Spiritual tours (Akiko Murakami)

Oomiwa Shrine, said to be the oldest site of worship for the Yamato clan

Interview with Akiko Murakami of Nara YAMATO Spiritual Tours

  • How and when did you get the idea for your Spirit Tours?

It is a good question, simple question, but very difficult to answer simply. It is almost like my entire life has lead me, prepared me to start this Spirit tour in Yamato region in Nara prefecture, at this very time.

I grew up and have spent most of my life in Nara, the ancient capital city. Japanese history, culture, old Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples were always close to me and very alive matters.   As a student, I enjoyed many cross-cultural communications, and learned to respect others with their differences. This background lead me to have an identity as a Japanese.

[For more details, see here.]

  • What kind of places do you cover?

I cover many of my favorite shrines and temples in Nara and Kyoto that have historical, physical and spiritual significances. I chose less touristy places closer to nature, but still accessible by public transportation for a day trip.

For example, Oomiwa shrine in Sakurai is top ranking among all the shrines in the Yamato region and said to be the oldest shrine. This Shinto shrine and kami was worshiped before Japan was united as one nation, and it has clear signs of nature worship since ancient time. It is my tutelary god, or local “kami”, under which I was born and where I paid my first shrine visit taken by my parents.

Murouji Temple, also called “Nyonin-Koya”(Mt Koya for women)

  • Do you see any difference between Shinto and Buddhism as far as pilgrimage and your tours are concerned?

Yes and no. Basically, I do not really separate Shinto and Buddhism, since they were almost equally worshiped before Meiji, when they were separated for political reasons.

However, in general, Shintoism is still regarded as uniquely Japanese, on the other hand, Buddhism is commonly accepted as one of the three widely believed universal religions. Therefore, on my tours I will explain the history and reason why the co-existed in “和”, or harmony, for many centuries.

Strictly speaking, Shinto and Buddhism have a fundamental difference in the object of worship, namely Kami, or Shinto deities, and Buddhist deities. Usually, Kami don’t have material form to pray to, and in many cases you just pray in front of a Worship Hall. In Shinto, nature worship (sense of awe for nature) is the basic stance.

In any case, the names and the origins and powers of the deities are very different. But personally, I think just being alive is a miracle and blessing, so one of the main purposes of the pilgrimage is to express gratitude for what we are already given. In addition, we pray to purify our mind, awaken our consciousness and remember who we really are, asking for clear guidance in making decisions, and wish for the happiness of all living beings. These can be the reasons why we go to shrines and temples, in my opinion.

Hasedera Temple. Akiko guides an American couple on their honeymoon.

In Buddhism, I will talk about the people who dedicated themselves to spread the teachings, such as the founders of temples. On the other hand, some Shinto deities and origin of shrines can be too complex, vague or legendary to explain fully. Another difference is that Buddhist temples require entrance fees, but Shinto shrines usually don’t.

  • What kind of customers have you had so far?

I have guided people who have strong respect towards spirituality and history of Japan. Regardless of where they were from, they find strong affinity with things “Japanese”. One American CEO of a nonprofit organization said that she believes she must have been a Japanese in her past life. Almost all the customers are repeat travelers to Japan and had been to many other places in the world as well.

At the very beginning, I guided to the Nara and Yamato regions one of my American friends, who was a high school science teacher. He is a second generation Japanese American who immigrated to the U.S. and showed strong interest in Bushido and Japanese moral teachings. And he insisted that such qualities are worthy of forming a new course of educational curriculum in the U.S. Until now, he came back to stay in Nara more than 4 times. Last two times, with his new partner.

View of the 5 storey pagoda at Hasedera temple

Amongst other visitors I have guided a fourth generation Japanese Canadian lady on her first visit to Japan. I also hosted Jann Williams, an Australian professor and writer during her stay of research to write a book about Japan. She found me among many different kind of original tours advertised on a tour company Voyagin, where I advertise, “Visit deep spiritual sites in Nara with a local guide!” We went to Yoshino and Koyasan, too at different times.

In April, 2017, I had a great chance to guide a group about 25 Zen teachers and practitioners from “UPAYA Zen center” in US, lead by a TED speaker, Joan Halifax. For a half day tour in Nara, I chose Kasuga Grand Shrine, and I will also be guiding next year’s tour group from UPAYA on their visit.

  • What plans do you have for the future?

Right now, all the tours are accessible by public transportation as either half day or one-day trip. In the future, I’d like to take people down to more deeper or hidden part of Yamato region by car, as I know beautiful sites only the locals know. Also, staying one night somewhere like Asuka, or hidden hot spring area will open up other opportunities.

In addition, right now, I am making good friends with staff at a kind of new eco farm and retreat center in Nara called Toyouke no Mori. It is located in a nice natural environment, and we are planning to host tours involving programs such as zen meditation, forest meditation, organic lunch, or yoga.

To make spiritual tours for Japanese tourists by adding more history and mythology content is another idea.

  • What advice do you have for foreigners wanting to deepen their knowledge and practice of Shinto?

Shinto is written with two kanji, or adapted Chinese characters as “神道”. That literally means, “Kami (god)/ Divine” “Path/ way”. For me, Shinto is for everyone who is looking for a good balance both within and out.

Yoshimizu Jinja in Yoshino, with Shinto Chief Priest, Mt. Sato, and Green Shinto subscriber, Jann Williams.

And the basic key is to remember and respect the divine balance, the Law of nature. In Shinto all things, humans, plants, animals, minerals, ocean, fire, time (day and night, seasons, etc.), earth, sun, stars and planets, are all children of the kami. They are all beautifully interconnected with one another, however our limited senses, prejudices and egos blind us to see this ultimate harmony. In Shinto, the main reason to visit shrines is to purify our body and mind to remember that we have part of kami inside. If we can truly respect ourselves, then we can respect others who also have kami inside, too.

Reincarnation of the spirit is, I think, a basic idea. Ancestor worship and care for future generations to come is a part of our responsibilities in Shinto. Today, we understand with high tech and advanced technologies the relationship of micro and macro cosmos. I think we have to go beyond differences and overcome conflicts with others. In my opinion, Shinto is beyond religious belief or advanced science. This is something to remember that we are all part of a big Oneness. In Buddhism they say we are just a drop of water in a stream or big river that leads into a grand ocean.


To learn more about Nara Yamato Spirit Tours, click here.
Toyouke no Mori are currently renewing their HP, but to learn about the person who inspired the project, Japanese artist Mayumi Oda, see here.

Kasuga Grand Shrine in Nara: Akiko tour guiding a group of visitors from UPAYA Zen center in the US.

Okinoshima World Heritage

Okonoshima, the sacred island at the core of the new World Heritage site

8 Japanese sites added to UNESCO heritage list


A sacred island and three reefs as well as four other related sites in southwestern Japan were added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list Sunday, the international body said.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization decided at a meeting in Krakow, southern Poland, to list the island of Okinoshima and the nearby reefs plus four other sites in Fukuoka Prefecture that a UNESCO preliminary review panel had recommended Japan should drop.

The four sites added to the cultural heritage list in line with Japan’s proposal include ancient tombs on the northern tip of Kyushu and the Munakata Taisha Shrine pavilions. Okinoshima is home to Okitsu-Miya Shrine.

In May, the UNESCO preliminary review panel recommended against adding the four sites, saying they do not have sufficient value for the world, but Tokyo persisted with its plan.

Sunday’s decision marks the fifth straight year that Japanese assets have been listed, bringing the total number of the country’s items on the cultural and natural heritage list to 21.

Okinoshima, midway between Japan’s southwestern main island of Kyushu and the Korean Peninsula, upholds ancient rules restricting entry, including a total ban on women visitors.

Around 80,000 items unearthed on the island have been designated as national treasures, including a gold ring made on the peninsula and cut glass from Persia, now Iran.

The shrine was used to conduct prayer rituals for Japan’s exchanges with other Asian regions during the fourth to ninth centuries.

Following the UNESCO preliminary review panel’s recommendation against the four sites, Japanese officials explained the interconnectedness of each site to representatives of the countries on the World Heritage Committee, according to the officials.

On Sunday, education minister Hirokazu Matsuno credited Sunday’s success to those who lobbied for Japan’s stance by speaking to the representatives, saying committee members came to understand that Okinoshima and its related sites convey to the present day a form of worship that has been passed on from ancient times.

Ryohei Miyata, head of Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs, was one of the officials who lobbied for the listing of all the proposed sites at the UNESCO meeting in Krakow.

In his remarks after Sunday’s decision, he said he is happy that the assets have been recognized as world treasures, adding that Japan will strive to preserve them for future generations.


Tanabata 2017

Tanabata (Isil Bayraktar)Green Shinto has carried several reports about Tanabata over the years, and an overview of previous posts can be found here.  One of the most interesting accounts we’ve come across is by neopagan Shintoist Megan Manson.

Tanabata is a folk festival, celebrated widely across Japan and involving wishes hung on bamboo branches in celebration of ‘star-lovers’ which get to meet once a year.  Last year Green Shinto friend Isil Bayraktar reported for us on a specifically Shinto event held for the occasion at Kitano Tenmangu Shrine.  It is centred around children, and Isil was impressed by the colour and performances.  As is clear from the pictures, the occasion was carried out with typical attention to aesthetic appeal and honouring ancestral spirits.  The patron deity of learning, Sugawara no Michizane, would surely be beaming with delight.

Tanabata (Isil Bayraktar)

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(All photos by Isil Bayraktar.)

Gion Festival (Foreigners perspective)

The Gion Matsuri: Foreigners’ float
(The “Hakurakuten Yama” float this year will consist of 18 men from all over the world.)

By Shaheed Rupani  (from Why Kyoto? Jun Sept 2017, p. 42-43)

Two yama and a hoko parading through downtown Kyoto

Kyoto is known as the old capital of Japan. People come here from all over the world for its beauty, serenity and preserved traditions. It has a special place in many Japanese people’s hearts as well as mine. When you think of summer in Japan, fireworks and BBQs come to mind but for me, it’s all about the Gion Festival.

This solemn and profound festival started 1148 years ago when plagues of cholera, malaria, dysentery and other epidemics were distressing the people of Kyoto. The emperor ordered 66 halberds to be paraded around the streets to represent the 66 regions of Japan at that time. This was intended to supplicate the malevolent spirits that were causing the above misfortunes. It actually worked and eventually became a yearly ritual. Overtime, the halberds morphed into gorgeous floats and became the place for rich kimono merchants to show off their successes as the floats were extravagantly decorated.

The festival spans the whole month of July with various events and was accepted into UNESCO in 2009 as a Cultural World Heritage Event. Most people would say that the highlights are the two grand processions that occur on the 17th and the 24th of July but there is so much more. The grand parades are quite astonishing as the massive floats are transported around the city. What isn’t known or realized is that there is much more going on in the background to make this entire festival a possibility.

The fixed wooden wheels mean that turning corners is a skilled manoeuver with

Picture this: a 12-ton float being built by hand using only ropes and wood, then gorgeously decorated with hand woven tapestries that are hundreds of years old. 20 musicians, “hayashi,” (aged 8~60ish) who have been practicing for 5 months, sit inside a space of about 4m2 and play for about 6 hours. This float is then pulled around the city by 50 volunteers, who have had no practice run for about the same duration in temperatures reaching 35°C with a humidity of 90%. There are actually 33 floats and this is only one of the hundreds of events that occur during this time. It is truly breathtaking.

This year will be the 16th year for me to participate as a volunteer in the Gion Festival. It will be my team’s honor to be parading the “Hakurakuten Yama” float. This year’s team consists of 18 men from all over the world. I can still remember my first time – it was pulling the heaviest float, the “Tsuki Boko” or moon float. I didn’t know what was happening but before I knew it we were moving this gorgeous museum on massive wheels with our bare hands.

When we got to the first corner, we had to do a 90° turn to the left but the wheels didn’t turn?!?! Suddenly, they started throwing water on the ground and lining up bamboo slats and we gave a tug. The colossal monument started turning and everyone cheered. It wasn’t an easy day; when we were done, I was depleted and borderline dehydrated but I’ve done it again every year since.

Chimaki for good luck are hung on doorways throughout the year

Kyoto hasn’t been an easy place to assimilate into – language problems, cultural misunderstandings and many more, but during the month of the Gion Festival, it seems like everyone in Kyoto is just happy and forgiving. The town buzzes with an invisible aura of euphoria and it just feels good. The streets in the center of town are closed on the nights before the grand parade on the 17th, and there are hundreds of night stalls with street food, games, drinks etc… The floats are all lit up and some can be entered for a small fee. This is also a good time to get your hands on a chimaki. They are sold at most
of the floats and act as protective amulets that you put in front of your house above the door to ward off evil. I always get one as well as a miniature float every year.

I don’t know how long my services for the Gion Festival will be required but I will continue to do this for as long as I am able to. If you’re in Kyoto on the 17th, look for my team and me. You might even see us on the nights before, at the Yoi Yama.


The Gion Festival is a month long event.  Here are a few highlights

July 10th Omukae Chochin

At about 4:30PM, children dressed up in old traditional costumes come out of YASAKA-JINJA Shrine and walk down Shijo Street to go towards City Hall where they perform a dance.
Mikoshi Arai
A portable shrine is brought down from YASAKA-JINJA Shrine and is brought to Shijo Bridge, where it is purified by the waters of the Kamo River.

July 10th-14th Saki Matsuri Hoko & Yama Tate – Float Building
The floats start being built early in the morning. uly 12th – 14th

July 12th -14th Trial Pulling
The float construction is finalized and a trial pulling is performed in the afternoon around 2PM. Anyone can join. Give it a try!

July 14th -16th Yoi Yama
The evenings before the grand parade on the 17th – the city is filled with people wandering around in awe at the beautifully lit up floats. July 17th

July 17th Saki Matsuri Junko
Grand Parade – prior festival – From 9AM starting at Shijo Karasuma to Shinmachi Oike 3rd

July 21-23rd Ato Byobu Matsuri
Folding Screen Festival – some houses located in vicinities of the displayed floats open the doors for onlookers to view the auspicious folding screens. ly 24th

July 24th Ato Matsuri Junko
Grand Parade – latter festival – From 9:30AM starting at Karasuma Oike to Shijo Karasuma
Hanagasa Junko
A parade comprised of Geiko and Maiko, children in traditional garb, mikoshi and more that latches onto the end of the Gion latter parade – from 10AM at Yasaka Shrine
Kanko Sai
The 3 mikoshi (portable shrines) that are sitting at the OtabiSho (resting point) at Teramachi & Shijo are brought out around 5PM and carried around the various communities. You have to see it being brought down through the narrow arcade of Nishiki – quite amazing. This festival event finishes around midnight at YASAKA-JINJA Shrine with a very mysterious ceremony – has to be seen to be explained. Try to be there by 11PM if you can.

July 28th Mikoshi Arai
A portable shrine is brought down from YASAKA-JINJA Shrine and is brought to Shijo Bridge, where it is purified by the waters of the KamoRiver and returned back to the shrine. July 31st July 31st

July 31st Eki-Jinja Shrine Nagoshi Sai
A huge wreath is constructed at YASAKA-JINJA Shrine. It is believed that going trough the wreath will remove bad fortune.

Decorated fans on display at the Gion Festival in the days before the big parade on the 17th

Open Shugendo

For the first time in 1,300 years, the Yamabushi open their doors to international visitors in search of self-discovery

Yamabushi are the ancient mountain priests of Japan. Their traditional role was to help guide people to their true nature and to teach discipline and warrior ways. This year Megurun Inc and Daishobo – a pilgrim lodge in the foothills of the three sacred mountains of Dewa Sanzan, Yamagata Prefecture. – are launching Yamabushido, a new mountain training program aimed at a non-Japanese, international audience this summer.

A Yamabushi in traditional clothing leads a group of foreigners into the mountains

“We realized that many people have tried meditation and other mindfulness practices in their lives, but also realized that Yamabushi practices offer something different, something more powerful, and something which – although it has been practiced for 1,300 years has never been more relevant,” says Takeharu Kato, Megurun Inc.

“Yamabushi training is the simple philosophy of placing yourself in nature and feeling, not thinking, in order to rejuvenate back to your true self. Yamabushi training is quick, practical, and effective, and provides a powerful context in which to resolve any challenges, questions, or decisions that need to be made. It has been used for centuries to provide space for consideration of the challenges of the modern-day person, an important role in the current age where people are becoming busier and busier and are looking for the chance to revitalize.

“Yamabushido is a new word that we are using to describe the wider practice of the Yamabushi, as we explain it to an international audience. It includes not just the mountain training, but also the philosophy and the values of the Yamabushi. The aim of Yamabushido is to provide something for international guests that they can use powerfully even after they have returned to their ordinary lives. Initially, this summer we are launching two programs; a three-day Basic Yamabushido Training, and a five-day Extended Yamabushido Training.”

In order for everyone to have a powerful intimate experience, maximum group size is 10 people.

Price: 150,000 yen/per person An additional 8% consumption tax will be added to the program total.

For more information, or to reserve a place on a program, please visit: http://yamabushi.jp

About Megurun Inc

Founded in 2011 by Takeharu Kato after leaving Hakuhodo and moving to Tsuruoka City. It enables the local region to become more active on the global scene, and promotes the use of renewable energy to enable a sustainable life in the local region.

© Japan Today

Travel tip (Izumo)

Bentenjima and Inasanohama Beach

(Gaijin Pot website: https://travel.gaijinpot.com/benten-jima-and-inasanohama-beach/)

A godly reunion.

In spiritual Shimane prefecture, there’s a sacred beach where eight million gods are believed to congregate once a year to determine the destiny of lovers.

Located less than a kilometer away from the historic Izumo Taisha Grand Shrine, this holy stretch of shoreline is the national venue for a spectacular Shinto ritual held every November [variable date].

Up until the 19th century, Japanese people lived according to the lunar calendar (based on cycles of the moon), where each month was given a particular name. The tenth month was known as Kan-na-zuki, or the “Month of No Gods”.  Except, not in Izumo.

Tree covered in fortune papers

During the Month with the Gods, people from all over Japan come to the Izumo Taisha to pray for their future, tying omikuji (fortune papers) around the temple so that their wishes come true. (all photos courtesy Gaijin Pot)

According to legends recorded in the Kojiki, Japan’s oldest historical record, the tenth month of the lunar calendar is known as the “Month with the Gods”, marked by the week-long Kamiari Festival. This yearly homecoming, usually held around the 10th to the 17th of November, welcomes a myriad of deities from all over Japan to Izumo, beginning with a ceremony held at Inasa Beach.

After the glow of a dramatic crimson sunset dissipates into twilight, Shinto priests burn bonfires to receive the heavenly beings from beyond the dark sea before escorting their temporary guests to the oldest shrine in Japan. The gods do a bit of catching up, then get down to business holding sake-fuelled meetings to decide the fates of couples across the country.

Benten-jima shrine on Inasa beach

See the mysterious Benten-jima shrine on Inasanohama beach. Photo by mstk east.

During the span of seven days, residents of Izumo observe this ceremony in quiet, careful not to make any disturbances, whether it be through singing, dancing, or even playing music. Finally, the gods are seen off in another ceremony to head back home to their respective shrines.

Throughout the year, you can spot a weathered shrine perched on a colossal rock at Inasanohama beach. This tiny yet mystifying shrine called Benten-jima is believed to house a female sea deity, keeping watch over seafarers and protecting them from being tossed on the waves of the Sea of Japan.

How To Get There

By foot   A 25-minute walk from Izumo Taisha-mae Station, or if heading directly from Izumo Taisha Grand Shrine, it’s roughly a 20-minute walk straight towards the ocean.

Endo Shusaku’s ‘swamp’

Shinto weddings look good but most Japanese choose a fake Christian-style wedding instead.

An article in the Japan Times highlights the nature of Endo Shusaku’s ‘swamp’ in which a foreign religion like Christianity is unable to take root but will simply rot and perish. It’s something I had to think about in my book on Hidden Christians. Why is Japan so resistant to Christianity, yet at the same time so eager to embrace Westernisation?

My conclusion was perhaps similar to Endo, although he never specifically mentions Shinto as a root cause. But it seems to me the polytheistic base of Japanese thinking, coupled with its syncretic nature, creates an environment in which form triumphs over substance. Paying respects at a Shinto shrine is correct form, though the substance of what is being worshipped in the shrine remains vague, unknown and largely irrelevant.

But if you follow Shinto and respect its kami, why on earth would you choose a Christian-style wedding? Particularly if you know it’s a fake priest, anyway. It’s something that the article in question considers, so please see this link here. It’s titled:

Christian-style weddings remain popular in Japan, but allure is more about optics than religion

Even a Buddhist wife wants a white Christian style dress

Quote: Christians make up about only 1 percent of Japan’s population of 127 million, according to data released by the Cultural Affairs Agency in 2015.

But a 2011 survey by research company Bridal Souken found that in the first several years of the new millennium, Christian-style weddings accounted for about two-thirds of Japanese unions, and currently a majority still prefer this type of ceremony over Shinto or secular ones.

Foreign celebrants, who in Altar’s experience are invariably Caucasian, are mostly hired by companies subcontracted by kekkonshikijo (exclusive wedding chapels).

“The chapels have nothing to do with congregations or worshippers. The Western ceremony is a chance to wear the nice dress and be like Cinderella or Snow White. Probably the men too, they want a bright ceremony to invite their friends to,” he said.


For more about Christians and the Shinto connection, see the three-part feature on Hidden Christians here.

Modern pose, traditional clothing


Emperor’s daughter becomes supreme priestess at Ise Shrine


Sayaka Kuroda, who after her marriage to a commoner had to give up her title as princess and leave the imperial family. The new supreme priestess is by training an ornithologist, specialising in kingfishers.

Kuroda, 48, on Monday officially replaced the 86-year-old Atsuko Ikeda, elder sister of the Emperor, who served in the post for 29 years, after the Imperial family requested her retirement, the shrine in Mie Prefecture said without giving other details.

Kuroda will visit the shrine as the Emperor’s representative for festive events including Kanname-sai, held annually in October, in which crops are offered to sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami, the ancestral deity of the Imperial family.

Kuroda became a commoner after marrying a man outside of the Imperial family. She acted as Ise Shrine’s special priestess from 2012-2013, providing support for Ikeda during its Shikinen Sengu event, in which a symbol of the deity is transferred to a new building every 20 years.

The post of supreme priest or priestess leads Shinto priests at the religion’s holiest shrine. It has been assumed by current or former female Imperial family members since the end of World War II.

Yada Tenmangu (Alex Kerr)

The entrance to Yada Tenmangu – and to Alex Kerr’s house

Imagine a small but atmospheric old shrine, with Japanese garden and wild nature beyond.  Imagine entering the shrine gate and turning left into a large rambling wooden house you call home. Imagine too just outside your front door is a torii festooned with shimenawa, a functioning shrine and surrounds that are quintessentially Japanese.

For author and entrepreneur Alex Kerr this requires no imagination at all, for it has been his reality since moving into the house in 1977. It originated 400 years ago as lodging for Buddhist nuns and it stands now in the grounds of Yada Tenmangu, a small shrine dedicated to the spirit of Sugawara no Michizane (845-903).

For long the house was used by successive shrinekeepers, but around 1930 it fell into disuse. The shrine however continued to function and today is under the aegis of a nearby priest. (It’s not uncommon for priests to have charge of several, even dozens, of small shrines.)

The shrine torii illuminated by candlelight, redolent of a ghostly presence as Lafcadio Hearn would put it

Part of the ad hoc collection of art decorating the rambling rooms

When Alex got permission to occupy the building, there was no electricity or running water, just a well in the kitchen. He had come across it while working in Kameoka with the Oomoto sect, organising traditional culture courses.  For the past forty years renovation has been an ongoing process, requiring almost constant attention, as a result of which the spacious rooms now have a comfortable and splendidly bohemian feel. Alongside his other activities Kerr is a dealer in Japanese and Thai artworks, many of which are on display. Traditional fusuma paintings sit cosily alongside modern pieces, including some striking calligraphy by the host. An Aladin’s Cave is how the owner describes the effect in Lost Japan.

Alex Kerr being presented with his birthday cake.

Such was the setting for Alex’s 65th birthday party, when the rambling house and grounds overflowed with people for what was dubbed ‘a firefly festival’. Along with the eating and dining was some Thai traditional music, a dance performance, the creation of a miniature garden in a glass bowl, and a calligraphic show.

In keeping with the shrine setting was a remarkable performance of kagura (sacred dance).  This was given by a former Takarazuka professional, who after retirement from the popular all-female music troupe had taken up the Shinto-style sacred dance, including work at Ise Jingu.  A standing screen featuring Mt Fuji acted as backdrop, creating a spiritual focus for the devotional rite (Fuji san is a ‘spirit-body’). The performer entered with fan held before her face so as not to be ‘polluted’ by the gaze of the audience before revealing herself to the kami.  In her other hand she carried a sprig of sasaki (sacred plant) and suzu bells, the sound of which acts as auditory purification. With her swirling robes the dancer conveyed all the elegance and beauty of the Japanese tradition at its best.

In the interval between performances guests were invited to walk a couple of minutes down the little road that runs past the house and along a creek, accompanied on the way by a chaotic cacophony of frogs from the adjacent rice fields. On the banks of the stream fireflies paraded like ghostly figures holding tiny fairy lights. It was as if ancestral spirits had emerged from some shadowy otherworld to emit for the brief period of their return a bright spark of delight in the sheer joy of existence.

Lost Japan (1996) is the title of Alex’s breakthrough book.  At Yada Tenmangu you can’t help feeling that Lost Japan has truly been found.


For a poetic piece on Alex’s life at Yada Tenmangu, please click here.  For an overview of his books, click here. For his Wikipedia page, click here. For his homepage, click here. For a full account of the Tenmangu house, see Chapter 7 of Lost Japan (extract follows below the photos).

Calligraphy by the multi-talented Alex Kerr

A garden of delights. (photo Heidi Durning)

The kagura begins with shielded face. Attention is diverted thereby to the gorgeous fan and sumptuous clothing

A standing screen with Mt Fuji acted as spiritual focus for the dance

Salute to the kami (photo Heidi Durning)

In one hand an eye-catching fan, in the other a sprig of sasaki and suzu bells. Entertainment fit for the gods.


From Chapter 7 of Lost Japan by Alex Kerr….

“My home is a traditional Japanese house in the grounds of a small Shinto shrine called Tenmangu, dedicated to the god of calligraphy. Like Chiiori, the house measures four bays by eight bays, but it is tiled rather than thatched. While the house is not large, it has considerable garden space because of its location in the grounds of a shrine. One side of the property fronts a small road, while the other side overlooks a mountain stream; the grounds sandwiched within cover about a thousand tsubo of land. The mountain rising up on the other side of the stream is also shrine property, so the ‘borrowed scenery’ of the garden actually extends over several thousand tsubo. A long white wall with a tiled roof borders the grounds of the shrine on the side towards the road, and in the center of the wall there is a high gate. Entering, you see directly before you a stone torii (the entrance gate to the shrine itself), and a small Tenmangu Shrine with an old plum tree standing beside it. To the right is the ‘shrine forest’, a stand of giant old cryptomeria cedars. To the left of the stone path is my domain. Water lilies float in large pots, and an assortment of vessels scattered here and there hold peonies, ferns, lotuses, Chinese lanterns and heron grass. After crossing six or seven stepping stones, you reach the entrance to my house. When you enter the living room, the back garden comes into view – although ‘jungle’ might be a more appropriate description. Just a few square meters have been cleared near the house, a stretch of grass and moss with some stepping stones in it. The edges of this plot are planted with azaleas and hagi (bush clover), which have been long unattended and are beginning to spread unruly twigs outwards and upwards, hiding a mossy stone lantern and some ceramic statues of badgers. Towards the back are a variety of trees: an ancient cherry tree (propped up with wooden supports), a maple, camellias and a gingko tree. Behind these trees, the garden drops away to a waterfall in the stream, and a heavily wooded mountain soars up from the far bank. When I arrive home on Friday night, I throw open the glass doors of the verandah, and the sound of the waterfall swells up into the house. In that instant, all thoughts of the week in Tokyo blow clean away, and I feel like I have returned to my true self. Finding this house was a piece of great good luck.”


Hearn 18): Meiji Jingu talk pt 2

Yoko Makino, talking of Hearn’s view of the kami

‘Japan, the Land of the Kami as Perceived by Lafcadio Hearn’ was the title of the Lecture Event put on at Meiji Jingu to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Irish-Japanese diplomatic relations. The Japanese for the event was ‘Koizumi Yakumo no mita kami no kuni, nippon’. The use of the Japanese name for Hearn seems to suggest the country has taken him to heart as one of their own. The second of the two talks served to confirm that.

Yoko Makino, professor of Seijo Univesity (Faculty of Economics), is a former pupil of Sukehiro Hirakawa, and her talk was titled ‘The Image of Shinto Shrines in the Works of Lafcadio Hearn’. The theme was that he had better understood the appeal of Shinto than his illustrious contemporaries, B.H. Chamberlain, William Aston and Ernest Satow.

For foreign scholars, Shinto was intellectually void for it lacked dogma, doctrine and ideology. Not only was nature worship regarded as primitive, but the shrines were seen in terms of plain wood with little artistic merit whereas Buddhist temples with their cosmology and ornate decorations were worthy of high respect. Chamberlain even quoted with approval the comment of one visitor to Ise Jingu who complained they had nothing to show and made a great deal of fuss about showing it.

Shinto, so often spoken of as a religion, is hardly entitled to that name… It has no set of dogmas, no sacred book, mo moral code.

Hearn by contrast was a Romanticist, more concerned with feelings. His explicit aim was to see into ‘the heart of the Japanese’, to which end he intended to live among Japanese as if one of them. In this way he came to a sympathetic understanding of Shinto, remarkable for his age (he wrote at a time when Western values were automatically assumed to be superior).

Yet something of what Shinto signifies… may be learned during a residence of some years among the people, by one who lives their life and adopts their manners and customs. With such experience he can at least claim the right to express his own conception of Shinto.  (from ‘Household Shrines’)

Lafcadio Hearn’s image on a shop front in Matsue, indicative of his place in Japanese society

Makino illustrated her point with three passages from Hearn that showed how deep was his appreciation of  indigenous practice. These consisted of 1) the approach to the shrine; 2) the shrine building; 3) the kami inside the shrine. With their setting on hillsides and in sacred groves, the locations of shrines are often as striking as they are appealing, something for which Hearn showed great awareness.

Of all peculiarly beautiful things in Japan, the most beautiful are the approaches to high places of worship or of rest, – the Ways that go to Nowhere and the Steps that lead to Nothing…   Perhaps the ascent begins with a sloping paved avenue, half a mile long, lined with giant trees. Stone monsters guard the way at regular intervals. Then you come to some great flight of steps ascending through green gloom to a terrace umbraged by older and vaster trees: and other steps from thence lead to other terraces, all in shadow.

Hearn goes on to describe the architecture in remarkable detail, commenting on how there is no artificial colour but plain wood which turns under the influence of rain and sunshine to a natural grey ‘varying according to surface exposure from the silvery tone of birch bark to the sombre grey of basalt.’  He then writes of the ‘august house’ of the kami as a haunted room, a spirit chamber, in which live ancestral ghosts. [See here for his writing on ghost-houses.]

There are three beliefs which underline ancestral worship, he says, whether in Japan or elsewhere. 1) The dead remain in this world. 2) All the dead become gods (in that they have supernatural power). 3) The happiness of the dead depends on the respectful service of the living.

Imagining the kami

Hearn’s ability to enter imaginatively into the world of the Other was nicely brought out by Makino in a passage from Hearn’s ‘A Living God’, in which he wonders what it would be like to be a kami, guarded by stone lions and shadowed by a holy grove. He would have no form or shape, but like a natural vibration he could pass through walls ‘to swim in the long god bath of a sunbeam, to thrill in the heart of a flower, to ride on the neck of a dragonfly’. Here, the speaker interjected, Hearn was clearly reaching back to the fairy folklore of his youth, yet in his description of the interplay of worshipper and kami Hearn was able to summon up the essence of Shinto in unparalleled manner.

From the dusk of my ghost-house I should look for the coming of sandaled feet, and watch brown supple fingers weaving to my bars the knotted papers which are records of vows, and observe the motion of the lips of my worshipers making prayer…

Sometime a girl would whisper all her heart to me: ‘Maiden of eighteen years, I am loved by a youth of twenty. He is good; he is true; but poverty is with us, and the path of our love is dark. Aid us with thy great divine pity! – help us that we may become united, O Daimyojin!’ then to the bars of my shrine she would hang a thick soft tress of hair, – her own hair, glossy and black as the wing of the crow, and bound with a cord of mulberry-paper. And in the fragrance of that offering, – the simple fragrance of her peasant youth, – I, the ghost and god, should find again the feelings of the years when I was man and lover….

Between the trunks of the cedars and pines, between the jointed columns of the bamboos, I should oversee, season after season, the changes of the colors of the valley: the falling of the snow of winter and the falling of the snow of cherry-flowers; the lilac spread of the miyakobana; the blazing yellow of the natané; the sky-blue mirrored in flooded levels, – levels dotted with the moon-shaped hats of the toiling people who would love me; and at last the pure and tender green of the growing rice.

The muku-birds and the uguisu would fill the shadows of my grove with ripplings and purlings of melody; – the bell-insects, the crickets, and the seven marvelous cicadae of summer would make all the wood of my ghost-house thrill to their musical storms. Betimes I should enter, like an ecstasy, into the tiny lives of them, to quicken the joy of their clamor, to magnify the sonority of their song.’

In this way, nourished by the devotion of worshippers, the kami participates in human life and the seasonal cycle. In a superlative flight of fancy, Hearn has the kami transcend its ghost-house to enter into bird-bodies and become the very voice of nature. Here in imaginative form is the essential spirit of Shinto, and for anyone who doubted the genius of Hearn the brilliance of the writing is surely more than sufficient proof. Like all visionaries, he was a man of extraordinary insight and a hundred years ahead of his time.


For Part One about the lecture by Sukehiro Hirakawa, please see here.

Yoko Makino talking on the Image of Shinto Shrines in the writings of Lafcadio Hearn with particular reference to his essay on ‘A Living God’

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