Saturday 30 March 2019

End of an Era at Meiji Shrine: Giant Torii, Sacred Sake, and Horns of Jealousy

Blossom for soon-to-be-empress Princess Masako

Here in Japan, as the sakura bloom, many are eagerly awaiting the announcement of the new era name as the current emperor prepares to abdicate (Just announced - the new name is Reiwa=令和). As well as the Western calendar, Japan also has its own calendar known as the nengō (年号) system; in modern times this has corresponded with the name of an imperial era. So the Heisei era (as the current period is known) started with the accession of the current emperor Akihito in January 1989 and will end on April 30 2019 - the 31st year of Heisei - when he abdicates in favour of Crown Prince Naruhito. Interestingly, during his reign the emperor is never called by his name but only as emperor (ten'nō=天皇); after his reign he will be referred to as Emperor Heisei (平成天皇). Thus, if you ask a Japanese the real name of a current or former emperor most will not know.

The custom of posthumously naming an Emperor after the era during which they ruled began after the death of the Emperor Meiji in 1912 (film buffs may remember the very young emperor portrayed in The Last Samurai). The Emperor Meiji is enshrined - but not buried - in Meiji Shrine (Meiji Jingū=明治神宮) which boasts 100,000 trees right in the centre of Tokyo, just a stone's throw from Harajuku Station. The shrine was finished in 1920, burnt down during World War II, and rebuilt in 1958. The giant torii gate at the entrance to the shrine complex must be one of the most photographed places in Tokyo. As you walk into the shrine, there are more of these imposing gates, including the Ōtorii (大鳥居) Grand Shrine Gate which at 12m tall is the biggest wooden torii in Japan. It is made of 1500 year old Japanese cypress (hinoki) and if you look carefully, you will also see branches with sakaki leaves tied to the bottom of the gates, a species of evergreen sacred to Shinto.

Talking of things sacred to Shinto, sake (rice wine) is high on the list. Walking through the shrine precinct you will come across a giant wall of refined sake (seishu=清酒) barrels wrapped in straw which are given as offerings every year by the Sake Brewers Association. A little further on you will come to the Meiji Memorial Hall where the Meiji Constitution was signed; Shinto weddings (shinzen kekkon =神前結婚) are also performed here (if you have enough money!). (Ceremonial) sake drinking is a key part of the ceremony, specifically the drinking of three cups three times (nan-nan-san-ku-do). The evergreen mentioned earlier also features, with the priest offering some to the altar near the end of the ceremony.
These two giant 'husband and wife' camphor trees planted in 1920 at the time of the enshrinement of the emperor have become a symbol of happy marriage and harmonious life within the family
The day I visited I was lucky enough to see a wedding procession headed by the Shinto priests (note the amagutsu footwear) followed by two shrine maidens (miko) and the bride and groom. Note the bride's white paper headwear, known as a tsuno-kakushi (角隠し) or "horn hider". The meaning of this is rather unclear, but in Japan if someone is angry people often gesture with index fingers making horns on the head. Thus, the "horn hider" seems to mean that wives should suppress any anger/jealousy and be obedient to their husband! For those of you who assume this is the 'traditional' gender role, be careful: the Shinto marriage ceremony and indeed many of the social norms relating to how wives and mothers 'should' act are recent inventions, created after the beginning of the Meiji era.