I recently participated in a Shinto festival, and also visited a couple of shrines and temples in the last couple of weeks. Autumn festivities are at their peak in Japan, with its four-seasons obsession, which to be fair is pretty well deserved. The seasons definitely are more noticeable than in Melbourne (then again, we have less contrast throughout the year there because you get so many every day). Autumn is pretty spectacular in Japan. They just need to change the wording from ‘we have four seasons in Japan’ to something more like ‘Japan’s seasons are marked, clearly defined and colourful.’
Being part of the autumn festival a few weeks back, I was really struck at how much fun it was, and how I strangely felt like a useful part of the community even though it was in a part of the prefecture I’d never seen before, almost entirely with people I’d never met. It was a small community festival, in which a mikoshi was carried on a designated route (marked out by little white flags) around the town, making stops at particular houses or empty lots to either give a blessing (is that the right word?) to the people living in the house, or to put the mikoshi down and give all the carriers a rest. Or sometimes both of these things.
At lots of the houses there was food and drink – snack foods, juice, tea and/or sake or beer. This was for the people doing the hard work of carrying the mikoshi around, and it really was hard work. But while we walked with it on our shoulders, there was singing, a kind of chant going on all the while and a flute player who walked ahead. Hard though it was, it was really quite fun. The trickiness of shaking it, or dipping it from side to side, was also exciting.
For all the participants, the local shrine office supplied lunch – rice balls, lots of snack foods, tea and beer before setting off to pick up the mikoshi and then a hearty good-quality bento after the whole thing was finished.
I didn’t really know, when we went, what this festival was going to be. A friend had recommended it and I had friends staying, and they said they were happy to have a look. We showed up halfway through the thing and were surprised at how welcome we were. There weren’t enough big, strong people to carry the mikoshi easily so they wanted all the help they could get. It turned out there were another 3 foreigners there, all biggish American men. I wasn’t much use because compared to the men I wasn’t tall enough to effectively shoulder much of the weight, but I did my best anyway, and everyone’s efforts were appreciated – my tallest friend especially so.
As we were carrying this thing around, drinking sake at all the stops and getting gradually soaked through in the light rain that refused to let up, it occurred to me that I’d never heard of any events that were this much honest fun in Christianity or any religion I know of. I myself don’t, what’s the expression? subscribe to any organised religion, but Christianity is the one I have the most experience of, being a choir musician back in Australia. I have definitely had a lot of fun on choir camps, and enjoyed singing Bach or Faure or Mozart or whoever’s done a relevant Mass or Requiem, but through the activities I’ve sat through for those things, I felt something like a pressure or expectation of being converted sooner or later. I felt like a fraud sitting in the choir stand and standing up, sitting down at the right times and responding ‘And also with you.’ As a singer in a church choir once, I accidentally took communion without knowing that you have to have been baptised? Oops. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the embarrassment I felt when I realised.
After carrying this mikoshi around for a couple of hours though, everybody prayed (clap twice, bow twice, clap once), was blessed and received some ceremonial sake from an official man at the shrine. No induction, nor any future commitment, necessary or even considered. I actually tried to skip that bit because I wasn’t sure it was for ring-ins like me, and the other guy who prayed at the same time said ‘Hang on! You’ve got to go and have your blessing and sake.’
In this Shinto business though, there’s no ‘God’ because it’s not a religion, so nobody tries to convert you (at least not in modern Shinto. It wasn’t always so, apparently! And these cultural activities are also largely historically limited to men. I’m not trying to say Japanese spirituality is without its problems). Or maybe there are lots of gods, as they see it. The Buddhism I’ve experienced in Japan is similarly welcoming and non-judgmental, with no proselytism. Again, Buddhism is not supposed to be a religion. And maybe that’s just it, that Shinto and Buddhism are not actually supposed to be religions, but some of the most exciting and enjoyable things I’ve seen and done in Japan have been based around shrines and temples. As far as I can tell, there’s no air of normal life and enjoyment stopping because of something being holy. Shinto and Buddhism seems more in touch with normal people. Normal people go to shrines and/or temples to pray at least once a year (at New Year) and at other times, for festivals – usually for fun, in the case of festivals, rather than any sense of obligation. On the other hand, reasons for a non-Christian to go to church in my personal experience in the West are:
- garage sales
- concerts/rehearsals I’m singing in
- tourism (like going to cathedrals or Christmas plays in Europe)
And some of those are definitely fun, but not as much as heaving around a stack of bamboo and rice, singing and shouting while doing it, and drinking sake and eating fish cakes in a stranger’s backyard. Or watching almost-naked men tramp around in the snow, chanting and pouring icy water on themselves.
I also want to note that Japanese temples and shrines tend to have a natural element to them, with peaceful gardens and beautiful grounds, in a way that is different to the Western churches I’ve seen. I can’t comment on other places of worship like synagogues or mosques, and I’m not trying to say other places of worship don’t have their own beauty or peace, nor that places are welcoming refuges for many, many people. I just wanted to take a minute to appreciate and share that nature is a huge part of Shinto and Japanese Buddhism, and that appeals to me.