Tree power

Shinto has long recognised the special qualities of trees


An article in the UK’s Independent highlights the alarming war that has been waged by mankind on trees around the world.  Currently forests covering the size of Greece disappear each year, but now a movement has been initiated by the UN which may bring about reforestation.   Meanwhile, the shrine groves of Japan have shown how reverence for the spiritual quality of trees can act as a powerful impulse towards conservation in a society that values materialism and utilitarianism.


Is this the end of the ‘war on trees’? UN members pledge to restore woodland and safeguard rainforests
IAN JOHNSTON  The Independent Sunday 07 September 2014

At Ise Jingu visitors are often awed by the majesty of the cedars

Since the birth of agriculture thousands of years ago, humans have cut down the world’s forests to grow food and expand their population.  But now experts believe the end of our “war on trees” is in sight amid what some are calling a new “green revolution” – finally breaking the causal link between growing numbers of people and falling numbers of trees.

At a United Nations meeting later this month, countries are expected to pledge to restore between 10 and 15 million hectares of woodland and to safeguard significant areas of the Amazon rainforest.  Several of the world’s biggest food firms have already made “no-deforestation” pledges that could substantially reduce clear felling in South-east Asia for palm-oil plantations, and more could sign up at the summit, which is being held in New York by UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon on 23 September.

While trees are still being felled in alarming numbers, the rate has slowed dramatically. In the 1990s, 16 million hectares were lost every year, but this fell in the 2000s to about 13 million hectares – an area about the size of Greece.

Tim Christophersen, of the UN Environment Programme (Unep), expressed “cautious optimism”.
“I think we are seeing a real sea change in the way deforestation is being addressed and prioritised,” he said. “Looking at the list of possible [summit] announcements … there will be quite a few pledges of new funding and of new areas of forest that countries pledge to restore, turning the tide on deforestation, and some key private-sector commitments.” But he cautioned: “Some commitments are still being tied down… It will be interesting on the day to see how much is actually being pledged.”

In Shinto some trees are singled out as being sanctified by the presence of kami

Mr Christophersen, Unep’s senior programme officer for forests and climate change, said the change in attitudes was partly because of the growing realisation of how valuable forests are. Recent research has added rainfall creation to the list of “eco-system services” provided by trees, such as removing carbon from the air, storing and purifying water, maintaining soil quality and providing a rich habitat. “A lot of these services are outside the market, so they are not priced, but they are priceless in a way,” he said.

In Brazil, deforestation was 70 per cent less in 2013 than average for the decade up to 2005, partly because the soy and beef industries signed up to a moratorium on felling forest for farmland. Brazil has unveiled a plan for an 80 per cent cut by 2020. A report by the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists, called “Deforestation Success Stories”, said in June that Brazil’s actions had “already made a very large contribution to combating climate change – more than that of any other nation on Earth. For this… Brazil can rightfully be very proud”.

In South-east Asia, palm oil has been a main driver of deforestation. About 3.5 million hectares in Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea were felled to make way for the crop from 1990 to 2010, says the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, an umbrella group that includes Oxfam and WWF. The resulting devastation threatens the survival of species such as the orang-utan and Sumatran tiger.

Shinto's sacred trees stand out on account of their age, their size, their peculiarity or through being struck by lightning

But “no-deforestation” pledges by food giants Wilmar, Unilever and most recently Cargill have raised hopes of a paradigm shift.  Glenn Hurowitz, of US consultancy Climate Advisers and its activist group Catapult, which has helped persuade palm-oil companies to act, said: “This is something of a second green revolution – upending the fundamental civilisational assumption that expanding agriculture was necessarily associated with conversion of native ecosystems. I think the fundamental reality that many of the companies have hit is they don’t need to cut down forest in order to grow.” But he did add that this was partly because there is now so much land that has been degraded by human activity and is available relatively cheaply.

“The war on trees is alive and well unfortunately, but in some countries we are winning battles against the war on trees … I think it is the beginning of the end,” Mr Hurowitz said. “There are countries where forests are actually regrowing, including Europe, the US, India, China and Vietnam, and even some in Africa.”

However, the scale of the problem is daunting. Research by Maryland University, Greenpeace and others, published on Thursday, showed that more than 104 million hectares – three times the size of Germany – of our last remaining undisturbed forests was degraded between 2000 and 2013.

Dr Christoph Thies, senior forest campaigner for Greenpeace International, called for governments to take “urgent action” to safeguard forests “for their economic, social and conservation values”.


For more on Shinto’s sacred groves, click here.  For an article on shrines and their trees, see here.  For pagan connections, see here. For Shinto and environmentalism, see this piece by Aike Rots.

Trees covered for protection in the sacred grove of Shimogamo Shrine

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Danjiri festivals

Typical Danjiri floats (this and others courtesy Wikicommons)


The Kansai Scene this month has a special feature on Kansai’s Danjri festivals.  These autumn festivals are a high-speed dangerous version of the more sedate Gion Matsuri, with elaborate carts sponsored by particular areas racing through the streets, resulting sometimes in damaged buildings and occasionally in death.  The most famous of them is the Kishiwada Danjiri Matsuri, which takes place in September.  There’s a well-produced five minute video of it here, which gives a sense of the risks involved.


Dashing Danjiri Draw Kansai Crowds
by Sam Evans • Oct 1, 2014

Danjiri festivals are some of Japan’s most enchanting spectacles, and the most revered of them all is held just a stone’s throw away from us Kansai dwellers in the south Osaka town of Kishiwada.

Much of the excitement comes from the figure stood perilously on top of the float

The famous Kishiwada Danjiri Matsuri dates back to 1703 when the town’s daimyo (feudal lord), Okabe Nagayasu, created a festival to pray to shinto gods for a bountiful harvest. The festival’s popularity grew rapidly as, for this short period, the otherwise strictly-prohibited locals were permitted into the castle’s grounds to drag danjiri (portable shrines) through the area.

The competitive nature that spawned from attempts to outdo each other before the eyes of the daimyo has since evolved into the modern-day festival, in which armies of young men from surrounding neighborhoods heave their danjiri through the town in an exhibition of strength, agility and bravery. But what is it that makes Danjiri Matsuri unique among the thousands of festivals in the Japanese calendar?

Arriving in Kishiwada at the stroke of 10am, the streets are already jam-packed with people, but luckily I manage to squeeze into a prime spot outside the station where the festival is filmed for national TV. Excitement and anticipation fills the air as well as the aroma from the myriad of street vendors selling everything from Indian cuisine to Brazilian barbecue to the staple Kansai treats okonomiyaki and takoyaki. The danjiri have been touring other parts of town since 6am when the hiki-dashi, or “opening pull”, signalled the beginning of the festival. Now, the hayashi (the drum and flute music played on the floats) echoes from out of sight, growing ever louder to signal their imminent arrival to the main street.

The crowd erupts as the first of many danjiri comes into view, lugged by dozens of men dressed immaculately in their troop’s traditional uniform. The floats themselves are four-ton colossal works of art made exclusively of keiyaki (zelkova) wood and interestingly, without the use of a single nail. Each group’s danjiri is adorned with carvings called horimono which depict scenes from historical battles and add further to their majestic beauty. But just as I find myself getting lost in the intricate patterns, I’m snapped out of it by the intensified beating of taiko (drums).

With performers on top of the roof, the floats race at high speed through crowded streets

The action is about the begin. The troop stops and the ropes used to haul the floats become taut and the ubiquitous chanting loudens. Suddenly, in an explosion of flutes and cheers the danjiri is pulled to running speed and made to skid around the corner; the man on the float’s roof jumps and dances athletically while desperately trying not to lose balance and fall to his death like some have in years past.

This exhilarating performance is repeated as different troops parade along the main street, looking increasingly exhausted as the sweltering day draws on. At this point I took the opportunity to talk with Masaharu Ishikawa, a veteran of the Nimura troop in Takaishi City’s festival. He talks about what danjiri events mean to their participants: “I have pride in my danjiri group because we represent my hometown, Higashi Hagoromo. My uncle, cousin and best friends are all in the same group and it’s this sense of camaraderie that makes danjiri very important to us. I’m sure other groups feel the same way, but I think my group is the best and the most fun.”

Masaharu reveals that troops begin training twice a week in the months before the festival, increasing their regime to a gruelling 1-3 hours of running and pulling practice every day in the final few weeks.  “Turning corners is especially exhausting and it takes a lot of practice, but it’s worth it because the festival is so exciting! Afterwards, all the girls want to take pictures with us and at night my group and I barbecue together.”

As day turns to night the festival does indeed grow more benign. The pace slows as the danjiri are embellished with lanterns and coaxed through the streets in a procession resembling a Disneyland parade. The mobile shrines are then parked together for everyone to admire closely, the hiyashi music still whistling tenderly in the background as the stars of the show take a well-deserved rest. The dazzling Kishiwada Danjiri Matsuri is over for another year, though Kansai is awash with danjiri festivals throughout October that, although not quite as famous as this one, make up for in convenience what they lack in size. Forget about arriving early for a spot or having to fight through a sea of people to get to a food stall. These later festivals are ideal for a more laid-back weekend jaunt where one can still experience danjiri at its truest, just in a more intimate atmosphere.

Excitement as a float turns a corner at the Kishiwada Danjiri Matsuri (courtesy Edge Wave Sensor)


Danjiri Festival dates in 2014 were as follows (the 2015 dates may vary somewhat):

Kishiwada City
Oct 11 (6-10pm), Oct 12 (7- 10pm) Kishiwada’s more spiritual danjiri festival.  47 floats as opposed to the September festival’s 34.  Access: Around Kumeda, Shimomatsu and Higashi Kishiwada Stns on the JR Hanwa line

Takaishi City
Oct 11 (2-5pm), Oct 12 (9-11am, 1-5pm)  A more grassroots danjiri festival with less TV cameras and more of a homely vibe.  Access: Nankai Line, Takaishi Stn, East Exit

Sakai City
Oct 3, 5,11 & 12 (afternoon/evening) Similarly underpublicised compared to Kishiwada’s matsuri, experience the pride and passion of the people of Sakai. Access: With so many shrines along these routes, the best bet is to get to JR Sakai Stn and follow the crowds to the nearby viewing spots.

Nada no Kenka “fighting” Danjiri festival, Himeji City
Oct 11 & 12 (all day) If Kishiwada’s festival is dangerous then this is outright carnage. Watch as the different troops ferociously clash their danjiri together. Fight on!   Access: Matsubara Hachiman Shrine; 3-min walk from Shirahamanomiya Stn on the Sanyo Dentetsu honsen line

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Shrine café

Kamigaminomori (courtesy the shrine café)


I once asked a Korean woman about shamanism there.  ‘Oh, you mean fortune-telling,’ she responded.  It sometimes seems that Shinto is viewed in similar fashion by many of the young people who flock to shrines for ‘enmusubi‘ (making good ties) or eagerly wait in queue for their fortune slips.  An article in Japan Today suggests some enterprising Japanese have seen a further business opportunity in the trend.


New ‘Shrine Cafe’ in Tokyo offers fortune-telling and counseling services with your tea
By Krista Rogers  Japan Today OCT. 25, 2014

With only a little over two months left in the year, you might find yourself already looking forward to what the new year has to offer. If you’re especially eager to get a sneak peek of what 2015 has in store for you, then a new Shrine Cafe located in Tokyo’s Takadanobaba neighborhood may just be the perfect place for you. It only opened its doors on Oct 14, but it already promises to fill a niche in Japan’s already abundant and eclectic cafe scene.

But wait – just what the heck is a shrine cafe?  A quintessential aspect of Japan is the omnipresence of Shinto shrines, known as jinja (神社), located throughout the country. Providing a detailed description of jinja is beyond the scope of this article, however, the basic idea is that they serve as dwellings and places of worship for the various kami, or spirits/gods (神), found within the natural world.

Miko at Omiwa Jinja

In the picture, you may recognize the distinctive red and white garb of the “miko,” or Shinto shrine priestess/maiden (巫女), from facets of Japanese popular culture. In particular, Sailor Moon’s Rei Hino and Inuyasha‘s Kikyo come to mind as two examples of anime characters who serve as “miko” at jinja.

But actually, you won’t find the “miko” pictured above at a typical Shinto shrine. Instead, you have to go to a new location in Tokyo called Uranai Hiiringu Kafe x Jinja: Kamigaminomori-jinja (占いヒーリングカフェ×神社 神々の森神社), which translates to something like “Fortune-telling and Healing Cafe x Shrine: Forest of Gods Shrine.”

Kamigaminomori is located an easy three-minute walk from Takadanobaba Station, which can be reached on the Yamanote Line. Upon arriving at its third floor entrance in the Izuei Building, you’ll immediately see that this is no ordinary place by the decorative exterior of the door.

As a unique shrine/fortune-teller/cafe combination, the cafe area boasts an impressive stock of over 20 varieties of high-quality tea from around the world.  You should note that Kamigaminomori is not a half-hearted attempt to incorporate a shrine into a cafe, nor is it a full-fledged cafe designed with elements of a shrine in mind. Rather, you can think of them as two separate and complete entities sharing the same space.

Continuing inside, you’ll enter the actual shrine area, which comes complete with a selection of books and a TV displaying images of scenery found at different shrines. The unique atmosphere causes you to completely forget that you’re inside a building.

Comparing fortune slips at Jisshu Jinja in Kyoto

You’re probably wondering by now the reason for building an indoor shrine in the first place. According to the staff, they wanted to create a calming ambiance that wouldn’t be affected by the weather, as well as a convenient location near the station, particular for women, to come to after a stressful day at work. Furthermore, it’s open till 11 p.m., so you shouldn’t have a problem getting there in time even if you work overtime. Yup, sounds like the perfect healing place to us!

All of the staff members are professional and fully qualified Shinto priests, counselors, or fortune tellers. Below is an example of a “therapy room” where you can have your fortune told or receive counseling. The atmosphere is a bit different from the open shrine area.

In general, you don’t need to reserve a spot for gaining entry to the shrine and cafe area. After all, you don’t make a reservation when you stop by any other jinja, do you? In addition, the 500 yen entrance fee gives you unlimited refills of the previously mentioned 20 varieties of tea. However, you might want to reserve a place if you’re seeking the fortune-telling or counseling services. By the way, have you been feeling a bit “tainted” recently? Apparently, the staff will even perform free Shinto purifications!

Regardless of the intent of your visit, your time at the Kamigaminomori-jinja Cafe is sure to be memorable and relaxing. Why not take this opportunity to visit a unique establishment that’s so intricately tied to traditional Japanese culture


神々の森神社 概要/Kamigaminomori-jinja

Shop name: Uranai Hiiringu Kafe x Jinja: Kamigaminomori-jinja (“Fortune Healing Cafe x Shrine: Kamigaminomori-jinja“)   Hours: Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays 6pm-11pm (reservations are accepted until 10pm)  Location: 3rd floor of the Izuei Building, 4-13-12 Takadanobaba, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo 〒169-0075  Tel: 070-6469-724

Omikuji fortune slips at Suwa Taisha tied up after being read, either to cement the good luck or take away the bad

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Kamigamo group tour

The group pose before the gate into the inner compound of the shrine (courtesy Inui sensei)


Shrine staff filing out for morning prayers

.. and filing back again afterwards


Kamigamo Jinja offers shrine tours by an English-speaking priest, and this week a group of young Germans were able to make a special visit to this World Heritage site. It was a rare chance to hear directly from a Shinto priest familiar with Western thinking. It enabled participants to enter into parts of the shrine normally off-limits, as well as to see firsthand the work involved in the 21-year cycle of rebuilding.  By good fortune, the beginning of the tour coincided with the procession of shrine staff to their morning prayers, and the end of the tour with a purification ceremony prior to a ritual celebrating the empress’s birthday.  It was quite an experience.

Inui Mitsutaka explains about Shinto to the group of Germans. In the background is one of the two conical piles of sand representing the shrine's sacred hill

After an initial introduction to the history of the shrine (‘Kyoto’s oldest’), Inui sensei led the group to the water basin, where they were instructed in the proper etiquette – left hand, right hand, left again and wash out your mouth. One interesting observation was that afterwards the ladle should be held up so that the water runs down the handle in order to clean it for the next person – in this way the Japanese custom of consideration for others is expressed.

As we approached the shrine proper, it was pointed out that there were three bridges in all that worshippers would pass over – a kind of purification in itself.  The streams passing through the shrine grounds are an example of early Shinto’s reverence for nature, and one building set over a stream, considered the most pure in the shrine, is reserved exclusively for the envoy of the emperor.

The shrine is full of symbolic crossings, the passage over water conveying the visitor to a purer world.


The shrine was built by the Kamo clan, who settled the area some 1500 years ago, and dedicated to a thunder deity called Kamo Wake Ikazuchi no mikoto.  In the inner courtyard a room with paintings by a twentieth-century artist tells the story of the his virgin birth.  His mother, a shamanness called Tamayori no hime, was purifying herself in the river one day when a red arrow came floating by.  She took it home and placed it in her room while she slept.  Next day she found herself pregnant.

Inui sensei prepares to perform the purification ritual

When the young boy came of age, he was asked at a ritual of celebration to place a cup of saké in front of his father.  Declaring his father to be up in heaven, he ascended into the skies accompanied by thunder and lightning.  Later he appeared in a dream to his mother and told her that he would revisit if a suitable ritual was put on for him with aoi leaves (thought in the past to be a protection against misfortune).  This was the beginning of the famous Aoi Festival held every May, the oldest of Kyoto’s Big Three Festivals.

Prior to visiting the main sanctuary where the kami resides, Inui sensei conducted a purification ceremony and instructed the Germans in the correct way to pay their respects (2 bows, 2 claps, 1 bow).  The clapping he pointed out was a way of connecting with the kami, with the left hand representing heaven and the right hand earth.  Mindful of the fact that the young Germans were attached to a Christian organisation (the NCC in Kyoto), Inui sensei was careful to stress that activities such as washing hands and paying respect were cultural rather than religious activities.

Our ‘prayers’ took place not in front of the Honden, which was under repair, but the adjacent Gongen – ‘a permanent temporary sanctuary’.  This is unique to Kamigamo Jinja, and indicative of the high status the shrine enjoyed in times past when it was ranked no. 2 after Ise in importance.  Unusually the komainu guardians are not statues, but painted on the wall.  However, at the Shingu Shrine adjacent to the Honden are strikingly colourful statues of komainu, made of wood covered with lacquer and then silver-leaf in one case and gold-leaf in the other.

A silver-leafed komainu...

... facing a gold-leaf covered komainu


Every 21 years the shrine is renewed in a shikinen sengu cycle (only about a dozen shrines still keep this expensive custom, including most famously Ise Jingu). The roof alone involves an extraordinary amount of time and labour.  First strips of cypress are torn from a tree, which must be over 80 years old.  The bark will grow back after ten years, and the reason for the use of cypress is because it is resistant to bugs.  After the renewal, the old bark strips are returned to the soil to be recycled by nature.

The strips are carefully laid one on top of each other, and considerable skill is required in the rounding of the roof shape to ensure rain runs off it.  Progress is slow – less than a meter a day – and bamboo nails are used to fix things in place (only two people are left in the whole of Japan, a father and son, who are able to produce these nails!).  For the roof above the kami, ceramic tiles are never used because they are made from soil on which humans have trodden.  It’s symptomatic of the high esteem in which the kami is held.

Inui sensei explains about the cypress strips that are used in the roofing


Our visit happened to coincide with the empress’s birthday, and Inui sensei explained that the ceremony held to honour this was also for the well-being of the country as a whole since it was written in the constitution that the imperial family was the symbol of the nation. Before dispersing, we were able to watch the priests’ purification prior to the ceremony, at which they pass a small stick over their body to absorb impurities which is then placed into the stream to be washed away.

Priests line up in front of the stream for ritual purification. A small stick is waved over the body to absorb impurities, then thrown into the stream in the background to be washed away eventually to the sea.



For tours of the shrine, notice is required in advance. Tel 075-781-0011  Fax 075-702-6618 (Tour time of 20 to 30 min. Donation 500 yen, per person (Group: 20 and more 450 yen per person)

For a detailed guide to Kamigamo Jinja, see Shinto Shrines by Cali and Dougill, p.115-118

Posted in International, Kyoto shrines, Shrine visits | 4 Comments

Kamigamo neighbourhood

Kamigamo Shrine in Kyoto once used to lie well beyond the city limits.  It’s one reason why it has managed to retain so much greenery (it still owns several small hills and even the neighbouring large golf course).

Next to the shrine there grew up a small village consisting of shrine personnel and members of the Kamo clan, who first settled the area around the fifth or sixth century.  With little streams running through it, the area retains a delightful and distinctive atmosphere even today, though it has been engulfed by Kyoto’s expanding urbanisation. Some of the houses were built specially for Kamigamo priests, and though many have been replaced the article below describes how a foreigner is working to preserve those that are left. (Thanks to Paul de Leeuw for pointing out this article.)

Gert van Tonder bought this 110-year-old house in Kyoto as a wedding gift for his wife.


Living in the Shadow of Shinto Priests
Liza Foreman  Published: May 16, 2013 NYTimes

KYOTO — Centuries ago, it would have been difficult for anyone other than a Shinto priest to enter the sacred district of Kamigamo, let alone live here. But now this quaint neighborhood of narrow streets and old houses, nestled between the river Kamo and Kyoto’s northern mountain range, is home to Gert van Tonder, an educator born in South Africa, and his family.

Mr. van Tonder purchased the 240-square-meter, or 2,600-square-foot, property, which included a house and garden, in 2005. It was a present to his wife, Ai, a local artist, following their wedding at the nearby Kamigamo Shrine.  They spent the equivalent of $1 million buying and renovating the 110-year-old house, which Mr. van Tonder says is one of the best-preserved homes in the neighborhood.

The house was built of cedar and cypress wood, with bamboo and clay walls, a roof of baked-clay tiles and a stone foundation. It was designed in the sukiya style, which emphasizes naturalism and sometimes is called the Japanese teahouse style.

In the prewar period Shinto scholar Richard Ponsonby-Fane was much taken with the area and resided there for many years

The home was in good condition when Mr. van Tonder purchased it. But to make it more comfortable, he added underfloor heating and improved the bathroom. He also turned the attic into an extra room, now stuffed with toys as a playroom for the couple’s daughter.

“I bought my house from an urban developer,” Mr. van Tonder said. “He did a fair amount of restoration, but he never lived here. He wanted to sell it to somebody who would preserve it as it is, and he had tremendous trouble finding someone.

“Many younger Japanese would love it but would not be able to afford it. The older generation, generally, does not want to live in a traditional house,” he continued. “If he were unable to sell the house, the plan was to demolish it and create a parking lot — a very common fate for old houses in Kyoto.”

The house consists of five main rooms in addition to the attic playroom. Just to the left of the main entry door is a large, sparsely decorated tatami room, which is used as a living and sleeping area and for Mrs. van Tonder’s painting. Its floor-to-ceiling windows offer broad views of the garden, which Mr. van Tonder brought back to life and is one of his favorite pastimes. It contains more than 60 varieties of moss and 20 kinds of small wild orchids.

“Nobody thinks that a foreigner can maintain a garden here,” he said, explaining that he became fascinated with moss as a child and developed a desire to move to Kyoto when he realized that he might find lots of it there.

To the right of the tatami room, there is a modern kitchen that overlooks the garden, and beyond a room stuffed with futons. The bathroom has a cedar tub and a small toilet room.  Since completing the renovations a few years ago, Mr. van Tonder, an associate professor in the Department of Architecture and Design at the Kyoto Institute of Technology, has become interested in saving and restoring other neighborhood houses.

The house where Ponsonby Fane lived, now taken over and being done up by a company

In the recent past, Mr. van Tonder said, there were many old homes in the area, including at least 400 sha-ke, or shrine houses, built for the Kamigamo priests and dating to the Edo Period (1603 to 1868). Now only 20 of them remain, he continued, the others torn down in Japan’s drive for modernization or because the country’s steep inheritance taxes made it impossible for the next generation to maintain them.

“One of the distinct features of the sha-ke houses are their white facades with black wooden latticework, like a Tudor house,” Mr. van Tonder said. “The houses are divided along the length into two halves, one with a ground floor and another with a raised tatami floor. Each half has its own front door — the lower door serving for peasants, the upper door for official visitors. The sha-ke houses are surrounded and hidden by high clay walls.”

The professor now is working on plans to ask some of Kyoto’s larger businesses and other companies overseas for donations to buy some of the surviving homes, which he wants to use for a small architectural research center. While the Kyoto city government designated one of the houses he wants to save as a “cultural asset of highest significance,” there has been no additional support, he said.

“These houses are in a neighborhood that existed as a village for the last 1,500 years — that is three centuries before Kyoto was founded as a city and capital of Japan,” Mr. van Tonder said. “The architecture of the old dwellings is a blueprint for much of the quintessential sophisticated Japanese architectural design famous from the 1700s onwards.”

“I personally consider the whole area a zone of very high cultural and architectural significance,” he said. “If preserved properly, by 2050 it will definitely be a Unesco heritage site that will be on the list of everyone visiting Kyoto.”


For a report on Kamigamo Shrine, see here or an account of its horse race see here.
For more about Ponsonby-Fane, click here.

Kamigamo Shrine, a World Heritage site, is the area's biggest landowner and dominates the activities of the neighbourhood to its south, where descendants of the original Kamo clan can still be found.

Posted in Kyoto shrines | 1 Comment

Emoto R.I.P.

Sadly, news has come of the demise of Dr Emoto, whose water crystal photography stunned many and raised awareness of the damage done by pollution and negativity.  Here is a statement from Michiko Hayashi, his Personal Assistant.

“I am sad to let you know that our dear Dr. Emoto passed away at 12:50am on the 17th October, 2014 Japan Time. His very last word was ‘Arigato’ (‘Thank you’ in Japanese). He wanted to say it to every precious friend of his around the world. And as his personal assistant, I would like to say “Thank you very much” from the bottom of my heart to you and to my dearest Dr. Emoto.

“Now he is a light, and I am very sad, but I know he is in a higher dimension now and watching us, helping us to continue to make this place a beautiful and peaceful place. As he asked me to inherit his life work ‘EMOTO PEACE PROJECT’, I am honored to have the responsibility to spread the beautiful and powerful project to bring the true peace on earth.

“I would like to ask you please to take one minute to send love, light, and gratitude to Dr. Emoto who is now a light and is watching us from above. Please also continue to support EMOTO PEACE PROJECT, and please let us all work together to make this planet earth the beautiful and peaceful place to live for all beings in harmony.”


Masaru Emoto’s website (English version) is here.  Click and prepare to be amazed….

Five-minute video of how the crystals are photographed here.

Posted in Animism, General, Green issues | 2 Comments

Yasui Konpira-gu

A happy visitor to the shrine's famous power stone, passing through which helps cut bad relationships and form good new ones


Yasui Konpira-gu is one of Green Shinto’s favourite shrines.

Mochitsuki, or making rice cakes.

It’s in the heart of Kyoto, next to Gion’s traditional geisha era.  It’s small but full of history, and it houses the country’s first ema museum. It is famous for its enkiri enmusubi ‘power rock’.  And it hosts a wonderful Kushi Matsuri (Comb Festival) featuring the gorgeous hairstyles of Japanese women down a millennium of changes.

Squeezed into an L-shaped space, the shrine leads from the geisha houses of Gion towards the streets running up to Kodai-ji and Kyoto’s Kiyomizu tourist area.  The shrine is noticeably sandwiched between love hotels at both its entrances, appropriate for a place which prides itself on promoting happy relationships.

Last weekend was the annual Taisai (main festival) of the shrine, when its mikoshi (portable shrine) is paraded around the parish (there’s a fully illustrated report of last year’s event here).

This year I attended the community event on the day prior to the parade, featuring mochitsuki (making rice cakes).  There was a pleasant relaxed atmosphere, which allowed me to explore some of the shrine’s unusual features while talking to the locals and learning of the folklore.

Below follows a listing of 7 striking features I came across in the charmed small compound of the shrine.

1) The entrance torii, unusually, has square pillars instead of round ones.

View from inside the entrance torii with its square pillars, looking towards the east

The slogan across the torii advertises the shrine as a place to sever bad ties and make good new ones


2) Thanks to the recent boom in ‘power spots’ and ‘enmusubi’ (good ties), the shrine has got popular at weekends.

The queue to crawl through the shrine's 'power rock' can stretch all the way down the approach and past the adjacent love hotel.


3) The power rock has a crack running down from the top through which ‘cosmic energy’ passes down into the circular hole through which crawl those wishing to cut off bad ties and make new happy ties.

There's a special spot to stand respectfully before crawling through the hole

You have to be a certain shape and flexibility to slip through so easily


Being reborn to a better life is cause for celebration


3) The Comb Mound (Kushizuka) is relatively recent.  Contrary to expectations, the burial mound to pacify used and discarded combs is not ancient but was (re-)created by a scholar in the Showa era.  His statue can be seen next to the mound.

The Comb Mound and the scholar whose ideas led to its creation


4) There’s a fantastic dragon carving in the honden (sanctuary).  Most people only get to see the Worship Hall (haiden).  However, if you take the trouble to look behind it and into the honden building, you’ll see a magnificent ranma carving featuring a dragon.

Hiding in the rafters of the Honden (Sanctuary) is this superb dragon


5) There’s a ‘distant prayer’ shrine facing towards the main Konpira shrine in far-off Shikoku.

The shrine faces towards Kotohira-gu, known as Konpira-san, in Shikoku


6) There’s a Buddhist-style subshrine, most unusually.  Inside is a Buddhist bell and incense set before the statues of eight sumo-style figures, representing strength.  They are carved from the base stones (‘strength stones’) which supported the massive pillars of the temple to which Yasui Konpira-gu was attached prior to the enforced separation from Buddhism at the beginning of the Meiji Era in 1868.

The shrine of the 8 strong men is a legacy of the temple-shrine complex to which Yasui Konpira-gu once belonged

inside are eight sumo style strong men, carved out of the pillars of the former Buddhist temple that once stood nearby


7) The shrine claims to have Kyoto’s oldest existing komainu, by its northern entrance.  I would like to get that confirmed because they’re surprisingly not that old, dating back to the middle of the Edo Period.  The faces are worn, but one can make out the closed mouth (yin) and open mouth (yang), and no doubt these fierce creatures are still vigilant enough to see off any evil spirits trying to lurk into the shrine.



For a full page report of the shrine by Hugo Kempeneer as part of his site, please click here. The page also contains a video of the Comb Festival, which takes place in September and features a parade of women’s hairstyles and fashion over the past millennium and a half.


Posted in Festivals, Kyoto shrines, Shrine visits, Syncretism | 1 Comment

Awata Jinja festival

The eye-catching lantern festival of Awata Jinja with Seiryu (blue dragon) at the front


Autumn is a busy time for festivals, and this weekend in Kyoto there were fascinating events at two of Kyoto’s less well-known shrines, Yasui Konpira-gu and Awata Jinja.  Green Shinto has reported on the festivals before (see here and here).  Last year we very much enjoyed the daytime event at Awata Jinja, when mikoshi (portable shrines) are paraded around the parish.  This year, because of a typhoon, it had to be cancelled; however, the lantern parade the evening before was able to take place – and what a fascinating event it was!

Awata san is descended from the original clan that established the shrine

Awata Jinja in the east of Kyoto was once the home shrine of the Awata clan, who lived in the area in the early centuries of the first millennium.  In the seventh century however they left for Nagoya, and amazingly some 1400 years later I met one of their descendants who had come from Nagoya specially for the event.

Amongst the many things I learnt from Awata san was that the festival was closely associated with the famous Gion Matsuri, based on neighbourhoods sponsoring constituent parts of the parade.  In Awata’s case, these take the form of kenboko, long poles or halberds.  There are 18 of them in all, but not all of them are taken around in the parade because there are not enough people with the skills and strength to support them.

According to the shrine literature, the Awata Festival started in 1001.  Now there are two parts, the first of which is the parade of eye-catching lantern floats.  This is a modern revival, based on records that show in Muromachi times there were 20 huge lanterns some 3.6 meters in length.  Later in Edo times parishioners accompanied the mikoshi (portable shrines) with hundreds of lit lanterns.

The top of a kenboko halberd. Each is up to 8m long, weighing around 35kg, and carried by a single bearer.

Five years ago the head priest of the shrine initiated a new style of parade with the cooperation of Kyoto Art University, and the result has been a striking success which draws increasing attention from locals and tourists alike.  The floats are in modern manga style and based on mythological and folklore characters related to Awata Shrine.  Some reflect the local character, and some the Izumo myths about the shrine’s kami, Susanoo no mikoto and Onamuchi no mikoto (another name for Okuninushi).

The floats are not the only remarkable thing about the event.  The opening ritual called Yowatari shinjji (crossing into night rite) is deeply and distinctly syncretic, with the Buddhist priests of Chion-in taking an active part.  A temporary altar is set up in the street facing Chion-in before an iwakura (sacred rock), into which the kami descends.  The altar is Shinto, but the priests of Chion-in take full part in the service.  (Chion-in is the head of the popular Jodo Shu sect, which believes in salvation through the mercy of Amida Buddha.)

Like other shrines, Awata Jinja was part of a Shinto-Buddhist complex until the great separation of the religions at the beginning of the Meiji Era in 1868.  The syncretic instincts it retains are now given public expression in the joint celebration with its Pure Land neighbour, a practice that apparently began some fifteen years ago.  It shows how even today the bonds between the two religions remain strong, and for many they are indeed inseparable.

In looking back to the past, Awata Jinja may well be blazing a trail for the future…

The five Shinto priests of Awata Jinja sit facing the twelve Buddhist priests of Chion-in


A Shinto priest purifying the assembled Buddhist priests


A Shinto priest pays respects at the altar...

... as does the Buddhist head priest of Chion-in

Buddhist priests lined up to recite the Hannya sutra before the Shinto altar


One of the enshrined kami at Awata Jinja is Susanoo no mikoto, who slew an eight-headed Orochi monster (the sacred sword he extracted is represented by the vertical piece)


White fox representing an ancient legend associated with Awata Shrine, which hosts an Inari subshrine


The one-eyed Kozo, sponsored by Fresco, representing the smiths who once lived in the parish area and whose eyes may have been damaged by sparks


Karasu Tengu (Crow Monster) is a reference to folk hero Minamoto Yoshitsune, who grew up at Kurama and was trained by tengu in martial arts. When he escaped from Kyoto, he stopped off to pray at Awata Jinja.


Onamuchi is one of the kami worshipped at Awata Jinja. The kami is considered to be the same as Okuninushi no mikoto, the main deity of Izumo Taisha.

In mythology Onamuch turns into a snake, thought to refer to an ancient snake cult (snakes symbolised regeneration because of being able to slough off their skin)


The blue dragon (seiryu) is a reference to the Chinese feng-shui symbol that lies in the eastern hills where Awata Jinja stands.


Shusse Ebisu is a reference to Awata Jinja's possession of the oldest statue in existence of Ebisu (the fisherman kami)


Akechi Mitsuhide was the traitor who killed Nobunaga, but was subsequently killed himself. His head is buried not far from Awata Jinja, and as a restless spirit (goryo) he is accompanied here by a komainu guardian to pacify his spirit.


Sheep are next year's Chinese zodiac animal, representing group togetherness

A couple of lambs to accompany the sheep


Each area of the parish has a base for meetings and displaying treasures. This is the one for Nakanomachi, reminiscent of the grander bases for the gorgeous floats of the Gion Festival.


The Nakanomachi altar and offerings

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Maiko ‘do’ Inari

A morning programme on  KBS television this morning saw a pair of maiko visit Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto. Maiko are young trainee geisha in Kyoto, aged between 16 and 20. These days many are from distant parts of Japan and are unfamiliar with Kyoto and its tourist sights. I recently saw a film ‘Maiko wa Lady’ which was a musical (done by the director of Shall We Dance?) based on the idea in My Fair Lady of a young woman being trained in how to speak and behave properly. In the Japanese version it involved the maiko learning the Kyoto dialect and geisha manners.

In the tv programme the pair of maiko went up the main ‘sando’ (approach) of Fushimi Inari, passing through the tunnel of torii to the small area where fox faces are filled in on the shrine’s ema, before returning and exiting along the ‘urasando’, or back approach, which is lined with souvenir shops.

Maiko and Inari are a winning formula for a television programme. Maiko tend to be treated like film stars and photographed wherever they go. For its part, Fushimi Inari was recently voted the most popular attraction in Kyoto, outranking even Kiyomizu temple, and it has become a no. 1 destination for foreign visitors too.


For a detailed description of Fushimi Inari, see Cali and Dougill Shinto Shrines, p.101.  For an illustrated visit, click here. For the Fushimi sai festival, see here.  For Fushimi as Kyoto’s no. 1, see here.

The main approach to Inari leads up to the magnificent romon gate

One of the guardian foxes has a ball of wisdom

... the other has the key to the rice granary

After saying their prayers, the maiko headed up the hill behind the shrine...

through the tunnel of torii.....

... to the place where the ema are filled in with do- it-yourself pictures of foxes

There's a rock there (Omokaru ishi) which you have to lift up to see if it feels heavy or light

... if it's heavy it means bad luck, but if it feels light then you're in for good fortune

Afterwards the girls headed back to the exit where they stopped at a traditional rice cracker shop

The shop has been in existence for more than 100 years and specialises in fox-shaped rice crackers

The girls also bought fortune cookies

... and were delighted to find they had 'Daikichi' or Good luck. It brought their visit to a happy end, and next time they declared their intention to climb up to the top of Inari Hill

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Harvest thanksgiving

A miko shakes hot water from bamboo grass (sasa) over the surrounding area (all photos by McCullough)


Spring and autumn are busy times of year for Shinto, as festivals take place based around the rice cycle of ancient times.  One such event took place this weekend in the charming village of Ohara, just north of Kyoto, and thanks go to David McCullough for providing information and photos.  As a resident of the village, David is on the organising committee for religious events in the area.

The Yu no Shiki at his local shrine involves boiling water in the traditional style, as shown in the photo below.  This is accompanied by a miko (shrine maiden) dancing for the pleasure of the kami in front of the hot water.  Salt and saké are added to the boiling water, which is scattered around the shrine, presumably as a form of purification.

This is a wonderful example of localised rites handed down from ancient times, and it reminds me of the way that rice spirit is strewn on the ground in Korean shaman practice. In ancient Japan boiling water was used for divination, and in some cases steam created in front of an altar was used to induce the miko into spirit possession. ‘In later ages,’ says the Kokugakuin encyclopedia, ‘the boiling water was believed to possess the power of purification, and the ritual was combined with dance and transformed into a performing art.’


Adding salt to the water, symbolic of Shinto's stress on purity


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