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Saturday, Dec. 3, 2005

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Divine intervention for shrine epiphany


People always ask, "Amy, what do you do all day long on that island?" I assure them there is never a dull moment. A constant stream of visitors, mostly foreign, come to Shiraishi Island throughout the year. Some come out of curiosity, others to escape the city or catch a glimpse of old Japan. Some want to trek through the mountains, while others come on a pilgrimage or to seek spiritual enlightenment, to feel the powers of the "kami" (gods). And because our island has deep roots in Shinto and shamanism, people usually find it.

News photo
A shinto priest swishes a green branch trimmed with sacred "gohei" paper strips at Eigojin Shrine.

Recently a man from Hawaii pronounced his love affair with Japan finally over. Unlike his previous visits, every turn on this trip had been a disappointment. He stayed here a week, and on his last day was blown away by our island's Bussharito Festival. "This has made my whole trip worthwhile," he said. He was in love again. I try to help people find their enlightenment via the powers of the island. And I expect to receive a commission from the gods some day.

Other days drive themselves, like when I was coming home on the ferry from the mainland last week. I was busy reading a book when suddenly someone whispered "Amy" to me from across the aisle. I looked up and saw the Shinto priest all dressed in his formal robes.

"Are you coming to Shiraishi today?" I asked him.

"Yes, today we have the Rei-go matsuri."

I had known the Rei-go festival would be held soon, but not this soon. Dec. 5 was the day most people expected. When I asked where it would be held (there are several shrines on the island), they said it would be at the "tori" (bird). I took this as a shortened form of Tori no Kuchi (Bird's Mouth), the name of one part of the island.

"Tori no Kuchi?" I said.

"No, no, the tori at the temple."

My mind ran through stone images and other possible relationships to birds near the temple. Then it finally dawned on me what they were saying. Not tori, but "torii" (Shinto gate). So you can see why I considered it divine intervention that I happened to meet the priest on his way to this ceremony on a day when I thought the ceremony wouldn't be held.

I walked through the torii gate at Eigojin Shrine, passing from the ordinary world into the divine -- a divine world of men in black suits, that is. The gray ponytail man was there, as well as the cartoon samurai (with a long black tuft of hair combed back on the top of his head) and 20 other familiar-looking men. As I was the only woman, I stood at the bottom of the steps of the shrine and watched from afar as they lit candles, chanted and drank sake for spiritual purification. When finished, they would go to Kojin Shrine to pray there. The Shinto priest walked down the steps and joined me.

"Is this for men only?" I asked him.

"It used to be. But don't worry, you can join us. Here, take this," he said, and thrust at me a paper scroll with sutras on it. "Now you can follow along."

At Kojin Shrine, I stood with the men in black suits. I was so close, I could see the priest's heels hanging over his sandals in his "tabi" socks. When the priest swished a green branch trimmed with "gohei" paper strips over our bowed heads, it sounded as if we were under a large tree during winds before a storm. Purified by the gods, we stood in front of the shrine under a big rock and chanted. It wasn't long before the birds had joined in and insects were flittering about our choir. In the autumn sun, surrounded by the powers of nature, enlightenment finds those who seek it.

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