Taishi Kato, shrine priest

Gon-negi, Taishi Kato

Gon-negi, Taishi Kato

Taishi Kato (加藤大志) is a young Shinto priest, who will be doing a postgraduate course at SOAS in London from September. His father is head priest of the Hattori Tenjingu in Toyonaka City, Osaka, recently featured in Green Shinto. While in the UK, Taishi is keen to give talks and presentations about Shinto.

1) How did you become a Shinto priest?

After graduating from Keio University (business course), I straightly enrolled in Kokugakuin University. I took a one-year course to obtain the license of Shinto priest.

2) What was it like growing up in the house of a priest?

I often ate the food which was offered to the kami, such as sea bream. During New Year’s holiday season, our family members helped to manage the Jinja, such as selling good luck charms.

3) How and when did your family first become associated with Hattori Tenjingu?

My great-grand father served as the chief priest of the Ikuta Shrine in 1945 and he tried to look for a Shinto shrine which the family could hand down to a descendant. He found Hattori Tenjingu which was ruined by the war at that time. He asked the priest who lived nearby whether he could take over the position of chief priest. And so the right of managing Hattori Tenjingu came to belong to my family. As my great grandfather was still chief priest at Sanctuary Ikuta, he let my grandfather become chief priest of Hattori Tenjingu. This is the story of how Hattori Tenjingu became associated with my family.

4) Legally speaking, who does the shrine and its land belong to?  How does the shrine manage to finance itself?

Taisha Kato will be a postgraduate student in the coming year

Taishi Kato will be a postgraduate student from September

My father has the right to manage the shrine, but legally speaking Hattori Tenjingu is registered as a religious corporation which owns the land and buildings.  If we have to rebuild the sanctuary, basically Hattori Tenjingu and the ‘soudaikai’ (see below) are responsible for that. And generally speaking, some of the parishioners and local companies donate money to rebuild the Jinja.

5) Please tell us about the parish association (‘ujiko’).  How is it organised, how many members are there, and what role does it play?

In the case of Hattori Tenjingu, it is complicated. It is true that there is an ujiko area and it consists approximately of 300 people. But, Hattori Tenjingu is not regarded as a parish shrine but ‘Sukeigata Jinja’, which means the area supporting the Jinja is not limited. People throughout Japan can become a member or supporter of the Sukeidantai (support organisation). In the future I would like foreigners to become supporters too and participate in the development of Hattori Tenjingu.

With regard to the Sukeidantai, there are six different groups:
① Representatives of the parish, i.e. members belonging to the ujiko.
➁ Association of Toyonaka Ebisu, people who have made special contributions to Toyonaka City)
➂ Association of Hattori Inari, which consists of people who live in Toyonaka city.
④ Women’s Association of Hattori Tenjingu, i.e. female members of the ujiko (parish)
⑤ Association of Hattori Tenjin, with people from throughout Japan
⑥ Service Association of Hattori Tenjingu.  Members consist of company presidents and celebrities.

All of the groups play an important role in supporting Hattori Tenjingu. Basically, their role is to help prepare for ceremonies and manage the sanctuary.

6) How do you see the future, both in terms of Shinto as a whole and for yourself personally?

Most people assume that it will be hard to manage Jinja in the future. However, from an international perspective, Shinto has infinite possibilities to contribute to Japan as well as the international field. With the advance of global society, all sorts of things will become homogenized. On the other hand, historically speaking, Shinto has been developed by the Japanese aesthetic sense and sensitivity of the general public. In other words, as far as the history of Shinto is concerned, the dependence on Japanese culture is quite high. Therefore, there are some differences from the global context. If Shinto priests can explain the essential aspects of Shinto which have roots deep in Japanese culture, such as Harae (祓え) and Kegare (ケガレ), in a global context, there is a strong possibility that Shinto will develop internationally.


Taishi Kato can be contacted at <k.taishi0926[at mark]gmail.com>

Taishi Kato demonstrates the leg protecting stone chair in his father's shrine of Hattori Tenjingu,

Taishi Kato demonstrates the leg protecting stone chair in his father’s shrine of Hattori Tenjingu,

Meiji Shrine repairs

Meiji Shrine gate

The Meiji Shrine south gate – or is it?

Meiji Shrine gate just an illusion as undercover repairs proceed
By KAZUHIRO NAGASHIMA Asahi, July 22, 2016

At first glance, the south gate of Tokyo’s Meiji Shrine, which is currently undergoing extensive renovation, doesn’t look out of the ordinary.

Although the gate is shrouded to hide the work, a giant mesh screen has been erected in front offering a full-scale color image of the Taisho Era (1912-1926) gate in all its glory.

It took three months to produce the sheet, which measures 14 meters in height and 20 meters in width. “We want to work on the construction without it being noticed by anyone,” said the head of the Shimizu Corp. construction crew that was commissioned to carry out the restoration. “To make it discreet, we chose a cloudy sky for the background instead of blue skies.”

The south gate of the historic Shinto shrine was constructed in 1920. The restoration of its copper-sheet roof and cleaning of the woodwork is expected to continue until the end of August. The restoration of the shrine’s east and west gates will be carried out as well.

The renovation at the Meiji Shrine complex is scheduled to continue through October 2019.


For a short video (less than a minute) showing the compound inside the south gate, see here.

Gion Ato Matsuri 2) Kanko-sai

Turning the mikoshi round and round while shouting ‘mawase’ is a highlight of the event

From last year July 24 has become a busy day for Kyoto.  In the morning 10 mighty floats parade through the city centre.  They are joined by a Hanagasa procession from Yasaka Jinja to make a pleasing spectacle for the enjoyment of the kami – and the thousands of people who come to watch.

In the afternoon and evening of the same day, the three mikoshi (portable shrines) bearing the kami of Yasaka Jinja are borne aloft and carried back to the shrine in an event known as Kanko-sai.  The three mikoshi travel three different routes through the town’s back streets to reach their destination, taking over four hours in all.  There are some 1000 men involved, hoisting the massively heavy mikoshi aloft and jostling them up and down as they shout out ‘hoitto‘ and other ejaculations.  Many of the participants had been drinking beforehand, making it a wild frenzy of an event, capturing something of the primal connections of mankind and the life-force.


For an overview of the Gion festival, click here.  For the main parade, see here, and the evening before here.  For an in-depth 28min NHK programme in English, click here.


Carrying the mikoshi is so heavy people have to take it in turns to bear the weight


The mikoshi even enter the shopping arcade, heading for the covered food market


Learning to be Japanese at a young age


The priest resisted the lure of Liption tea


Some participants dressed the part but had other things on their mind…


… while others just displayed bare-bottomed cheek!


Gion Ato Matsuri 1) Yoiyama

Star of last year’s festival – the Ofune float representing the ship in which legendary Empress Jingu sailed for Korea. Rebuilt after 150 years, following its destruction in the Great Fire of 1864, it is the last in the July 24 parade of floats. On its side it carries sixteenth-century fabrics from Portugal.


The Hachiman float bears a torii, pine tree and shrine dedicated to the kami

It’s been a busy week for Kyoto.

The second parade of the Gion Matsuri, which takes place on July 24, celebrates the return of the Yasaka Shrine kami from their week-long ‘holiday’ in the city centre where they reside in a resting place known as otabisho. The parade of floats takes place in the morning to entertain the kami, who are moved in an afternoon procession of mikoshi known as Kanko-sai.

In the evenings before the parade people are able to walk around the floats and view the treasures on display as well as pray at the shrines.  Religious goods are on sale, and there is a general atmosphere of festivity.  As this is the second time for this to happen within a week, crowds are far fewer than for the Saki Matsuri (Preceding Festival).

The occasion offers the perfect opportunity to view the floats in greater detail and to talk with some of the participants.  It brings one close to the neighbourly nature of the festival.  And according to old-timers, it’s much more like the Gion Festival of old when one could wander around at leisure rather than be crushed by the tourist throngs in the sweltering heat.

The three mikoshi from Yasaka Jinja that stand at the spiritual heart of the Gion Matsuri

The three mikoshi from Yasaka Jinja that stand at the spiritual heart of the Gion Matsuri, resting in the centre of town at the ‘otabisho’ where they are on display


Musicians play at the otabisho of the mikoshi in Shijo Street, downtown Kyoto

Musicians play at the otabisho of the mikoshi in Shijo Street, downtown Kyoto


The quiet conditions of the Ato Matsuri allow leisurely access to the float buildings where the religious purpose of the festival is apparent.


The diversity of float subjects can be seen at the Kurunushi yama, which honours a Heian-era poet, Otomo Kurunushi. One of the Six Saints of Poetry in the Heian Era, he is represented by a sacred figure which dates back to 1789.


The Kurunushi float has cherry blossom, of which the poet was fond. Since Kuronushi means black lacquer, the float is different from others in not being bare wood but black-lacquered.


A political festival fan – and for once it's not nationalist but a message to Protect the peace constitution that Japan has had since WW2

A political festival fan – and for once it’s not nationalist but a message to Protect the Peace Constitution that Japan has had since WW2 (‘Protect Article 9 – Don’t turn Japan into a war-capable nation’)

Self-build Shinto shrine


Self-build Shinto Shrine / Kikuma Watanabe
Photographs Courtesy of Kikuma Watanabe

From the architect:

This is the self-built temporary Shinto shrine in a depopulated village in the mountainous area of Kochi in Japan. For over 200 years the village used to have nine houses making up the Kanamine Shinto community, with a shrine set up in the upper part of the forest. However, the village started to lose its population, resulting in only one house and a neglected shrine that in 2015 was deeply injured by a heavy typhoon. In 2016 the worship structure faced a crisis and collapsed, so the inhabitants, together with the Kochi University of Technology located nearby, decided to construct a temporary shrine in the houses area.

Because the community was only inhabited by one person, the expenses of the construction were extremely limited. Furthermore, the road to the site was really narrow, obliging the team to carry the construction materials for one kilometer. This led the temporary shrine to be self-built, with little money and with limited materials. The team consisted of ten students plus architect and in five days they erected the worship space with steel pipes for the scaffolding, wooden lumbers, and wooden boards.

The triangular shape of the shrine symbolizes not only the sacred mountain but also the tunnel that leads to it. In the fall of 2016 a Shinto festival will be held by the inhabitants and members of Kochi University of Technology. The new construction aims to become the core of the community consist of both inhabitants of the community and members of the university.


Hattori Tenjingu shrine visit


The ‘back entrance’ close to the Hankyu station gives access to a once flourishing and most intriguing shrine

It’s some time since I made an excursion to a new shrine, so I was intrigued to see what Hattori Tenjingu on the edge of Osaka had to offer.  A surprising amount, was the answer.  Packed into the small confines of the once expansive shrine are all manner of unusual features.  And it has an intriguing history too.


Sugawara no Michizane, whose spirit was deified as the kami Tenjin

The shrine owes the first part of its name to the Hata clan, who are closely associated with the introduction of weaving (Hata-ori).  Green Shinto has written a series about their connection with Kyoto, and one presumes this shrine was one of their stopping points in the fifth century on their route inland from the Inland Sea (Osake Jinja on the coast also has strong Hata connections).

The second part of the shrine name, Tenjin, refers to the deified name of statesman, Sugawara no Michizane (845-903).  He was unfairly expelled in 901 from Kyoto to Dazaifu in northern Kyushu, and early in the journey he suffered from a leg ailment and called in at this shrine to pray to the medicine kami, Sukunahikona no mikoto.  Because he was healed, the shrine acquired a reputation for its curative and protective power in terms of legs which it has kept up to the present day.

There are panels at the shrine which show it in the past, and it’s quite plain from the bustling scenes that it once occupied a huge area and that it was a popular place for pilgrimage.  Now the former Sando (approach path) consists of a shopping arcade, and the shrine’s outer reach is indicated by a sacred tree which is encased within the Hattori Tenjingu station on the Hankyu line, rising splendidly skywards from out of its roof.


The first thing you see when arriving at the Hattori Tenjingu station (Hankyu line) is the sacred tree which stands on the Osaka-bound platform. Once it stood on the shrine’s grounds. Harmony of man and nature?


Kato san, head priest of the shrine for the past seventeen years, in front of the resplendent Worship Hall, repainted just three years ago


One unusual feature is a small building housing three gravestones (centre) with a spirit shelf for ancestral spirits (soreisha on the right) and one for the war dead (shoukonsha on the left). The gravestones may have acted as vehicles (yorishiro) into which spirits descended.


These three stone monuments represent notable talents of Sugawara no Michizane, of which he became a guardian deity: from left to right, poetry, painting and calligraphy. As with any Tenjin shrine, Hattori Tenjingu is associated with academic learning and students come here to pray for success in exams.


There’s an Inari subshrine, added by the present priest’s father some forty years ago, with a characteristic vermilion torii tunnel.


Inside the Inari shrine, unusually, are twelve small subshrines for each of the Chinese zodiac animals.

Taishi Kato demonstrates how to sit in the leg purification stone chair and pray for protection

Taishi Kato, son of the head priest and now ‘gon-negi’ of the shrine, demonstrates how to sit in the special ‘leg protecting’ stone seat


There’s a Gamba Osaka banner supporting the local football team, who patronise the shrine in order to protect their legs


A sample of the many shoes left by worshippers in gratitude for the alleviation of leg and foot problems (there is a collection too of straw sandals dating back to Edo times).


The young priest points out the large candle and incense holder in front of the Haiden. Incense holders are typically found at Buddhist temples and a relic from the syncretic practice of former times


Tenjin shrines always feature an ox, the familiar of the kami, though this one unusually has a blackened face from the candles set before it


The present priest’s father, full of divine inspiration, carried out many ‘split spirit’ rites and created the large number of subshrines (known as ‘massha’) in the compound. This Ebisu shrine is a case in point, being a divided spirit from Nishinomiya Shrine. (Ebisu is the only indigenous kami of the Seven Lucky Deities.)



On departure, there’s time before the train comes to make a final prayer at the station’s ‘sacred tree’ (shinboku), saved from destruction through the entreaties of the local population

First Japanese?

An exciting experiment is being carried out in the Okinawan islands which might replicate the first coming of human beings to the Japanese islands 30.000 years ago.  They came from the south, from Taiwan, presumably as part of a northward surge in the great expansion eastwards out of Africa undertaken by early mankind.  What gods they brought with them we may never know, but they sure lived close to the elements and one might presume that awe and gratitude played a large part in their spirituality….


Straw boats set sail to test Taiwan-Japan settler theory
JIJI, KYODO JUL 17, 2016

YONAGUNI, OKINAWA PREF. – Two primitive straw canoes departed from Yonaguni Island on Sunday morning to reproduce a 75-km ocean voyage thought to have brought the first settlers to the Japanese archipelago about 30,000 years ago.

The voyage has “started at last,” said lead researcher Yosuke Kaifu, head of the Division of Human Evolution at the National Museum of Nature and Science. “We want to know what people 30,000 years ago did.”

The project, involving researchers from the National Museum of Nature and Science, the Okinawa Prefectural Museum & Art Museum, Nanzan University and others, is designed to test a theory that the early ancestors of the Japanese came to Okinawa from Taiwan, then part of the Eurasian continent.

The destination for the experiment is Iriomote Island. If all goes smoothly, the canoes, whose crews are navigating by the sun and the stars, are expected to complete the journey Monday afternoon. Both islands are part of Okinawa Prefecture.

Each boat contains a crew of seven, including one woman and a skipper, as part of the project. The group of 14, which includes marine adventurers, plans to row more than 30 hours to get to the remote island. Their average age is 35.

The canoes, about 6.4 meters long and 1.3 meters wide, are made of raupo, a type of bulrush that grows naturally on Yonaguni and is known locally as himegama, which is similar to narrow leaf cattail.

They are modeled after reed boats still in use on Lake Titicaca, on the border of Peru and Bolivia. Their departure was initially scheduled for Tuesday morning but was postponed due to bad weather.

Researchers hypothesize that ancient settlers traveled to Japan from Taiwan through the Nansei Islands, where many relics dating back to more than 30,000 years ago have been discovered. They believe the boats were made of grass as no woodworking tools have been found.

If the voyage to Iriomote succeeds, a similar trip from Taiwan to Yonaguni will be attempted next July. “Through the sea journey, we will be able to visualize our ancestors’ lives, which are hard to imagine merely through relic surveys,” Kaifu said.

Using a crowdfunding campaign, the national museum has raised ¥26 million for the project from about 870 people.

After 28 hours at sea, the boat arrives in Iriomote Island, proving that interisland voyages in such craft were possible

July 18: After 28 hours at sea, the boat arrives in Iriomote Island, proving that interisland voyages in such craft were indeed possible

Gion Festival Parade

The parade begins with the chigo getting into position at the front of the leading Naginata float

Last year was a historic year for the Gion parade, with two processions being held for the first time after 49 years.  This follows the inscription in 2009 of the festival as an ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’ by Unesco.  “The floats come in two varieties,” states the registration, “yama floats with platforms decorated to resemble mountains and hoko floats dominated by tall wooden poles originally intended to summon the Plague God so that he could be transformed into a protective spirit through music, dance and worship.”

Today is the major procession, with 23 floats taking part.  A week later will be the second procession, containing 10 different floats.  There are various preliminary rituals and events, but the grand parade kicks off at 9.00 on July 17th with the tall Naginata float.

Last year there were more foreigners than usual amongst the crowd, according to the tv commentators, leading to greater vocal appreciation of the manoeuvres involved.  On the other hand there were fewer foreign participants (just 9 of them) because of a stipulation by the International Exchange Center that volunteers should take part in both today and next week’s procession.


For a report on Yoiyama (the eve of the parade), see here or here or here.  For the removal of the kami into the mikoshi (portable shrine), see here.  For a talk about the festival by Catherine Pawsarat, click here.  For the Western input, see here, and more about chigo here.  The washing ritual of the mikoshi, here, more about the floats here, and the return of the mikoshi to Yasaka Jinja here.

One of the many pre-parade rituals is the purification of participants, such as these ‘chigo’ from the Ayagasa float


The Naginata float is a teeming mass of humanity reaching up to the skies, with men perched on the roof eight meters off the ground


The order of the procession is different every year, and this year the float with Jingu Kogo was second in the parade. The shamaness holds a fishing-rod with which she caught ‘ayu’ fish, used for divination.


As each float passes the presiding official, a representative has to show the official certificate detailing their position in the parade


During the procession there are dance and musical events for the entertainment of the kami, as here with a demon masked partipant holding a drum for his companion to beat


Each community turns out in its best livery to support their neighbourhood float


Getting the cumbersome wooden floats to turn round corners is quite an operation, since the wheels are fixed and cannot change direction. Turning involves slipping bamboo strips beneath the wheels.


Today’s procession in full flow, with two different types of float evident ‘yama’ and ‘hoko’

Gion Parade (Eve)

Float lanterns light up the Kyoto night in a happy throng, catching the attention of the milling crowds

The month long Gion Festival is reaching a climax tonight and tomorrow morning.  The evening of the 16th is the so-called Yoiyama, the night before the big parade when floats are dressed in all their finery with last minute entertainment as people flock around them to get as close as they can.  For a few blissful hours the roads are closed to traffic and the streets are packed with happy revellers….

Of Kyoto’s Big Three Festivals, Gion is truly the people’s festival!  Aoi Matsuri centres around imperial messengers.  Jidai Matsuri was an ideological construct for the Meiji government.  But once a year over a million people dress up and reclaim the streets of Kyoto in carnival atmosphere.  Sticky, humid and crowded it may be – but in the display of convivial celebration, the city’s residents show how good spirits can overcome the demons that once spread misfortune and the plague.  And tomorrow morning at 9.00 the grand parade kicks off to welcome the mikoshi from Yasaka Jinja.  (For the removal of the spirit-body (goshintai) into the mikoshi, see here. For a report of last year’s event, see here; for the parade itself, see here.)

Musicians high up in the naginata float play for the assembled crowd

As always in Japan, traditional craftsmanship is both awesome and aesthetic (no nails are used at all).


The sales staff at one of the stalls, dressed for the evening’s work


Suzuka Gongen, a syncretic goddess whom legend says expelled a demon on the Tokaido pathway between Kyoto and Edo (now Tokyo). The deity, also known as Seoritsu-him no kami, has her own float and is protectress of the Suzuka checkpoint near Ise.


Each float has treasures and tapestries to display, some with foreign provenance and intriguing histories


Folk heroes Benkei and Yoshitsune are displayed on the Hashi-benkei float


Some of the displays are exquisitie


Some of the displays are startling!


And the great thing about this premier people’s festival is that you can wander around and see all this for free

Zen and Shinto 17: Sun and Moon

Clever lighting effect created this round drum-sun-mirror preceding the production

Sun or full moon, the circle is a powerful symbol

In thinking about the complementary nature of Zen and Shinto, the thought struck me how Shinto is associated with the sun (Amaterasu) and Zen with the moon (enlightenment).  This leads to some interesting comparisons in the way the two religions balance each other, like day and night indeed.

The sun is worshipped in the form of Amaterasu at the nation’s most important shrine, Ise Jingu.  It is at the heart of the national consciousness, emblazoned across the national flag. Nippon is literally ‘the origin of the sun’, and Japan the land of the rising sun.

The moon ‘singularly attracts the Japanese imagination,’ wrote D.T. Suzuki. Certainly it is central to Zen thought. ‘Each language has a word for the moon, but it’s not the real moon. The word is like a finger pointing in the direction of the moon.  Don’t confuse one’s finger with the moon,’ says James Austin in Zen and the Brain.

As the spirit of the sun, Amaterasu signifies the all-encompassing light shed on the nation by the imperial dynasty to which she gave birth.  Such is the thinking at the heart of Shinto mythology.  Historically, it could be said this ‘light’ derives from the late seventh century, when the notion of a solar ancestor for the Yamato dynasty was officially promoted.

One world! The sun rises on all alike...

The sun rising over Japan.

In the 10 Ox-herding Pictures that describe the stages of Zen practice, no. 8 is a full moon, symbol of enlightenment.  Round, empty, shining, the circular shape is a symbol of oneness and the neverending cycle of life.

Both the sun and moon are mesmerising globes, which govern life on earth. Both are much celebrated in verse.  Both are round and bright, like mirrors.  Go to shrines and you’ll often see a mirror on the altar.  In temples too, there may be a mirror on the altar.  In both cases keeping the mirror of the soul clean and free of dust is an essential principle of the religion.

In Shinto the cleanliness of the mirror is tied to the purity of the kami. In Zen the cleanliness of the mirror is tied to one’s Buddha nature.  Sincerity and selflessness are central to both.

The sun is yang and outward in nature.  It’s a symbol behind which to unite in collaborative action. Shinto festivals are noisy affairs with a strong territorial aspect to the parading around of the mikoshi with its spirit-body.

Tonight's blood moon rises behind Kyoto's Eastern Hills

The full moon rising over Kyoto’s Eastern Hills

The moon is yin and inward.  It’s a symbol of introspection and reaction.  Buddha nature lies within, and Zen practitioners sit in silence while following a lifestyle of disciplined self-restraint.

The sun is constant in shape, yet the moon changes on a daily basis.  Shinto tends to celebrate the world as it is; Buddhists strive for self-improvement.  All things revolve around the sun, as the national well-being is thought to centre on the emperor.  Zen sees the monthly cycle in terms of the cycle of existence.

Japanese religion is, and remains, fundamentally syncretic.  In the symbiosis of Shinto and Buddhism, light and dark come together in the harmonious combination of sun and moon.  D.T. Suzuki maintained it was Zen that was at the heart of the culture, yet the moon is but a reflection of sunlight.  After all, the sun shines on everyone; only a few search in the dark for moonbeams.

The real heart of Japanese culture is Shinto.

For further thoughts on the role of circular mirrors in Shinto and Zen, please click here.

Full moon at Shimogamo Jinja

Full moon over Shimogamo Shrine. A Zen symbol in harmony with the Japanese soul.

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