Saturday 17 August 2013

Obon time - Tokyo temples and shrines

I had to make a trip to my local government office today to get hold of a document I needed.  I needed to go through Shinjuku to do this and out side of Shinjuku station I saw the latest model Hybrid Toyota Corolla looking great in a tailored pair of jeans!

I know what you are thinking, but I'm sorry, I don't know the answer.  It looked pretty cool though!

So I got in and out of the Local Government office in record time which was great and heading back through Shinjuku station I spied something that I had been keen to try for a while.  One of the beer makers here in Japan, Asahi, had put out a new product this summer.  Asahi's biggest product is their Super Dry beer, but the new product was Asahi Super Dry Extra Cold, kept at -2.1 degrees C!  They have an area inside Shinjuku station set up as a temporary bar where you can go and drink it, so I dropped in on my way through the station.  

 They have the Super cold in two styles, their regular draught and also their black draught beer.  I asked the waitress for a "kuro nama", Japanese for a glass of black beer.  She looked at me a little confused and said to me in English, "black beer?"   I thought that was funnyAnyway, it came out

and to be honest, I was disappointed.  It was good beer, just like it usually is, but there was nothing really different about it.  I was expecting a frosty beer slushie, but it was just a regular glass of beer that was a fraction colder than a regular beer.  Oh well, it still disappeared quickly.

I continued on my way back home feeling a little cooler, but not much else.

In Japan in August, it is Obon time.  It is usually celebrated around the 15th of August, although in a couple of regions in Japan it is celebrated earlier, in July.  Obon is a time where people traditionally go back to their hometowns to remember and pray for family members who have passed away.  It is a Buddhist custom that dates back about 500 years in Japan.  Here is a link to a website with some more information on Obon.

A couple of weeks ago in one of my lessons my student came in with a big bunch of flowers.  It was the first time I had taught this particular lady and I asked her if the flowers were for her.  She said no and that she was going to visit her Grandfather's grave tomorrow.  So we started talking a little about Obon and I asked her what I could do if I couldn't visit my family member's grave, as it would have been my father's birthday the night before and I had been thinking about him.  She told me that I could just pray, or go to a Shrine or Temple and pray.  Suddenly she started crying.  I got her some tissues and she apologised and explained that it was the anniversary of her Grandfather's death tomorrow.  It was the 16th anniversary of his death, but she explained that she had grown up living with her Grandparents and that she had good memories and missed them.  I told her that I understood and that it would have been my father's birthday the previous day.  So we both shed a tear and then composed ourselves and continued on with the lesson.  So today (knowing that there are a few temples and shrines around my neighbourhood, I decided that I would visit a few of them for Obon.

Very close to my house is a little Shrine that I put a couple of pictures up of in an an earlier blog postI decided to go back and have another look.  I think I am right when I call this one a Shrine as I think it is only Shrines that have this style of gate, but I am not an expert so I may be wrong.  If I am, can someone please correct me.

Occasionally when I walk past I see someone in there, but today, it was just me and the pigeons.

I don't know the name of this Shrine, so I can't give any information about it.  It must be just a regular neighbourhood Shrine, but that doesn't make it any less peaceful and I sometimes come here to spend a few minutes in contemplation.  I was happy to see, however, that my local Shrine is getting behind the efforts to bring the Olympic Games to Tokyo in 2020!

The main Shrine building.

These structure here, I believe you make a monetary offering, say your prayer and then ring the bell when you have finished.

I don't know what these were for but they all had the same message on them.

These are peoples prayers and hopes for the future.  They are tied to these boards and are left outside so that the wind carries the prayers and wishes out into the world.

Each Shrine has a main gate called a Torii.  It is considered a gateway to the gods.  It separates the common space from the sacred space inside.

I finished at this beautiful little shrine and went off in search of a nearby temple that I knew of.  On the way I passed a pleasantly surprising sight!  I walk down this street nearly every day, but I had never seen this, just inset from the street.

A little Shrine by the side of the road.  Unfortunately it was closed so I couldn't get inside to have a look.

I continued on and found the Temple that I was after.  From what I can gather from "google translated" Japanese website is is called Dai En Temple Suginami and dates back to the 1600's although when originally constructed, it was not located here.  It seems to have been moved here in 1908.

Similar to Shrines, Buddhist Temples in Japan have a main gate (romon or nijumon if it has two levels) and serve the same purpose as a Shinto Torii does.

Just like Shinto Shrines often have statues of animals protecting the gates, Buddhist Temple gates also have guardians,

I stepped inside and started wandering around.  Again, apart from the staff, I was the only person there.  The staff gave me a polite nod when they walked past and left me alone to wander around and take some photos.  I felt like I was intruding to be honest but they didn't seem to mind at all.

Each Temple and Shrine usually has a graveyard nearby, and this one had it on the Temple grounds.

I walked in and around some of the graves and right at the rear was this spectacular tombstone. 

It was possibly the tombstone for the Temple founder maybe.

This was also a beautiful one, I liked the tree next to it.

The road just outside was not a busy one, and the tranquillity of the environment was really nice.

I moved on though, into the neighbouring suburb of Omiya.

I didn't know the neighbouring suburb was called Omiya and I had been reading about Omiya in the news recently (although a different place in Tokyo called Omiya).  I had been reading that Socceroos captain Lucas Neill was poised to sign with a J-League team based in the city of Omiya, about 45 minutes to the north of Tokyo.  Well, Lucas, if you happen to stumble across my blog, please sign, and I promise I will come and watch some games!

A few months ago, one of my students had mentioned a Shrine I should check out in Omiya, so I went looking for it.  It wasn't too difficult to find, and when I did, I was stunned!

Standing tall and grand in front of me was the gate of Omiya Hachimangu Shrine!  From what I have been able to find about it, it was established in the year 1063.  Since then it more than likely has had to be rebuilt as most shrines have due to destruction by earthquake or fire.  People go here to  pray for strong marriage ties, safe childbirth and for the successful raising of children because the gods that are worshipped here are family.  I have found out that the annual shrine festival is in September!  I want to go!!  Just have to find out when it is in September.

I stepped inside and was engulfed in trees, the air noticeably cooling and the sound of cicadas filled the air.  The Shrine's second gates lay ahead.

Looking back at the two gates.

A little further on, on the right was a nice bamboo forest.

There was a huge number of little paths and trails leading........somewhere.  It looked like they had closed gates so I didn't go exploring.

Just outside the interior gates was a water fountain.  You wash your hands and drink the water from it to cleanse yourself before you.  This cleansing yourself shows respec for the Gods.

I felt like pouring some over the top of my head to cool down, but I think that's not such a good thing to do, so I didn't.....the Gods might not have been happy.

I noticed that either side of the interior gate was decorated by a different character.

It's times like these I really wish I could read Japanese!  Walking through the interior gate

I entered the main interior grounds.  There were a lot of Shinto priests walking around looking busy.  There was also a shop selling items that have been blessed by the priests.  You buy these for good luck for the situations mentioned above, marriage, childbirth and raising children.

The main shrine itself was hidden behind some kind of temporary structure so I had to get a side-on shot of it.

Here is another example of people tying their prayers and hopes onto a board outside hoping they will come true.

Off to the sides and behind the main Shrine are a couple of smaller shrines.

A young lady (who worked at the shrine in some capacity) came along and patiently waited for me to take my pictures gave me a smile and proceeded to close up the smaller shrines.  I don't know if in the Shinto religion women can be priests or whether she was studying Shintoism.

I wandered off in another direction and heard "THWACK" to my left.  I stopped and looked in the direction of the noise and saw some people practicing Japanese archery (Kyudo).  

I stopped and watched for a while and noticed one girl struggling to hit the targets that were placed 28 metres away.  Her instructor came up to her and holding her by the arms, moved her arms in a very deliberate circle that extended the arrow and string away from the bow until at full extension, the bow was fully drawn.  She released the arrow which, to her credit, did get a lot closer to the target.  Satisfied with her action and movement, the instructor nodded his head and moved off to the next student.

I continued on and found myself in a park right next to the shrine.  I walked down some steps to a bridge that was crossing a small river.

Worried that they might close the Shrine gates on me, I headed back up the stairs to enter back into the Shrine.  I stopped at the first step as I noticed some kind of symbol engraved into the step.

I don't know what it means or why it is there, but as with most things in Japan, it probably does have a meaning and a purpose!  If anyone knows, please feel free to comment.

 As the light began to fade, I decided I would head for home and exiting the Shrine I noticed a display talking about the trees and plants along the walkway to the Shrine.

As I exited the Shrine and started walking along the street I looked up and noticed this on the light pole.

It says "Harmony Road".   I thought "that's a cute name for the road" and then I looked behind me and saw exactly what they meant!

 I got back home really satisfied with my day at the Temples and Shrines in my neighbourhood and my ears ringing from the sounds of the cicadas in the summer air.  Who would have known that I had such a beautiful and old Shrine only 20 minutes walk from where I live.

I had had my Obon, and had said a couple of prayers for my father who, seven years on from his death, I still miss greatly.

Thank you again for reading.  Have a good week and see you again next week.


  1. Hi Jason.It was always fascinating to come accross these "hidden" shrines.I rememember one in Kyoto,situated at he back of an arcade full of shops...just passing by ,so I thought,go take a look.And there were others wherever I went,all quite interesting in some way.I even found on 2 occasions kids playing "temple baseball" on the gravel inside the temple grounds and they said "hi mister".They were using plastic equipment.These little surprises tucked away in somewhat unlikely places,made the day that little bit more interesting.Travellers,passing through Japan on organised tours miss out on these little treats and really don;t get to know shall we say the "real" Japan.All the best,Noel.

  2. Hi again Jason.A member of the AFl's anti doping tribunal has stated that ASADA reported to them early in Feb . this year, that the anti obesity drug given to the players, was not on the banned list.This drug has been central to the case against the Dons.Let's hope that this will pave the way to a lesser case against the Dons and relieve some of the pressure on everyone and the Dons can get back on track again , leading into the finals.Noel

    1. Hi Noel,

      I always get a thrill when I stumble across these gems and you are so right, organised tours neve go to these places. The places they go to are always packed full of tourists and you never get that peaceful "Zen" like feeling that I get, and I'm sure you got, when you found these places.

      I hadn't heard that news about the Bombers. Here's happening that is positive news. I hope Hird and Thompson stay. I think it would be a shame to lose those two. I watched a replay of the Dean Robinson interview, and although he was trying to pin the blame on Hird, he lept saying that Hird told him that whatever they did, it had to be legal. We could do without another loss this weekend. Fingers crossed.

  3. Bit of a tear jerker that Jase. Thanks for sharing and keeping it real. I've been reading all your posts by the way, just letting you know that I'm still with you :)

    1. Cheers Scott. It is, as you know, a bit of an emotional time of year for our family.
      Thanks for keeping on reading mate. Happy to hear that.
      Take care.