Shinto poems of the Heian era

The following is extracted and adapted from an academic paper brought to our attention by Green Shinto supporter, Paul Carty. The paper is a Masters Thesis from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and is entitled, ‘Poems of the Gods of the Heaven and the Earth’ (2010) by Christina E. Olinyk. All the poems are translated by her too.

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Introduction
Jingika are Japanese poems written on the gods of heaven and earth. They have characteristics in common with Shinto, however, they are more accurately a product of the amalgamation of native kami cults and foreign Buddhist doctrine (shinbutsu shugyo).

Although the first independent Jingika book emerged in the seventh anthology Senzaishū (1187), poems which can be termed predecessors exist as early as the first, Kokinshū (905).

The shrines that are mentioned in the poems correspond to the development of a state religion centered on a small number of shrines, which were designated as protectors of the state. In light of this, the arrangement of the poems in the Jingika book creates a metaphysical pilgrimage to the most important shrines at the dawn of the medieval period, thereby asserting the emperor’s position as cultural center during a time of political turmoil.

Many of the poems were written or collected by a leading poetical figure called Fujiwara Shunzei (1114-1204), who had a deep conviction of the sacred nature of poetry. Of particular interest to the development of his religious poetry are the many competitions that he participated in that took place at temple-shrines. Two of the sequences in the Jingika book (Sumiyoshi and Kamo) came through competitions at which he served as judge.

Shunzei’s religious poetry can be broken down into three types. First are glorification poems, praising shrines or majestic natural phenomena as the abode of kami. He also wrote poem-prayers, which utilise the mythical power of words (kotodana) to address the kami or receive their communication. In addition, he used syncretic ideas to put across esoteric doctrine or explain the implications of honji suijaku (trace and substance, in other words kami were mere localised shadows or avatars of Buddhist deities, which represent ultimate reality).

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Author Unknown

Hoarfrost could rime them
Eight times, yet they would not wither,
The sakaki leaves:
Standing in the prime of life,
See, the priestess of the god!

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Ōtomo no Kuronushi
Mountains of Ōmi—

Ah,
how it rises full upright,
The Mirror Mountain,
Where we see the years foretold:
The thousand years of our lord!

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Fujiwara no Tadafusa (?-928) In the year 920, composed for a twenty-poem sequence on the imperial visit of Retired Emperor Uda to Kasuga Shrine

Even the gods
Cannot conceal their delight
For the eight
Kasuga Maiden dancers
On this joyous occasion

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The Consecrated Princess Senshi
When (Ōnakatomi no Sukechika) went to pay his respects at the Inner Shrine of Ise in 1031, it suddenly began to rain, the wind began to blow. The Consecrated (Princess) summoned Sukechika, the Master of the Rites, and pronounced on matters official. She also ordered several rounds of sacred sake and composed the following as she presented the earthenware cup (to Sukechika)

In the sake cup
Can be seen a light serene,
So have no fear:
I would have you know no dust
Can ever cloud this shining

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Fujiwara no Tokifusa
Written and affixed to the sacred palings on a pilgrimage to Kibune

Wishes are fulfilled
In these rushing waters of the god
Whose divine descent
Provides mankind with a Lordly Boat
To cross to a Further Shore.

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Minamoto no Morotoki73 (1077-1136)
Composed on the topic of kagura

Because the frost has settled
Within the shrine grounds
On Mimuro mountain,
There are no evergreen branches
Unadorned with white festoons

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Fujiwara no Tametada (?-1136)
Composed on the topic of felicitation for a poetry meeting at the home of Fujiwara no Saneyuki

I wonder,

Is the kami
Who illuminates the sky
Aware of my lord’s
Long and prosperous reign?

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Fujiwara no Sanemitsu (1069-1147)
Composed from a conversation about the legend of the Kasuga Shrine deer with a relative who had traveled there

Oh the joy upon hearing
The miraculous deer
Are still there on the mountain,
A clear vestige of
The Mikasa gods

(Kasuga Shrine lies at the foot of Mt. Mikasa in Nara. Legend says that long ago, Takenomikazuchi-no-mikoto appeared on the mountain, riding on the back of a deer. The god then set the animal free which made the mountain its home. Therefore, the deer on Mikasa Mountain, as offspring of that original deer, represent traces of the mythical past left behind as proof of the god’s existence.)

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Priest Nōin (988-?)
Having accompanied Taira no Norikuni to the Iyo Region, Nōin learned that the people there could not plant rice paddies since there had been no substantial rainfall from the New Year to the third or fourth month. Their prayers for rain had not been answered until Nōin appealed to the kami of the leading shrine.

If there is a god
Who waters rice beds
With the Milky Way
Please – stop it up and let it rain
Down upon the earth

This poem is “one of the most frequently cited rainmaking poem-stories in Heian and medieval literature.”

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For other pieces on the origins of Shinto poetry, please see here for an article on Nature poetry and worship, or here for Poetry’s divine origins, or here for Proto-Shinto in Manyoshu poems.

Shugendo (mountain asceticism) opportunity

Mount Haguro’s famous cedar-lined path. | photo by Kathryn Wortley

The following article from the Japan Times is notable for a number of reasons. Above all it shows how Shugendo is opening up to outsiders in dramatic fashion: rental clothing from a tourist office, and advertisements in English would have been unthinkable in times past. It can be seen partly as a response to falling numbers with a diminishing population, and partly as symptomatic of the way increased tourism in Japan, and increased spiritual tourism in particular, are having an impact on the country’s traditional practices.

It’s the feeling of Green Shinto that nature-worshipping Shugendo, despite being relatively little known in the West, provides greater opportunity for spreading internationally than Shrine Shinto, with its ties to physical buildings and the Japanese state. Though Shugendo is often associated with Buddhism, this article makes plain its strong Shinto allegiance too. In addition, the setting of Dewa Sanzan is most attractive and conducive to spiritual refreshment. Anyone looking for an enriching off-the-beaten-track experience while in Japan would be well advised to contact the links at the end of the article. (For previous Green Shinto articles on the subject, and Shugendo’s spread to the West, please see the category for Shugendo in the righthand column.)


Yamabushi: Japan’s ancient tradition of mountain ascetics opens to the public

BY .  SPECIAL TO THE JAPAN TIMES   OCT 13, 2017

A yamabushi in full regalia, blowing the characteristic conch horn

“It suits you,” says another hiker, pointing at my headdress. “You look cute.”
“Um, thanks,” I answer, relieved that I’m not alone in being unaware of the outfit’s significance.

Since being dressed in it, I enthused about its novelty and surprising comfort until I discovered the somber meaning behind it: these clothes are designed to resemble robes worn by the dead.

By donning the garments, my group and I have symbolically given up our worldly impurities and are now to traverse the three holy mountains of Dewa, called Dewa Sanzan, in order to be spiritually reborn. Each mountain symbolizes part of that journey: Mount Haguro, the present; Mount Gassan, the past; and Mount Yudono, the future.

This is the teaching of the yamabushi, the followers of Shugendo, an ancient ascetic religion combining aspects of mountain worship, Buddhism, Shintoism and Taoism. Critical to their beliefs is the pursuit of enlightenment through convening with nature over long periods as well as feats of endurance such as waterfall bathing and walking over fire.

Dewa Sanzan, in Yamagata Prefecture, has been an important center for yamabushi since the beginnings of Shugendo in the eighth or ninth century, although it didn’t grow in popularity as a pilgrimage route for spiritual rebirth until the Edo Period (1603-1868). To this day, each yamabushi in good health is required to make the journey.

As practitioners have begun to open up their once-private world to outsiders, an increasing number of nonbelievers are joining them, from businesspeople seeking respite from the stress of modern living to tourists and expats keen to uncover a lesser-known part of Japanese culture. And some local residents in Yamagata are working to welcome such people to Dewa Sanzan.

We start our journey at the foot of Mount Haguro, the most famous and easily accessible ascent of the three. After passing through Zuishin-mon (the Gate of Dual Deities), which marks the start of our journey to spiritual rebirth, we descend stone steps to enter a thick forest. Given the multitude of small and intricately carved wooden shrines, each home to a huge variety of deities, it’s not long before the group fans out to explore. But our yamabushi master is soon blowing his giant conch, signaling us to gather at a bright-red bridge where we see a waterfall alongside a small shrine expertly blended into the forest.

Soon, we reach the oldest pagoda in Tohoku, which is regarded as one of the most beautiful pagodas in Japan. At 30 meters tall, a single column runs through it, but each of its five individual sections is entirely independent. According to our guide, this is the reason it became the structure on which Tokyo’s famed Skytree is based.

The five-tiered pagoda on Mt Haguro

Invigorated by the sight, we begin to climb, taking the first section of the 2,446-step stone stairway to the summit in our stride. With few other hikers to disrupt the sound of bird song and the breeze rustling through the 580 cedar trees that line the path, it’s a serene experience.

Passing under the trees gives a sense of the history of this journey. Most of the cedars are between 300 and 500 years old and, for ultra-perceptive visitors, 33 hand-done engravings can be found in the steps, which are believed to have taken 13 years to build. We find one that looks like a sake cup.

Such is the beauty of the cedar-lined path that it has been dedicated a significant natural monument and awarded three stars in the Michelin Green Guide Japan.

Halfway up, we stop at a rest station that has been run by the same family for three generations. Undeterred by the challenging location, they all pitch in to carry supplies up the mountain each day. They offer green tea, sweets and a sweeping view, and their cafe is only closed in winter when snow prevents access.

At the top, we receive our Shinto yamabushi blessing, comprising chanting, bell ringing and paper swaying, at the main shrine building of Sanjin Gosaiden before descending to our lodging in Toge, the town at the foot of the mountain. For centuries, homes draped with shrine ropes have welcomed pilgrims to the region with accommodation, shōjin-ryōri(vegetarian Buddhist cuisine) and even mountain guides.

The second peak of our journey, Mount Gassen, could not be more different than the first. Though known as “the mountain on which ancestors rest,” it’s noticeably devoid of religious artifacts apart from one shrine at its midpoint and another at its summit. Passing wetlands brimming with insects and alpine plants as we snake slowly up the mountainside, it is clear that nature gets priority here.

Our path consists of two parallel wooden beams that are raised off the ground to protect the delicate ecosystem and encourage the single-file movement of hikers. As the grasses encroach on the sides, it also proves a great way to camouflage the human impact on this almost 2,000-meter peak.

A Shugendo ritual fire ceremony in which prayers are sent up in the smoke to heaven. Shugendo was banned by the Meiji Reformists in 1872 and adherents forced to choose between Shinto and Buddhism. The ban was only lifted in 1947.

That feeling of being at one with nature appeals to our yamabushi guides. Their reason for spending so much time on mountains such as this one is to let the force of nature and the natural life force in their bodies drive them forward when they encounter problems in their lives.

“We leave ourselves in nature and make peace in our minds, feeling with our body to realize our senses,” explains Fumihiro Hoshino, a 13th-generation yamabushi master at whose lodging we stayed. “With a yamabushi mindset, we can restore ourselves and rejuvenate our lives.”

Women, he says, are more gifted at prioritizing feeling over thinking than men, who tend to focus on what they can see. This, along with the general decline in yamabushi across Japan, prompted Hoshino to welcome women to learn under him. Of the fresh faces at the outings, more than half are now women, he says. Another trend is the rise in participants from Japan’s biggest cities. This comes as no surprise to Takeharu Kato, a yamabushi who left his job at marketing giant Hakuhodo to found Megurun Inc., which offers yamabushi experience programs.

Jizo in his guise as a monk at Dewa Sanzan. Deeply syncretic, yamabushi offer prayers to Buddhist and Shinto deities alike.

“Yamabushi has been used for centuries to provide space for consideration of the challenges of life, an important role in the current age where people are becoming busier and busier and are looking for the chance to revitalize,” he said. “When we train, we are no longer restricted or distracted — even our watches are removed — and we don’t speak at all. We allow ourselves to be totally open to what the master is trying to show us through the natural world.”

Kato’s assertion that Shugendo has never been so relevant is food for thought as we set off to the last leg of our journey, Mount Yudono, which is so sacred that photography is not permitted past its giant torii.

About 10 minutes’ walk up the path, we reach a small booth where the priest instructs each of us to go barefoot bearing one human-shaped fine paper cutout. Only after rubbing it over our bodies and casting it into a small stream to rid ourselves of impurities are we allowed to enter a special secluded area. In its center is a giant reddish-brown rock, which is believed to contain a deity. Hot spring water spurts out and flows down its side, into which steps have been carved. Gingerly, we climb up the soaking rock to reach a small shrine overlooking the valley, where our journey of spiritual rebirth becomes complete.

Reflecting afterward in the nearby sacred foot bath, we agree that at the very least we will leave this place feeling energized. Our journey through Dewa Sanzan, experiencing the tranquility and beauty of the three diverse mountains, and having the privilege of a glimpse at this rare part of Japanese spirituality, has left more of an impression than any of us had expected.


Fly from Haneda Airport in Tokyo to Shonai Airport, or take a shinkansen to Niigata Station before changing onto a Limited Express Inaho train to Tsuruoka Station. Three- or five-day yamabushi training experiences are available at www.yamabushi.jp. Yamabushi clothes and guides can be rented for a day from Haguro Tourist Association on Saturdays from April to October: www.hagurokanko.jp/en.

Foreign practitioner, Christian Grubl, performs a misogi rite with a shugendo group

Taishi Kato Interview 2

Taishi Kato is a young Shinto priest with an interest in spreading knowledge of the religion to overseas people, and Green Shinto carried an interview with him last year before he went to study for an MA at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London (see here).

He has recently returned to Japan, so we were naturally curious to find out about his experiences during his time abroad, and how was the response to his role as a Shinto priest (he is the son of the Guji (head priest) of Hattori Tenjingu in Osaka).

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Taishi in student mode, prior to leaving for England

Did you find much interest in Shinto? If so, from what kind of people?

Yes. I made a lot of friends who are interested in Shinto. To be honest, I did not even expect that so many foreign people have a profound knowledge of Shinto. I could learn different perspectives of Shinto from them. For instance, those who do Martial Arts. Their understanding is based on their sensitivities so that I could share the view of Shinto not based on rational thought but intuitive perception. I would like to learn more about the view of Shinto from those who are living outside Japan.

What did you find was the most difficult part in explaining Shinto to people in Britain?

I felt the difficulty for explaining about the essence of Shinto in Europe in the framework “religion”. For example, I think that Japanese are confused about answers when asked “What is your religion?” There is a prerequisite in this question that a person “belongs to one religion as a believer”. However, in Shinto human beings cannot decide who is a Shinto believer or not. Shinto has no absolute doctrine and sacred scriptures, while Shinto has evolved through the centuries by incorporating a great number of concepts and ideas from Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism.Instead of drawing boundaries, Shinto has coexisted with other religions. Given this characteristic of Shinto, it is very different from the concept of religion in the West. Therefore, I struggled to explain about the concepts of Shinto within the framework of “religion”. However, even if one’s religion or nationality is different, by sharing “thankfulness for being alive now”, I believe that people will change to the feeling that we are alive thanks to everything around us rather than the feeling that emphasizes the difference between “us and others”.

 How about your experiences in the rest of Europe, outside Britain?

I was invited to a Japanese cultural event at the Davos Congress Center in Switzerland. I gave a talk on Shinto in English. After that, I also offered a prayer for the success of the event. Swiss people attended the ceremony with deep respect for Japanese traditional culture,

I had a sense that I could become one with attendants spiritually through the ceremony. If given an opportunity, I would like to perform the ceremony again.

Taishi in his priestly garb, with a flag supporting the local Osaka football team

 What was the best experience (or biggest challenge) you had in your time in Britain? 

One of my best experiences was to share Japanese traditional culture with foreigners. Japanese people have potentially shared the traditional sensitivity of being alive thanks to everything around us. For instance, in Japan, there is a custom of joining one’s hands together before eating in order to express one’s gratitude. It is easy to take food and the process of eating for granted. However, Japanese appreciate the effort of the many people who harvested, transported, stored and sold the food. Moreover, natural energy, such as sun, rain, soil and microorganisms have been regarded as core elements for our eating. I was so delighted to share the idea of “being alive thanks to everything around us” by joining our hands together before eating a meal with foreigners.

 What are your plans for the future, now that you are back in Japan?

I would like to provide an opportunity for visitors of my Shinto shrine to hear about Shinto. There are few opportunities for foreigners to know what Shinto is within a shrine. When I was in Britain, I realised that I could broaden my view of Shinto through conversation with foreigners. Therefore, our Shinto shrine will start giving an opportunity for visitors to discuss about Shinto. I believe that it will be helpful to make our connection stronger through Shinto. And also if possible, I would like to perform ceremonies outside Japan.

Florida talk, Dec 9

What is Shinto?

Sponsored by the Florida Kyudo Kai | Talk by Taishi Kato

Taishi Kato (加藤大志)

DATE  Saturday, December 9, 2017
TIME   1:30pm
LOCATION   Morikami Theater
PRICE   FREE with paid museum admission

No reservations. Tickets will be given out the day of the event, at a first come, first served basis.
ABOUT THE PRESENTATION

Taishi Kato (加藤大志

Shinto is said to be the source of Japanese culture — But, why is it a mystery? Taishi Kato, known under his priest title Taishi Gon-Negi, shares his view of Shinto by shedding light on how the characteristics of Japanese culture such as “cleaning”, “harmony” and “perspectives on nature” are rooted in Shinto. Taishi Gon-Negi will perform a Shinto blessing after the lecture, followed by the Florida Kyudo Kai, a Japanese archery group, demonstrating an archery ceremony called taihai.

Taishi Kato is a licensed Shinto priest from Hattori Tenjingu in Osaka Japan. He was born as the eldest son of a multi-generational family serving their 1000-year-old Shinto shrine. He graduated with a Masters of Arts in Religions of Asia and Africa at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) from the University of London. He is committed to introducing his native Japanese religion of Shinto to people all around the world.

Florida Kyudo Kai

The Florida Kyudo Kai was established in 1998 to facilitate the practice of the Japanese martial art of archery in Florida. The Florida Kyudo Kai operates under the auspices of the South Carolina Kyudo Renmei as their main root of instruction and are members of the International Kyudo Federation (IKYF) of Japan.

 

London’s Japan Matsuri

Sunday, 24th September 2017, 10am – 8pm 

Trafalgar Square, London

JAPAN MATSURI 2016

Japan Matsuri 2017

Features
Daikagura Performers: Mimasu Monnosuke, Okinaya Wasuke
Japanese Samurai Selection
Tsumura Reijiro, Suzuki Yoshitaka and Ichikawa Hibiki with DJ TAKAKI

daikaguraweb

London’s very own and much loved festival of Japanese culture – Japan Matsuri – takes places in 2017 on Sunday 24th September. In its 9th year and a regular fixture in the London calendar, this energetic annual event brings people together to enjoy an amazing day of Japanese food, music, dance and so much more. Please bring family and friends, old and young to join us for another special event. All absolutely free!

As in previous years, everything will kick off bright and early at 10am and the action will run non-stop all the way through until 8pm in the evening. With two stages, there is plenty to see all day with an exciting main stage programme and amazing displays of martial arts on the second stage. Swing to the beat of taiko drumming or sing along to catchy songs from popular artists like Naomi Suzuki on the main stage. We even offer you the public a chance to sing to the crowds if you fancy joining in our ever popular Nodojiman karaoke singing contest! In 2017 we will be celebrating Japan in the UK and showcasing some of the best and brightest talent in this country.

Enjoy the atmosphere with delicious Japanese festival food from a host of brightly coloured stalls. Join in the fun in the family activities area with traditional Japanese games and opportunities to learn origami and Japanese calligraphy or dress up in traditional Japanese costumes. There will also be a massive nine metre long canvas upon which you can draw your own creations right in front of the National Gallery!

 

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Hawaii peace bell ceremony

Izumo Taisha in Hawaii was founded in 1906 and for the past 27 years has hosted a Hiroshima bell ringing ceremony. The bell was donated by the city of Hiroshima, which is twinned with Honolulu. Though it is a Buddhist-style bell, it’s housed in front of the splendid Izumo Taisha in Honolulu.

In the Youtube video of the ceremony, Ray Tsuchiyama introduces the shrine and Shinto in general. We learn that the shrine was shut down in WW2, returned to the Japanese-American community in 1961, and that it is now thriving. However, it’s worth noting that before WW2 there were ten other Izumo Taisha shrines dotted around Hawaii, and the video features the only one to have survived.

The first nine minutes consist of Shinto-related matters, then the video turns for the second part to the interfaith ceremony. Representatives of Shinto, Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism and the native Hawaiian religion are all included in the ecumenical event. (Our thanks to Ray Tsuchiyama for providing the link to this important and inclusive example of overseas Shinto.)

Death rites

Following the positive feedback to the posting about Hearn and the living dead, one or two readers have asked about funerals in Japan. One of the simplest overviews is given in William Penn’s The Expat’s Guide to Growing Old in Japan: What You Need to Know, from which the following extract is taken. It’s said that 90% of the population follow this kind of procedure, with exceptions being Christians, atheists and Shinto burials (see the series of postings on Shinto Way of Death). In recent years alternative forms, such as natural funerals, are on the increase, though still relatively rare.

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The basic traditional funeral
“While the somber and rigid customs of the traditional funeral are quickly being redefined by the changing times, there is still a prevailing, basic funeral format in Japan that one should be familiar with. When someone dies, there is an o-tsuya (wake), followed by a kokubetsu-shiki (funeral). It is acceptable to attend either the wake or funeral or both.

Books and magazines on funeral etiquette suggest suitable hair styles, makeup, attire, and behavior for the kokubetsu-shiki, which is considered the formal funeral service. Subdued is the operational word. Black clothes and stockings, toned-down makeup and hairstyle are recommended. Pearls are the only really acceptable jewelry. For men, etiquette dictates a dark suit, tie, socks and shoes or a black armband if a suit is not available.

A tomb in Okinawa with offerings scattered in front

A picture of the deceased is placed at the center of the Buddhist altar. (If one is something of a control freak, they might want to select and prepare their own photo ahead of time just for this occasion.) A tablet with the person’s new kaimyo Buddhist name written on it also will be displayed. In front of the altar, a table to offer incense is provided. As mourners pass by, they bow to those present before offering incense with their fingers. The number of times this is done is determined by what sect of Buddhism one belongs to, but it is likely that many attendees probably don’t know for sure themselves and just follow the lead of the person in front.

The body is displayed in a wooden casket (hitsugi). As the visitation comes to an end, funeral attendees may gaze at the deceased and place flowers or mementos into the coffin before it is ceremonially nailed shut. This is perhaps the most powerful and emotional moment of the kokubetsu-shiki.

Next, the body is taken to the crematorium. This is the part of the funeral that is usually attended by only family and close friends who are transported by rented bus or car to the crematorium. Those who are not going to the crematorium stand and bow until the hearse has pulled away. At the crematorium, the family witnesses the placement of the casket into the crematory.

Shinto burials are relatively rare

After this, they are guided to a private room where they are served tea and snacks of cookies and rice crackers. They sit and chat as they wait for the body to be cremated. This interval serves to give the family a few minutes of respite from the somber proceedings. Then, they are led to the door where the remains will be brought out and attendees use chopsticks to pick up the bones. This will be overseen by a funeral attendant who makes sure the bones are placed into the urn in the proper order.

The bones are not pulverized to ashes as they often are overseas. The ashes are taken home by the chief mourner and placed on the family’s Buddhist altar for 49 days until they are interred at a temple or other location.

The crematorium ceremony, a combination of utter realism and the bizarrely surreal, is often portrayed as almost ghoulish. On the contrary, at many of the funerals I have attended, there was a somber beauty in the fact that the loved one is not left behind but brought home to be with the family so they have a little longer to allow the gradual shock of separation to fade. Perhaps, one day even this moment of somber beauty may be seen as a fleeting tradition of the past. As society continues to alter the way it deals with death, even the concept of a funeral and ashes is changing.”

Ponsonby-Fane exhibition 2

In the prewar years Shinto scholar Richard Ponsonby-Fane was much taken with the area and lived in an old Japanese house

The great scholar and eccentric, Richard Ponsonby Fane, was an interwar resident of Kyoto who turned himself into the foremost Shinto expert of his day – and that includes Japanese! It’s a remarkable achievement, all the more so when you consider he was an aristocrat who had forsaken a stately pile to come and live in Japan. He must have devoted all his leisure time to the mastery of contemporary and ancient Japanese while pursuing local and shrine history. (He had no need to work for a living.) He died shortly before WW2, though his private secretary Sato Yoshijiro continued to live in the city for long afterwards and to cherish his legacy.  One person who knew Sato-san is woodblock artist Richard Steiner, and he has kindly written a report below for Green Shinto of the Ponsonby-Fane exhibition now showing at Shimogamo Shrine.  (Part One of this two-part series featured family reminiscences of Ponsonby Fane by a descendant of Sato Yoshijiro’s brother.)

Ponsonby-Fane’s country seat in Somerset, England

Richard Steiner writes…

The exhibition house, a large, wooden, very well made, two-story traditional home originally belonged to one of the shrine families, the Itcho clan. It then became the home of one of Kyoto’s mayors, and lastly the home/studio of a well-known Nihonga painter. The shrine got the property, had it preserved and modernized inside while keeping the wood and doors and windows and garden all in working condition. The building is located on the south bank of the Izumi-gawa river (where river means trickle). A magnificent job.
The house has many small rooms; Ponsonby’s exhibition occupies two and a half of them, in different parts of the first floor (second floor is closed). On display are lots of documents in English and Japanese, letters, books in Western and Japanese bindings, personal items of Ponsonby’s, one great photograph of him surrounded by the Sato-clan, a stone rubbing and a color photograph of his memorial stone at Kamigamo Shrine, and more. There are also the six published books of Ponsonby’s, the second, red binding edition, sitting on a window sill: (I have the first edition, a blue bound set, which I bought directly from Sato Yoshijiro).
All of this life-work is really smartly displayed, thanks to exhibition organiser, Araki san (the young son of Shimogamo Shrine’s present chief priest). We also met Mr Hiyama, a cousin of the Sato’s, who lived in the Sato house until they all passed away, and, ergo, became the keeper of Everything Ponsonby. .He understands this position and honors it completely.
This exhibition is the first instalment, with plans for another to be set up after September with interesting material, which is being attended to at present.

The house near Kamigamo Shrine where Ponsonby Fane lived, now taken over by a company

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For more about Ponsonby-Fane, see here.
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Hearn 21): The living dead

At Obon people burn bunches of incense to call back the dead

Today is Obon, ‘the Japanese day of the dead’, and an occasion about which Green Shinto has posted in several previous years. (Click here for reflections on Japanese and the dead, here for Kyoto’s Daimonji festival, and here for a comparison with Halloween.)

Obon is of course the supreme example of Japan’s cult of the dead, commonly referred to as ‘ancestor worship’, though ‘ancestor reverence’ would be nearer the mark. No one has written better on the subject than Lafcadio Hearn, whose Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation (1904) was devoted to the practice. Ironically, it was the last book he wrote before dying, and the book was published shortly after his death. (Click here to learn more about Hearn and ancestor worship).

Kyoto’s Daimonji festival on Aug 16 to send back the spirits of the dead after their visit back to their family homes (courtesy of Aaron Williamson)

In his book Hearn shows how the dead continue to live on in Japan, and how indeed they control the present. Time and again in his writing Hearn asserts that the living are ruled by the dead. Humans are not autonomous individuals able to think and act for themselves, but are guided by everyone who came before. ‘We are, each and all, infinite compounds of fragments or anterior lives,’ Hearn wrote in Gleanings in Buddha-Fields (1897), p.92.

It is a recurring theme in Hearn’s writings, and one that proved a rich vein, for it infuses his view of life with the power of the unseen past. The poet Edward Thomas, who surprisingly wrote a book about him, noted that he was ‘most individual when he submits to his favourite obsession, that of the infinite ancestry of every soul and every act.’ (Lafcadio Hearn, p.70)

The scale on which Hearn conceives things is vast. He writes of ‘unimaginably countless experiences in an immeasurable past’, of ‘trillions of trillions of ghostly memories’, of the ‘myriad million voices of all humanity’, of the ‘dim loving impulses of generations unremembered’, of ‘countless anterior existences’. ‘The mind is as much a composite of souls as the body is of cells,’ he writes in Chapter IV of Kokoro (1896).

IN Hearn’s view, then, every human is prone to the numberless experiences of an immeasurable past. A child’s natural love for its mother for example is born of ‘a million caresses in countless previous existences.’ It explains for him many of the mysteries of life, such as deja vu, why we thrill to certain kinds of music or to certain sights such as sunset. Although we like to think of ourselves as autonomous individuals, he notes in an inspired deconstruction of the self in an essay on ‘Dust’ that humans are so much more than that. On this day of all days, it’s a curiously comforting thought for those concerned about the prospect of death.

I, am individual; an individual soul! Nay, I am a population – a population unthinkable for multitude, even by groups of a thousand millions! Generations of generations I am, aeons of aeons! Countless times the concourse now making me has scattered, and mixed with other scatterings. Of what concern, then, the next disintegration?

Cemeteries at Obon time are full of lanterns to welcome back the spirits of the dead. For Lafcadio Hearn nothing was more central to Japanese culture than belief in the living dead.

******************

In the Shinto-Buddhist framework, death is usually given over to Buddhist priests to take care of, for they have a greater concern with the afterlife and reincarnation. For Westerners used to a single funeral ceremony, the number of events held by Japanese families can be startiing. Depending on the sect the times of commemoration ceremonies vary, but in general they take place after 7 days, 14 days, 21 days, 28 days, 35 days, 42 days, and 49 days. These are considered the first 7 steps to a deceased person becoming a “hotoke-sama” (buddha). Seven being a magic number, you could say that the deceased are helped thereby to enter ‘seventh heaven’!

Yet the process does not stop after 49 days, for there are the 1 year, 3 year, 7 year, 13 year, 21 year and 33 year memorial ceremonies as well. Some sects have a 49 year ceremony too if relatives still survive. In addition, there is the annual Obon remembrance in mid-August, as well as grave-cleaning visits at equinox (Shubun and Shunbun) or year-end.  One can understand why Hearn saw the dead as occupying such an important place in Japanese culture!

The ceremonies are not only an important part of the mourning process, but serve to keep the deceased “alive” in the hearts of those left behind. The prayers are said to guide the dead in the afterworld, in that the chanting encourages them on their way. Similarly the constant incense burning for the first 49 days lights their path for them. There is a ghostly and poetic touch to some of the prayers, as illustrated below:

Fudaraku ya / Kishi utsu nami wa / Mikumano no / Nachi no oyama ni/ Hibiku taki tsuse

On Kannon’s island paradise, / Waves crash upon the shores; / In the sacred land of Kumano, /
Down Nachi Mountain, / The thundering waterfall cascades.

Commenting on the whole process, one Japanese remarks, ‘It’s a lot of work at times, but in the beginning it keeps you focused on the ceremonies and gets you through the first few weeks, and after that, the houji [memorial ceremonies] are a time for getting together and remembering people.’

RIP

 

Tohoku sacred mountain-island

Climbers ascend a rock wall on Kinkasan island mountain in 2016. (Photo by First Ascent Japan)

Sacred island in disaster-hit Miyagi becomes idyllic climb spot
By Maaahiko Ishikawa, Asahi Staff Writer, August 14, 2017

ISHINOMAKI, Miyagi Prefecture–A mountain hit by landslides due to 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster is fast becoming a “holy place” for climbers worldwide.

Kinkasan, a rocky, remote island that looks like a single mountain, is drawing increasing attention, especially outside Japan, as sport climbing has been given the nod as an event in the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics.

The mainly state-owned island, which reaches up 445 meters, is within the precincts of Koganeyama Shrine.

Legend says a Shinto shrine was allowed to be built there after gold mined from Kinkasan was used for the national project to construct the Great Buddha in what is today’s Nara in 749 during the Nara Period (710-784).

Tohoku three sacred mountains
Kinkasan is so famous as a place of worship that it is deemed as one of the three prominent sacred sites in the Oshu region in northern Japan, along with Mount Osorezan in Aomori Prefecture and the Three Mountains of Dewa in Yamagata Prefecture.

“Not only the beautiful scenery and the difficult-to-climb rocks but also the venerable shrine and wandering deer apparently seem appealing to foreign people,” said Michiko Murakami, chief director of First Ascent Japan, a nonprofit group based in Sendai that comprises climbing lovers.

Konageyama Shrine entrance (Wikicommons)

The FAJ hit upon the idea of using the granite rock walls on the island for climbing. It started the Treasure Island Project in 2013 to revitalize damaged Kinkasan as a climbing spot.

First debris was removed and hiking trails reopened. The group also developed eight climbing courses and a map presenting the routes.

Those efforts attracted the attention of climbers overseas. The North Face climbing goods brand and other parties created a movie of climbers ascending Kinkasan. The footage was uploaded on YouTube as well.

In early May this year, a climbing event attracting more than 50 people from both Japan and abroad was held there. One-third of the participants came from outside Japan.

The history of climbing started mainly in Europe and an estimated 35 million people currently enjoy the activity. The pastime has also grown in popularity in Asia while the number of climbing lovers in Japan is on the rise especially as it was added to the Olympics.

James Pearson, 29, a climber representing Britain in the sport, said he became enchanted by Kinkasan and that the mountain would be over-subscribed and in danger if it was in Britain.

What is important is how to preserve the mountain while allowing people to enjoy climbing there, according to Pearson. He also said the rocky island could become a perfect climbing spot for Japan.

Konageyama Shrine Worship Hall (Wikicommons)

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