Meiji Shrine | Japan | Living in Mexico

Meiji Shrine

Our first outing with our 23 fellow tour members and our two excellent tour leaders was to the Meiji Shrine, a Shinto temple.


All of us were carrying tiny FM radios with earphones. Andy was carrying a transmitter and wearing a headset, which enabled him to talk to us in a normal tone of voice, while allowing us the freedom to wander off to see whatever interested us. Using this system while we walked into the Meiji Shrine, he gave us an overview of Shinto, once the state religion of Japan. An Animist religion, I found its precepts oddly comforting.


We entered the temple grounds through a Torii Gate, made from the trunks of two massive Cypress trunks supporting huge beams. The gentle twist of the grain in the trunks, and the exquisite curve of the topmost beam somehow managed to convey a sense of quiet and gentleness on the scene. Note that the lower beam is held in place with four large wedges. I've always been fascinated by Japanese woodworking, particularly the clever, hardware-free joinery.


On the path to the shrine stood a wall of saki casks which had been given to the priests. (They also gave the saki brewers good publicity.) The old guy on the left is calculating how long that much saki would last a person, and contemplating the tragic notion that nobody is actually going to drink it.


This here is not a musical instrument. It is a sort of hand washing station—a purification thing. I tried it and the head priest glared at me until I went away.


Here Andy is demonstrating how you purify yourself by pouring water on first one hand, then the other, then sipping some and spitting it out. As a little boy, I would have loved this ritual.


For ¥500, you can buy a little wooden board on which you can write a prayer or wish, and then leave on this rack. At the end of the year, the priests burn them. Most prayers were written in Chinese characters, but I saw many that were in European languages, too.


One artifact of Shinto is the shimenawa, or rice straw rope, which signifies a separation of the sacred and profane realms. This rope looks foreshortened in the photograph, but has actually been woven in a taper. It's about an inch in diameter where it is knotted around the tree. The near end is six inches thick! The white zig-zags hanging from the rope are paper folded to represent lightning. Wherever I saw them, I knew I was near some Shinto shrine or function.


Japanese temple architecture sometimes features intricate overlapping roofs, each with its gentle upward-sweeping curves. These are sheathed in copper and have wonderfully shaped ridgepoles. The design of the hanging lamps clearly have influenced designs used in the Arts and Crafts Movement.


The ends of the beams in this gate were painted to prevent decay or checking of the wood. White paint was used which gives the structure a checkered, festive look.


A young priest answered many questions for us, with Andy translating. Here he is describing how priests hold their skirts up. Not having asked that particular question, Andy is staring at him while a tour group member looks down in embarassment.

The priest's family have been priests for ten generations. I don't even know who my ancestors were ten generations back. As for professions, my father was an engineer, the first in our family. I'm the second, and it looks like I'm going to be the last, at least for the next two generations. Time, continuity and ancestry take on whole new meanings in Japan.


We were treated to a special performance of the Sacred Kagura Dance, a cleansing ritual, but were not permitted to photograph it. Nor can I find a link showing pictures of the dance as performed in Shinto shrines. [A similarly-named performing art, Kagura Dance (different from the Sacred Kagura Dance) has been extensively photographed, but not the religious ceremony.]

This is a ceremony which the average Japanese gets to see somewhere maybe six times in her life, and which the average Japanese never gets to do at the Meiji Shrine. We got:

• kneeling on tatami mats
• pounding of huge drum by guy wearing lacquer football on head
• nasal chanting by old guy in medieval hat with rooster tail and elegant kimono and wire rimmed glasses
• flute music and nasal singing consisting entirely of dissonances
• two temple maidens in fire-engine red pants doing really slow dance
• ritual cleansing of selves with large white feather duster
• welcoming of assorted spirits with bells
• bowing and clapping

Seriously, the ceremony actually was quite moving. The sense of being cleansed was strong, and I for one felt honored to have participated.