By Yukihiro Watanabe
The Kanda Myojin Shrine is dedicated to a guardian god that has protected shoguns and citizens of Japan since the Edo Period. Located in central Tokyo, it is where major Japanese companies in Marunouchi, Otemachi and Nihonbashi gather their employees to worship at the start of each new year.
It is also close to the technology center of Akihabara, a sanctuary for young people from around the globe who come to seek anime, model figures, and maid cafes. Even the famous AKB48 idol group offers prayers there, which shows that the Kanda Shrine is successfully keeping up with the times and attracting modern worshippers.
The photo shows the introductory seminar for miko (shrine maidens), which the shrine offers every August for the last 14 years.
The seminar began in response to the strong interest in knowing more about miko. It is a one-day course for young women that teaches about the roles and required knowledge of a miko. Such an opportunity is rare, even for Japanese people.
The shrine kindly invited me to join this fascinating program. I did, and it instilled in me a profound understanding of the Japanese perception of religion.
The ‘Miko’ Seminar
There were 15 participants in this year’s miko seminar, all of whom were young women eager to learn about the shrine.
During the program, many participants suffered numb legs from sitting in the seiza style. After all, the increase of homes without tatami mats means that this generation is unaccustomed to sitting in the traditional way.
Impressively, though, the assiduous students continued to focus on the lesson despite the pain in their legs. I felt it offered a glimpse of the piety of Japanese.
The seminar program was tightly packed and covered topics such as:
- Formal worship
- An explanation of formal worship at the shrine
- The history of Japanese shrines in general, Shintoism, and Kanda shrine in particular
- A tour of the shrine’s museum
- A silent meal with recitation of waka poetry before and after
- Reading and explanation of Oharaenokotoba incantations
- Manners and etiquette
- An explanation of gagaku music and opportunity to touch the instruments
- A demonstration of a shrine wedding
- Viewing of the shrine maiden dance
Gods Who Dwell in the Rice and Other Food
For me, the most memorable event was the mealtime. In Christianity and other religions it is normal to be grateful to a deity. The same can be said of Shintoism. But a major difference and uniqueness of the Japanese religious perspective is its polytheism: the belief in yaoyorozu no kami, or a countless number of gods.
The mealtime included an important ceremony to express gratitude for the labor and toil that was involved in preparing our meal and for the grace of the gods who dwell in the rice and other food.
Before and after eating, all of us recited waka poems thanking the different gods, then bowed and clapped our hands in worship.
The meal was eaten in silence.
Unlike normal meals where you would make pleasant conversation, the silent meal becomes a meditation on the lives that were given up for our own lives — the meat, fish, and vegetables that we consume.
A deep sense of gratitude swelled up inside me. One often hears the phrases “itadakimasu” and “gochisousama” uttered by the Japanese before and after meals. I suddenly understood how the words themselves are infused with thanksgiving for life.
Japanese Day-to-day Life with Religion
When asked, most Japanese people say that they don’t belong to any religion. This is because many Japanese are unaware that they are actually polytheists.
For example, we go on hatsumode (the first Shinto shrine visit of the year) to pray for a healthy year, our family’s happiness, and prosperous business. During the summertime Bon festival, we go to Buddhist temples to attend memorial services for our ancestors. On Christmas, we go to Christian churches and sing hymns. In a way, Japanese people respect all gods.
When we start families, we go to the shrine to pray for safe childbirth. We take our newborns to the shrine for blessings and bring our children to undergo the shichi-go-san (7-5-3 years old) rites of passage as they grow up.
When constructing a new home or office building, a kannushi from the local shrine will come many times to the building site to conduct purification rituals. When we walk past hills, boulders, and sacred trees bound with Shimenawa ropes, we quietly put our hands together in respect.
In reality, the Japanese are a very pious people. The Kanda Shrine is one place in Tokyo where this unique religious faith can be strongly felt and where one can learn about the traditions of the faith.
The shrine will be opening a new cultural exchange hall in December, which will also be available to hold various events.
Click here to learn more about the shrine.