japan’s “natural and oldest religion,” is a pacifistic faith that accepts other beliefs.

The delegation comes from Nagoya’s Atsuta Shrine, traditionally believed to have been established during the reign of Emperor Keiko (71-130 CE). The 200,000 square meter shrine complex draws more than 9 million visitors a year.

At the meeting, Shilloni read the verse from Isaiah in Japanese, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

Shilloni elaborated, “Though this was prophesized by Isaiah 2,600 years ago, Japan has been blessed with peace, while the Jews have yet to be.”  According to Shilloni, the followers of Shintoism have a very positive view of Judaism, and see it as the mother of Western religions, and thus holier than other monotheistic faiths.

Enmusubi Jewish-style – an amulet for successful relationships on sale in the Jewish quarter of Krakow

Bahij Monsour, head of the Foreign Ministry’s religious department, said this trip was initiated by the Shinto priests, who approached the Israeli ambassador in Tokyo . Shinto priests last visited here about 10 years ago, when they met with then-Sephardic Chief Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron. The current delegation, here for just five days, did not meet with either chief rabbi. They did, however, visit Yad Vashem.

According to Shilloni, the dialogues aid in portraying Shintoism as a less primitive religion than is believed by most of the monotheistic world, and aim to show the common ground shared by Shintoism and other faiths. Israel also has an interest in interfaith dialogues, as they contribute to Israel’s and Judaism’s image as open and accepting, he said.

“It is much easier for us to conduct interfaith discussions with Shinto than with Christianity or Islam, since the latter two reject Judaism in favor of their own faiths, while Shintoism accepts Judaism as it is,” Shilloni said last week.

Though the followers of Shinto embrace all faiths, not all faiths embrace them. This, suggests Shilloni, may be the reason priests did not meet with any Christian or Muslim representatives during their visit.

While Christianity and Islam classify people as either believers or nonbelievers, the followers of Shintoism have no problem accepting other religions and practices, and one can be a perfect Shintoist while simultaneously serving other gods or participating in other types of worship. Testimony to this, said Shilloni, are the Christian wedding ceremonies most Japanese couples undergo, despite their adherence to Shintoism.

Posted in General, International | 2 Comments

Ainu spirituality


Ainu prayer ritual to the god of fire (this and other photos courtesy Sato)


Though they are few in number now, the Ainu of Hokkaido have great appeal to some because of their ancient traditions.  Ethnologists believe they are the remnant of Japan’s original Jomon people, and their spiritual heritage reaches far back into the realm of prehistory.  For Joseph Campbell they offered a compelling picture of how religion evolved in its earliest form.

The following informative piece is taken from the blog ‘Discover Japan’ by Yumiko Sato, writer and music therapist living in Aomori.  Her writing is hosted on Huffington Post UK, and the link carries a listing of her articles. I’m very grateful to Yumiko for her permission and cooperation.  (All photos on this page are taken from her blog.)


Yumiko writes….

An Ainu elder, around 1930

After visiting the Ainu Museum in Shiraoi, Hokkaido, I wrote two posts about the Ainu, indigenous people of Japan who still live throughout the country.  (See here and here.)  There are about 23,000 – 24,000 Ainu in Hokkaido today, but this doesn’t include those living outside Hokkaido. The exact number of the Ainu living in Japan is unknown. One reason for this is that some feel the need to hide their identities in order to avoid discrimination.

I decided to look deeper at the Ainu culture, because I knew so little about it. It seemed strange that the indigenous people of Japan had mostly been ignored by its own country.  I don’t know anyone personally who discriminates against the Ainu.  At the same time I don’t know anyone who is interested in their culture either.  This indifference is perhaps the source of discrimination.  My hope is that sharing the information will help you learn about their unique culture and traditions.

One can not understand the Ainu without learning about their spirituality, since it’s central to their lives. Their spiritual practices are rich and complex. They’re different from Shinto, the traditional Japanese religion, and they don’t fit the usual definition of animism.

The Ainu felt the presence of the spirits of the dead in their day to day lives. They believed that the human lives were protected by the dead spirits who lived in all things that existed in the human world.  At the museum the first thing on display was a large board depicting different gods – solar deity, god who rules the fish, god who rules the deer, god who rules the earth, god of fire, and so on.

The Ainu solar deity

“Ainu” means “human” as opposed to “kamuy” (gods). The Ainu believed that Gods existed everywhere in the world.  This included not only natural phenomenons but also the man made objects, such as the lacquerware boxes which were used for important rituals. The lacquerware boxes were also symbols of power and wealth, since the Ainu gained them through trade with the ethnic Japanese.

To acquire one lacquerware box the Ainu had to offer a number of valuable items, such as a hundred of salmons or furs of several bears. So the house with many lacquerware suggested that the man of the house was a good hunter, and that the family didn’t have to struggle with foods.

Inaw [or inau], prayer sticks made of wood, were also very important spiritual icons. There were many different kinds of inaw.  Some were offered as gifts to gods or used to communicate with gods, while others were considered gods themselves.

Iyomante spirit-sending ceremony, one of the most important for Ainu


The life of the Ainu was guided by their deep sense of spirituality. On every occasion prayers were offered and various ceremonies were held. “Iyomante” is one of the most important Ainu ceremonies and perhaps the most misunderstood one – the spirit-sending ceremony.

Iyomonte is a ceremony to send back the spirits of bear cubs to the divine world, an intricate ceremony involving many steps and extensive preparations. Iyomante represents the essence of their spiritual life, but its complex nature has also caused outsiders to misunderstand the spiritual traditions of the Ainu.

Picture depicting Ainu and bear cub during iyomante

The Ainu people believed that gods took on the forms of animals and visited the human world. The bear god was highly regarded, since it provided many things to humans, such as fur and meat. During iyomante the soul of bear cubs was sent back with abundant offerings, such as foods, sake, treasures, or ornamental arrows.

But what does it mean by sending a bear cub to the divine world?

Iyomante took place between January and February when the snow was deep on the ground. The bear cub, captured in a hibernation den during winter, had been kept in a cell next to the house. The Ainu people often raised the bear as a part of the family and developed a deep bond.

Inaw, the ritual wood shaving sticks used in prayers.

It took nearly a month to prepare for iyomante. Two weeks prior to the ceremony they began making sake and dango (dumplings). A few days before they started making inaw, important spiritual icons of the Ainu. On the day before the ceremony they offered a prayer to the fire goddess. This was done prior to all ceremonies because communication with other kamuy (deities and spirits) was impossible without her divine intervention.

After the prayer people celebrated with dance, song, and story telling, which sometimes lasted until the midnight. Next day iyomante took place. It began by offering prayers to the god of fire once again, which followed by placing inaw in certain ways to make an altar like structure.

After lunch they took the bear out of the cell and tied him/her to a post with a rope. The bear cub would play while people offered a prayer. Women would line up in front of the house, clapping and dancing “rimuse,” the last dance to show God that this was in the form of animals called “bear” on this earth.

Eventually men would shoot arrows and kill the bear. Then the prayers were offered again to the bear. Some men would place dango (dumplings) and kurumi (walnuts) next to the body while others drop dango from the roof of the house. It was believed that the bear would take those things to the divine world. Once the dango was scattered, a young man would shoot an arrow into the sky toward the East, a sacred direction to the Ainu.

Even though the bear was ceremonially killed, he was not a sacrifice to god. Instead the Ainu believed that a god spirit came to the people, disguised as a bear, and that the death of the bear released the spirit, allowing it to return to god’s land.


For the current situation regarding Ainu, including their position as an official minority and a politician’s assertion that they no longer exist, please see this article.  For a seven-minute documentary, see this youtube video.

Traditional housing in Hokkaido at the Ainu museum


Ainu house interior decoration with inaw, Some were used multiple times, and some disposed of after being used for a single prayer.

Posted in Animism, Folklore, Hokkaido | 2 Comments


A festival tengu, remnant of Japan's early shamans


A news item recently caught my attention relating to the world’s oldest pair of trousers, found on some Chinese skeletons.  The trousers were thought to be those of shamans.

It’s thought shamanism was widespread in early cultures, and Plato wrote in Phaedrus that ‘the first prophecies were the words of an oak’ (interestingly, this was the sacred tree of the Druids).  Ancient people used to listen to an oak, or even a stone, he claimed, ‘as long as it was telling the truth’.  Hah!!  I like that!

Shaman masks now treated as 'treasures' of the Gion Matsuri

In the shamanic world there are ancestral spirits which watch over their descendants, and their are spirits in nature which inhabit animate or inanimate objects.  The shaman is a person with special gifts able to mediate between the material world and the spirit world, typically in the form of trance or possession.

Shamanism developed with hunter-gatherer tribes and herding societies.  With the move to agriculture, different forms of religious expression evolved which were more stratified and codified.  In a paper on the subject, Dean Edwards writes that ‘A society may be said to be Post-Shamanic when there are the presence of shamanic motifs in its traditional folklore or spiritual practices which indicate a clear pattern of traditions of ascent into the heavens, descent into the netherworlds, movement between this world and a parallel Otherworld.  Such a society or tradition may have become very specialized and recombined aspects of mysticism, prophecy and shamanism into more fully developed practices and may have assigned those to highly specialized functionaries.’

As Joseph Campbell has pointed out, with a settled existence shamans lose their power and ritualists take over, more concerned with social order and stability.  These priests become organs of state, with a vested interest in support of the ruling class.  Those with direct access to unruly spirits are demoted and reduced to the role of magicians, or marginalised to the mountains.

Spirit clothes, used in Korean shaman ceremonies

Something of the kind clearly happened in the case of Shinto, where kami are summoned by formal requests by licensed priests rather than induced by trance.  The divine voice expressed once in oracle is now sold through fortune slips.  Female shamans possessed by kami have been transformed into sales girls selling amulets and performing stately dances.  It’s evident too in the animal statuary of Shinto.  Power animals once helped the shaman in the transition between worlds – ‘memories of their animal envoys still must sleep, somehow, within us,’ says Campbell.  Now they stand as immobile guardians at shrines, fossilised in stone.

In the taming of Shinto, I can’t help thinking there’s something of the Japanese penchant for taming (human) nature.  Control, ritual and orderliness is the Japanese way.  As Alex Kerr has pointed out in his book Dogs and Demons, the common boast of having a special connection with nature can mean in practice a cut flower in a tokonoma – contained and framed.  Shamanism by contrast is much too wild!


Shaman dance in Jeju, Korea where shamanism remains a living tradition

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