Published: April 4th 2011April 4th 2011
‘How do you know when it’s a shrine and when it’s a temple?’ I asked Yoshi-san on our way to Heian-Jingu Shrine. I was lucky enough today to be guided around Kyoto by Yoshi-san, who is a PhD student at Kyoto University, one of Japan’s most prestigious universities. Yoshi-san’s mother is a friend of mine from the MESA group, Ayako-san, and between them they had kindly arranged today. Yoshi-san explained that the entrance of a shrine (Shinto) is marked by a torii (two upright pillars, joined at the top by two horizontal cross-bars). Temples are Buddhist, and most Japanese people are followers of both religions.
A short way ahead to the left was a trough of water, and Yoshi-san showed me how to purify yourself properly. I watched carefully as he picked up one of the ladles resting on the wooden bar of the trough, scooped up some water, poured it over his left hand so it fell outside the trough, scooped up some more water, poured it over his right hand so it fell outside the trough, and gently replaced the ladle. Concentrating I repeated all his movements. I’d often seen Japanese people purifying themselves, but had felt far
It is believed to house the god and goddess of easy childbirth.
too self conscious and unsure of myself to attempt it.
At the haiden, hall of worship, there was a large sign displayed written in kanji (Chinese characters which are part of the Japanese writing system). Yoshi-san read them for me (and later in the day he wrote them for me – I haven’t that good a memory!): ‘Nihai nihakushu ichihai’, two bows, two claps, one bow. With grace he bowed twice, gave two solemn claps, and another bow. I counted silently as I followed; two bows, two claps, one bow.
Heian Jingu has a stunning landscaped garden, with a lake as the centrepiece. The cherry blossom was just starting to come out. I could see wooden frameworks with the branches of wisteria which was not yet in flower – I’ve only ever seen wisteria (‘fuji’ in Japanese) grown on wooden frameworks in Japan, and never growing up walls of houses as in Britain. Around the edge of the lake I could see the irises just starting to break through.
Japan is far more marked with seasons than Britain, maybe because in Britain our seasons are so muddled up. Each season brings distinctive flowers, often with festivals around
them. In Mito there is one of the three most famous gardens in Japan, Kairakuen, and this is well known for its plum blossom in February. There is a ‘matsuri’, festival, then, where thousands of visitors come from all over Japan, with stalls and, at weekends, tea ceremonies performed by ladies exquisitely dressed in kimonos. The cherry blossom season is known throughout the world, but there are also special matsuri for azaleas (tsutsuji) in April-May, for wisteria (fuji) in May, irises (ayame) and hydrangeas (ajisai) in June and chrysanthemum (kiku) in October. All of them are accompanied by crowds of people, stalls (yatai) selling all kinds of delicious food to eat, and a sense of a special, joyous occasion. It was only when a Japanese friend gave me a present of writing paper decorated with ayame (irises) in June, that I realised that the flower seasons are also reflected with special writing paper in stationery shops.
I was touched by our next destination – Okazaki Jinja. This small shrine doesn’t feature in any guide book, but had been chosen by Yoshi-san’s mother, Ayako-san, with so much thoughtfulness. It is believed to house the god and goddess of easy childbirth.
Rabbits have been considered servants of the guardian gods, given their facility at reproduction, and so there is a statue of a very cute black rabbit representing childbirth in the hand washing house. Ayako-san knows that one of our daughters is expecting a baby, which is why she had suggested Okazaki Jinja to Yoshi-san. At all shrines and temples you can buy omamori – good luck charms. They are all individual to that particular shrine or temple, and there are different ones for all stages and wishes of life – good health, passing exams, study, avoiding traffic accidents, ones for children, finding love, and also for childbirth. On a piece of card there is a prayer (which you mustn’t look at) and this is put inside a small decorated and embroidered cloth pouch. On one side is the name of the shrine or temple, and on the other side the protection which is desired, written in artistic kanji. I bought one for our daughter, and I’m looking at it now – covered in silver cloth with three cute little silver rabbits with pink eyes and ears, and in gold running down the charm the embroidered kanji for ‘anzan omamori’ –
Praying for the victims in the north east
safe and easy delivery good luck charm.
Over lunch I ask Yoshi-san which European language ‘kohi’ (meaning ‘coffee’) comes from. To my surprise he answers English. He explains there isn’t the sound ‘fee’ in the Japanese language, so it’s too difficult for people to say, which is why it’s ‘hi’, which is the nearest.
We climb up the steep narrow road, thronged with people and lined with rows of shops selling fans, cloth bags with traditional Japanese patterns, small trinkets to hang on your mobile phone, stalls selling macha (powered green tea) soft ice cream, bean paste sweets, and the melody of vendors advertising their wares. A steep flight of steps takes us up into Kiyomizudera Temple and onto the huge wooden veranda of the main hall. Through buds of cherry blossom opening themselves up to the sun I see Kyoto spread out before me, framed by the mountains beyond against a perfect blue sky. We turn to the main hall, and there’s a queue of Japanese people. I watch entranced. In turn they go up to the front, add a coin to a box, take a pinch of what looks like some kind of incense from a
bowl, place it in a vessel where it glimmers, and say a prayer. Yoshi-san tells me it’s for the tsunami victims. He adds a coin and says a prayer. I do the same.
Thank you, Yoshi-san, for a marvellous day.