Today has been so unexpectedly fabulous, it's hard to know where to begin.
This morning I decided that nothing would stop me from having business cards, not even not having a bank account or telephone number, so I made business cards. They are probably the shoddiest cards in the history of the world, since I basically just cut paper into kind of business-card-like shapes and then wrote my information on it (English on one side and Japanese on the other). But they are BUSINESS CARDS. Not that I was going to use them or anything, but better safe than sorry, right?
Anyway, I headed out for some shrine-hopping, fully expecting to see absolutely no one anywhere, the same as every other day I've gone shrine-hopping.
My first stop was Ikatsu Hachimangu, where...absolutely no one was there. They didn't even have shrine staff in the office. I hung around for a little bit to see if they were on lunch break or something, but after a while of standing in a COMPLETELY EMPTY SHRINE COMPLEX, I decided to move on.
My next stop was Kawahara Shrine, i.e. the shrine that took me forever to find.*
Here's the main entrance to the shrine. As you can probably tell, it's quite a bit larger than the other shrines I've been looking at; it takes up a whole block.
Tiny shrine in a pond!
I believe the shrine is dedicated to Benten, who is actually originally a Hindu goddess who was then integrated into Buddhism and then into Shinto.
Here's another shot of the shrine-island, this time from the side.
Also in the pond were...
Turtles! Lots of turtles, actually. I really like turtles for some reason.
Turtles also really like me, apparently, because they began swarming the edge of the pond as I was standing there. They probably thought I was going to feed them or something. (The shrine office sells turtle food for 100 yen, so that's not too unreasonable.)
Okay, last turtle picture, I swear. I really like turtles.
The shrine grounds are also inhabited by a very large flock of pigeons, which has a habit of taking off suddenly and freaking people out.
Here's a sacred bull statue in the shrine precincts.
And here's a sign next to the statue, asking the shrine visitors to please not climb on it.
Hmm, using my incredibly intense detectiving skills, I deduce that a lot of children must visit the shrine!
Here's one of the tiny shrines on the shrine grounds.
Most shrine complexes have a bunch of tiny shrines (each one no taller than about three feet) and then one or more larger shrines (which usually give the shrine its name).
A torii (shrine gate) tunnel, which inevitably leads...
...to an Inari shrine.**
Here's one of those thousand-crane chains I was talking about last week. The idea is that if you fold a thousand cranes, your wish will come true.
So then I meandered toward the shrine office, where I discovered that they were raising...
Have I mentioned my somewhat unexplainable love of turtles?
THEY ARE SO AWESOME.
Anyway, I'm standing there being blown away by how incredibly CUTE baby turtles are, when this guy comes out of the shrine office. At EXACTLY that moment, the pigeon flock decided to do one of its freaky simultaneous take-offs, and both of us jumped about a foot in the air. Needless to say, there was a lot of embarrassed laughter, and then he glanced over at the turtles, and said, "Oh, wow, there are a lot of them now."
And I said, "They're so cute!"
And then he stared at me for a second and said, "Excuse me, but are you a foreigner?"
And I said yes, I was from America, and suddenly we're having a conversation and I'm handing him my business card. It turns out that he works as a cram school teacher (teaching English and Korean, interestingly enough!) but he comes to Kawahara Shrine on the weekends to play traditional court music for weddings and other ceremonies. Anyway, he was really interested in my project and really impressed with my Japanese for some reason (he kept saying, "Your intonation is perfect!") and then the next thing I know, he's going over the shrine office and calling over one of the shrine workers. "There's this American here, and she's studying shrines and has perfect Japanese and knows all this random stuff about Japanese culture!"
...next thing I know, I'm sitting having tea with a shrine worker, a miko (the politically correct term is "shrine attendant," but it's essentially a young, unmarried [preferably virginal] woman who works at a shrine; the term "shrine maiden" is now associated with certain fetishes, and so people avoid using it), and the court music guy. I explained my project, and they were unbelievably blown away for some reason. We wound up chatting about a bunch of things (most of them related to Shinto, although I also wound up explaining what air quotes were), and it was kind of a huge confidence boost for me, to be honest. I have so much trouble speaking at school; whenever I want to say something, I wind up forgetting really simple words partway through the sentence or failing at grammar or just stuttering so badly that everything is garbled. But I could actually speak normally to these people (i.e. with a relatively degree of fluency, even if sometimes I had to stop and think of a difficult word), and they were interested in what I had to say. Also, they apparently were incredibly amused that I use Japanese body language and mannerisms when I speak Japanese.
And then the shrine worker said, "Oh, yes, if you'd like, I can show you around the honden."
This was the point at which I kind of realized that I might have gotten myself into something kind of insane.
Let me explain: the honden is the inner sanctuary of the shrine, and normal people aren't supposed to go in there. You really only enter it for special ceremonies, and even then, only special people (like the priests, the miko, and people participating in an important role in the ceremony) are allowed inside.
Needless to say, the fact that she offered was a HUGE DEAL.
Anyway, I said of course I would love to see it thank you thank you thank you. As I was leaving, I asked the miko what she was making with the paper she was folding. She said she was making shide (a sort of zigzag-shaped paper streamer that's used to decorate various sacred objects, like torii and purification wands and sakaki branches), and I said, "Oh, yes, shide." Her eyes went wide. "You know what shide are? Japanese people don't even know what shide are!"
Anyway, the honden. It was beautiful. The entire honden is roughly square in shape, although it's divided into several levels. You enter through a side door into the lowest level. Right as you enter, there's an area to wash your hands on the right side of the room, and then directly in front of you is a roughly square area about 10 feet by 10 feet. To the left of that area are steps up to a tiered wooden stage, with the bottom level being where the priest and the musicians stand and the upper level being where the kami is enshrined. Also, the ceiling is hand-painted with pictures of local animals. Apparently a local benefactor painted the ceiling by himself; it took him 2 years and 2 months.
The honden enshrines three kami: a kami of the sun, a kami of water, and a kami of earth. The shrine worker explained to me that all three kami are female, and so they only want female guji (head priests). (Female priests are normally quite unusual in Shinto.) The shrine itself is more than 1,100 years old, although the original honden was destroyed in a fire at one point.
The shrine worker then explained to me the various instruments that had been set up for the wedding that afternoon. Then she said, "By the way, are you available this afternoon? We could ask the guji if you could observe the wedding."
This was the point at which I kind of died of shock.
Let me explain again: I have read so many accounts of researchers doing fieldwork in shrines and having to be briefed for MONTHS before attending any ceremonies. These researchers usually had to have a long-standing relationship with the shrine staff and institutional backing, and sometimes even then they weren't allowed to observe ceremonies. When I said I would do fieldwork in Japan, I assumed that I would be visiting festivals and events open to the public, not doing ACTUAL FIELDWORK OH NO I AM SO UNPREPARED FOR THIS I AM JUST A COLLEGE GRAD WHO IS WAY TOO INTERESTED IN THIS STUFF SHOULDN'T A MORE EXPERIENCED RESEARCHER BE TACKLING THIS?
In any case, while I was having my mental freak out, and shrine worker ran to ask the guji if I could observe the wedding. Her explanation was something along the lines of, "There's this American girl here and she's studying Shinto and I was wondering if maybe she could observe the wedding today." And then the miko popped out crying, "And she knows what shide are!" The guji gave me this incredibly intense stare and said, "I'll ask the bride and groom. Go get her a shirt with a collar.***"
AND THE BRIDE AND GROOM SAID IT WAS OKAY.
If I ever get married and some random kid shows up and wants to observe my wedding, I am going to say yes so hard, because DANG.
In any case, I talked to the guji a little bit before the wedding, and she said that on the 24th there's a meeting of a bunch of female guji from the area and she would take me to it???
...and then one of the shrine workers came out with a bunch of baby turtles which had just hatched, and I GOT TO TOUCH ONE OF THEM.
...I'm not obsessed with turtles, I swear.
Anyway, I borrowed one of the shirts that the shrine workers normally wear when they are manning the shrine office, and I got to sit in on a wedding ceremony. I sat off to the side with the miko (there were a total of three in the ceremony), and I essentially shadowed the youngest one (because she didn't have to do much during the ceremony). Also, I wasn't allowed to take notes during the ceremony (for obvious reasons), but the shrine worker very helpfully made me an outline of the major events so that I could remember in which order they occurred.
There ceremony went something like this:
The bride and groom and their respective families walked up the path to the honden, and then filed inside, washing their hands as they entered the shrine. They then took their seats. The bride and groom were in the center of the room, sitting behind a collapsible table, facing toward the stage (bride on the groom's left). Their respective families sat behind tables on either side of them, and then the miko (and I) were sitting near the upper left corner of the room, toward the stage. There were a bunch of people in the left corner away from the stage, who I THINK were with the photographer? I wasn't entirely clear on why they were there.
2. Ceremony of purification
I actually couldn't see much of what was going on here, because everyone was supposed to bow their heads. I know the guji had a purification wand, and I believe she was saying a norito (a kind of Shinto prayer; they're notoriously difficult to understand, because they're in archaic Japanese).
3. Offering of Shinto liturgy by guji
Once again, couldn't see much of what was going on here, because we were supposed to bow our heads. The guji definitely said a norito, though.
4. The sipping of sake three times each by the bride and groom from a set of three cups
One of the miko carried a tray with three sake cups (the shallow dish kind), each one slightly smaller than the last, and placed in front of the bride and groom. One of the other miko then carried a beautifully decorated container (imagine a dipper, but about five times larger...more like a very small watering can with the top cut off?) full of sake to the bride and groom. The bride and groom then alternated drinking sake from each of the cups, starting with the smallest one: three sips from each cup (so groom would drink, then bride would drink, then the groom would drink), which made a total of nine drinks (five for the groom, four for the bride).
5. Pledge by the bride and groom
The bride and groom then had to read their pledge to each other simultaneously. The shrine worker showed me the paper before hand, and all the kanji had furigana attached****, because, as she said, "People are normally very nervous when they get married, so they might forget the kanji, plus a lot of these kanji are very hard to read."
6. Offering of ancient ceremonial music and dance
At this point, two of the shrine maidens went onto the stage and danced with suzu, which are essentially clusters of bells and multi-colored cloth streamers attached to sticks, while the musicians played. The dance looked difficult, because they had to keep in sync with each other and the music, while making sure that the bells only rang at certain times.
7. Offering of a ritual branch by the bride and groom
The bride and groom then came forward to offer a branch of sakaki (it's a kind of tree...although what kind of tree a sakaki is varies depending on who you ask) to the kami.
8. Offering of a ritual branch by a representative of each family
The fathers of both the bride and groom then did the same.
At this point, the guji came down and spoke to everyone. I cannot express how much respect I have for this woman; she is kind of overwhelmingly amazing. A couple of the family members were crying (as people are wont to do at weddings), and she managed to make all of them laugh by telling them that today was a very special day, and even though they might be moved to tears, they should smile when they think of the wonderful future awaiting the new couple. And then she told the bride and groom that they should live in thanks (thanks to their parents who raised them and their grandparents who raised their parents and their friends who have supported them and all the people who helped them to meet each other), and that they should stay healthy and smile every day. There was more too, but she was speaking kind of quietly and also kind of quickly, so I couldn't catch everything she said. And then she told all the family members (although especially the bride and groom's parents) to turn to each other and remember how much they loved each other, and know that the new couple felt the same love for each other.
9. The sipping of sake by the bride and groom and their respective families
At this point, the miko poured all the family members a little bit of sake (even the preschool-age girl), and everyone drank it (even the preschool-age girl!). (Actually, the little girl refused to sit down until she had drunk all the sake, even though her dad was trying to get her to sit down. It was probably only a mouthful of sake total, but still, when you're that small, that's a LOT of alcohol.)
Then all the miko stood up, and we put away our chairs (we were sitting on those collapsible stool things, where it's canvas on wood...I'm totally forgetting English right now). And then I lined up with the rest of the shrine staff to offer our congratulations to the new couple and the rest of the family. I do not think I have bowed so low so many times in my LIFE.
After the family had left, the I went with the shrine staff to thank the musicians for their hard work. ("Otsukaresama desu" is an excellent phrase.)
And then I headed back to the shrine office to change out of the borrowed shirt and collect my belongings.
(The entire ceremony took about 40 minutes.)
As I was leaving, I thanked the shrine workers profusely, especially the one who had asked if I could observe the wedding ceremony. She was kind of taken aback, and said, "You don't really need to thank me. It wasn't anything, really."
"No, you don't understand," I said. "There are so few foreigners who are allowed the chance to experience something like this."
And she said, "No, you don't understand. We've never had a foreigner actually try to talk to us before. They come here as sightseers sometimes, but they never talk to us."
...as it turns out, (according to the guji) I am the first foreigner to ever be allowed in the honden.
Please give me a moment to FREAK OUT.
Moral of the story: If you talk to people and know way too many random Shinto-related terms, YOU CAN DO THE IMPOSSIBLE.
In any case, the guji and the miko and the shrine workers said I can come back any time I want, and also that there's a festival on the 16th and 17th of October ("Wear pants," the shrine worker said, "'cause we fling mochi, and sometimes people get punched."), and markets on the 3rd, 8th, 13th, 18th, 23rd, and 28th of each month. Also, I WAS RIGHT, and apparently the shrine is a popular spot for neighborhood children, and neighborhood people in general, which means that IT IS PRETTY MUCH THE PERFECT SHRINE FOR ME TO STUDY.
SORRY, FREAKING OUT AGAIN.
Wow. I am just kind of overwhelmed by how incredibly kind and helpful the entire staff of Kawahara Shrine were, as well as the bride and groom who let me sit in on their wedding ceremony. I have accomplished more today than I thought I would accomplish in a month of research.
*The story of my finding Kawahara Shrine is an epic in and of itself, but the short version is that I didn't find it until my fourth time looking for it. The first three times I was looking waaay too far north. By which I mean two blocks north. Thanks for not naming your roads, Japan.
**Inari is the kami of rice (and business and a bunch of other things), and, depending on who you ask, is a man/woman associated with a fox, a man/woman who rides a fox, or a fox. For more information than you ever knew there was on Inari, I recommend Karen Smyer's The Fox and the Jewel.
***I.e. a kimono-style shirt.
****Furigana are little hiragana (one of the phonetic Japanese alphabets) that are written next to kanji to remind the reader how the kanji are pronounced.