Friday, December 30, 2016

A Happy New Year from Japan: O-harae ritual in Samukawa Shrine 寒川神社大祓

Thanks to an accident of nature, Japan is a country of forests as long as people remember. So, probably it is natural Japanese indigenous religion incorporates forests as an important thing. Do you remember last month I posted about a sweet spring in Tanzawa, called Gomayashiki Spring 護摩屋敷の水? That place became for anybody to collect water only in the 1970s, although it was known as such by aficionados for millennia. During its time of obscurity, the main beneficiary of sweet water was men (oh, yeah) of religion for Buddhism and Shintoism. They enter into the deep forest to meditate at the place which was/is an important ritual with the forest for their denomination … and had a very good cup of tea. Any well-respected Shintoism shrine must have a good “forest” even if it is something of bonsai trees, like Masakado-zuka 将門塚 next to the old HDQ of Mitsui Co. in Otemachi 大手町, Tokyo. I guess it’s definitely VERY Japanese … No forest around Vatican or Masjid al-Haram, is there? The temples of Buddhism and Hinduism in the other country sometimes are in the forest, but it seems to me they happen to be surrounded by trees now, whereas before they were built in the middle of an important city made of stones. So, when you want to see how completely manicured forest can be like in Japan, the easiest way would be to visit an old, large, well-respected Shintoism shrine. The New Year holiday season is a good time to do that as there are lots of rituals and festivals taken place in shrines.

Gomayashiki Spring for anybody to collect water
Masakado-no-Kubi-Zuka 将門の首塚,
in really the center of Tokyo,
surrounded by skyscrapers

Er, I know it was an important point when Emperor Hirohito was a candidate for defendant during Tokyo Tribunal of War Criminals … Emperor, Shintoism, and ultra-nationalism in Japan … in any case, it is a historical fact the placement of Shintoism shrine was all the important political issue especially during the 11th – 12th centuries in Japan. The government of Imperial Family in Kyoto utilized local animistic belief to control provincial politics. They chose the most popular shrine as “Ichino-miya 一宮“, i.e. the First Shrine, in each prefecture as a spiritual part of Emperor him/herself where the governor, dispatched or designated by the Kyoto Government, must have worshiped with at most respect. During the millennium, some shrines went irrecoverable decline with the ever-diminishing real power of Kyoto … These days, there are several Ichino-miyas which do not have a full-time caretaker … While the others still go strong after all of these years. Kanagawa Prefecture is made of a part of former Musashi-no-kuni 武蔵国 (Kawasaki and a part of Yokohama) and Sagami-no-kuni 相模国 (the rest of Kanagawa). We have Ichino-miya of Sagami-no-kuni whose name is SamukawaShrine 寒川神社. Our Samukawa Shrine has hidden, vast, and strong connections to present-day local politics (oh, yeah). Their forest has lots of trees dedicated to the imperial family.

The main entrance to Samukawa Shrine.
The other day, an American arborist told me
theirs were one of the best Pinus thunbergii he has seen in Japan.

The tree behind the lantern is
to celebrate the birth of Princess Aiko,
the only child of the Crown Prince.

The access to Samukawa Shrine is not so difficult. You take JR Sagami Line to Miyayama Station 宮山 that is 500m from the Shrine. From the JR station, it is about 5-10 min walk. When you come from the downtown Tokyo or Yokohama, you first go to Ebina Station 海老名 of Odakyu/Sotetsu Lines, and transfer to Sagami Line there. During Shogatsu San-ga-nichi period 正月三ヶ日, i.e. (after 21:00 of December 31 and) January 1-3, there are special direct bus services from Ebina to Samukawa Shrine so that you can take this service, if you like. The Shrine has very large several parking spaces. If you don’t mind to navigate the traffic jam and long waiting in a car for the New Year’s Festival, you can drive there too. Sagami Line, connecting Chigasaki City 茅ヶ崎 and Hashimoto Town 橋本 of Sagamihara City 相模原市, is one of the remaining single-track railroads in metropolitan Tokyo area, which implies the service runs country side … Certainly, Miyayama Station with only one gate does not have a full-time staff. When we exit from the Station, a large sign post says “Samukawa Shrine, this way.” We simply walk to the direction of the arrow, straight, and the main entrance of the Shrine is next to a traffic light whose name is “Samukawa Jinja Mae (寒川神社前 i.e. The main entrance to Samukawa Shrine).” The area looks suburban enough, especially when we compare the scenery with mountainous communities in Tanzawa and Hakone. The place has Samukawa Shrine for about 1,500 years. It is believed that the Shrine is a home of brother and sister gods, Samukawahiko-no-mikoto 寒川比古命 and Samukahime-no-mikoto 寒川比女命 who were said to establish jointly the communities around the Shrine. So, the Imperial Family of 1000 years ago decided to make a peace treaty with the local deity to govern Sagami-no-kuni.

Miyayama Station. It’s their only one gate.
Sagami Line

Before riding on/off the train,
we have to open the door with the button.
I just noticed a slight difference
from some other train services
with door buttons overseas …
When it is cold,
the last person checks if it is safe enough
to close the door, and push the button inside or out.
If you don’t do this,
a sharp look from everybody attacks you.
(“Oh, how rude!”)
Be careful.
Like any other tourist destination in Japan,
Samukawa Shrine area has
their signature souvenir sweet,
called Hachifuku-mochi
It’s a sweet rice cake covered with
sweet red bean paste (anko
Hmmmm, frankly, I think it resembles with
赤福餅 of Ise Grand Shrine 伊勢神宮.
The sign in front of the Station
showing the way to the Shrine
Samukawa Jinja Mae traffic light

Not for nothing Samukawa Shrine is there for such a long time. Especially during the first 3 days of January, the place is huber-popular. About half a million visitors came for the first 3 days of 2016 to ask the gods of Samukawa Shrine a good luck of the entire year. Samukawa Shrine has the New Year’s ritual at 0:00 of January 1st every year so that you can plan to experience huge crowd of Japanese New Year there … I personally do not like the melee, though. Instead, I suggest you 12:30 of December 31st for looking, or attending, the O-harae Ritual 大祓 at the Shrine. Being Ichino-miya, it is one of the main festivals of Samukawa Shrine praying for the peace of the nation. The actual ritual starts at 13:00 but about 1000 people come to join the Norito Prayer 祝詞 so that to secure the best view of the festival, better go early. Oh, no reservation (or I guess even religious belief) is necessary for attendance. The brother and sister gods of Samukawa are generous enough. ;-)

The pine trees
in Samukawa Shrine are tall,
and perfectly manicured.

The O-harae program goes like this. First we go to the gate of the main Shrine where people are already gathering to make a line in front of the shrine office building. There are several traffic controllers of the Shrine who would usher you to the last of the crowd. First-come-first-served. The priests also distribute us a small packet that contains a kit for O-harae: a Norito Prayer flyer, a paper doll, a pinch of dried cogon grass, and confetti made of white washi papers. At 13:00, the lined senior priests come out of the office building. The chief priest starts to read the beginning of the Norito Prayer in the flyer. We simply recite together the prayer that is not meshed in grey from the flyer. …er, it’s in very old Japanese … could be difficult to be comprehended unless you have some knowledge of ancient Japanese. In any case, all the Chinese characters have kana in the flyer. You can at least read aloud if you know furigana. The contents are like “Oh, gods of Japan, we know there have been tons of sinful things on earth this year. We are so sorry for this. Could you please help us to purify them before the New Year comes? Er, you said OK? How generous you are to wash away our dirty things with vast ocean water! We thank you, thank you, thank you.” After reading the prayer together, the priests suggest us first to sprinkle dried cogon grass and confetti over our head, then to rub our body with a paper doll. (Please, do not do it as you are in a shower: just touching several parts of your body will be enough.) We then inspire our breath 3 times to the doll and enclose it in a packet that it came together.  The Norito prayer flyer is your souvenir. The priests will come to collect our packet with the doll that are ritually disposed in water to purify the sins we have committed … I guess these days no municipality allows any shrine to damp the large amount of paper garbage in river or sea … there must be some sort of modern solution … We then follow the escort to enter the gate of the sanctuary and visit the inner shrine. After this, shrine maidens will serve us a cup of fresh sake brewed this year, and distribute us “rakugan” cakes 落雁 in the shape of Imperial chrysanthemum emblem. It takes about 30 minutes for all. The tone of Norito prayer is meditative enough for soothing, the Shrine campus is completely cleaned to welcome the New Year, the size of the crowd is far smaller than for 8 hours later, and we can have good sake and sweets. Not a bad deal, don’t you think?

The gate of the inner shrine of Samukawa
Every year the congregation from Aomori Prefecture
 donates Nebuta paper sculpture to Samukawa Shrine,
which will be displayed at the gate.
We wait in line.
The priests come out from the office.
The Norito prayer flier
A paper doll for O-harae
To the inner shrine
The beau who serves fresh sake
The structures in the Samukawa Shrine campus is surrounded by lots of trees majority of which have place cards like “For the coronation anniversary of Emperor Heisei,” or “The donation from the congregation in Shizuoka Prefecture.” Actually, the main O-harae Ritual is done at Imperial Palace by the Emperor every 31st of December, and Ichino-miyas nation-wide are a kind of supporters of the Imperial prayer. When we have good sake, inside of the inner shrine the registered congregation of the Samukawa Shrine continues the annual ritual. Eventually, the priests call the names of each congregation for offering a branch of cleyera japonica that is a must-have as a sacred object in Shintoism. You’ll notice the people who hold the sacred branch includes members of Japanese Diet representing the Samukawa area, chiefs of municipal offices, local leaders of neighborhood associations, chambers of commerce, agricultural cooperative …

a place stone in Samukawa Shrine
for the national anthem

Telling you the truth, Samukawa Shrine has another secret that is a forest open only for those asking a personalized purification ritual (at the cost of at least JPY6000 or so). It’s one of the best modern Zen Gardens in Japan, called Kantake-yama Shinen 神獄山神苑. It was designed in 2009 by Shunmyo Masuno 枡野俊明, the Chief Priest for Kenkohjji-Temple 建功寺 in Yokohama, and an award-winning Zen garden designer. It is said that the garden is a conceptual forest where humans can meditate within a flow of open, and closed, nature …The garden is open during March - early December. If you have spiritual need to have a personalized Shintoism purification, please try and enjoy one of the most conceptualized forests in Japan. Oh, by the way, I have not experienced the personalized purification yet … $60 is always the hurdle for me, owing to lots of my klesha … sigh.

The Zen garden can be accessible
from the west of inner shrine.
Over there is supposed to be the place of meditation.

Samukawa Shrine 寒川神社
3916 Miyayama, Samukawa-cho, Koza-gun, Kanagawa, 253-0195
(Phone) 0467-75-0004

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