Sunday, March 31, 2013

My Japanese Easter moment

I had an Easter moment in Japan.

Despite the fact that daily life in Japan shows absolutely no sign of this being the Easter weekend – I encountered God in a Shinto shrine.

Amy tells me that modern Japanese people see themselves as a secular society. So I did some research, and found that their history is a combination of Shinto and  Buddhism. We have visited both Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. Some are placed magnificently on top of hills, while others are tucked away alongside bustling city roads.

I also discovered that the Emperor Meiji found Shinto to be a useful tool to unify Japan. He made Shinto the official religion, known as State Shinto, with shrines under government control. Later, during World War Two, Japanese nationalism required everyone to participate in State Shinto and accept the Emperor as divine. After the war, the shrines were taken out of government control, and State Shinto was abolished

It seems that since then, organized religious participation has declined, Japanese society has become secular, and religious study in general has become less important. Perhaps this is a reaction to the state using the religious sentiments of the people for political purposes. What we have observed, however, is that the people are still spiritual. The shrines all have fresh flowers, the temples have burning candles and incense, and there is a steady stream of people visiting their holy places to offer prayers.
Which brings me to my God-moment.

Yesterday – Easter Saturday - Amy took us to visit a local Shinto Shrine in Sasayama. It is called Ojiyama makekirai inari. This can be loosely translated as “hate to lose”, which indicates that this is a place to pray for victory. Many students come here to pray for success in examinations. We climbed the rows and rows of stairs up the hill towards the shrine at the top. They are intended to slow a person down, to allow us to pause, and breathe, and think. And they do.

Jenny and I were taking pictures, and enjoying the sense of leaving the noise of the town and entering a tree-lined sanctuary, when things changed for me. I found myself standing in front of a shrine just to the left, and below, the main shrine. And I lost my desire to take more photographs, or to talk, or to do anything other than stand in silence. I had this sense that God was enveloping me. I knew that I was loved, and I stood rooted to the spot in silent awe. After a while I found one of the candles placed in front of the shrine and lighted it in reverence for this moment of peace.

Ojiyama makekirai inari
 As I stepped back I saw that the shrine was crowned with a cross. I do not have a clue what symbolism was intended by those who built this shrine – but this was my Easter place. I prayed at the foot of this cross, and my spirit was renewed. Jenny and Amy joined me in lighting candles, and there was really no need for words. We worshipped God.


Friday, March 29, 2013

Sakura and a Blossoming Spring.

We have arrived in Japan just as the cherry blossoms are coming out. And they are stunning in their beauty. Their flowers literally take over their cherry-trees (called "sakura").The Japanese hold flower-viewing parties (Hanami), in which large numbers of people arrive at parks, shrines, and temples with family and friends to enjoy a spring break. 
These flowers are so eagerly anticipated, that the Japanese Meteorological Agency posts a nightly forecasts of the sakura zensen (cherry blossom front) as it moves from south to north with the approach of warmer weather.

In Japan, while the cherry blossoms can represent innocence, simplicity and spring, they have a long standing symbolic value: In the past, the samurai culture admired the flower since samurais (like the cherry blossom) were considered to have a relatively short life expectancy… and also because they believed the flower represented drops of blood.
For many, the transience of the blossoms - their extreme beauty and quick death - is embodied in the concept of mono no aware (もののあはれ?). [1] Mono no aware - literally "the pathos of things" - is a Japanese term for the awareness of impermanence (無常, mujō?), or transience of things, and a gentle sadness at their passing.

For us as visitors, we have loved the flowers, and have enjoyed the wonderment of the people as they emerge from their winter into spring.


[1] The association of the cherry blossom with mono no aware dates back to 18th-century scholar Motoori Norinaga.]

Thursday, March 28, 2013


Today, in Osaka-Shi we walked through ‘American town’. And I suppose it makes sense. In South Africa I have visited ‘China Town’, and ‘Indian Town’ and ‘Little Italy’ – so why not have an ‘American Town’ in the middle of a very large Japanese City. It is called Ame-mura by the Japanese and is located in Shinsaibashi in the Minami district of Osaka.

Let us be clear: This section of the city is not American. It is really an expression of the fascination of Japanese young people with all things American. This consists of shops selling American branded clothing and the products of American chain food outlets. There are Japanese girls who dress in jeans and impossibly high heels, who dye their hair blond or brown, and who wear hip-hop caps. The music of American musicians play in every shop, and leather jackets and high tops are the uniform of the young men.

In truth, it is lively and fun and young – and Japanese.


Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Beautiful Kyoto

We spent the day in Kyoto (phonetically pronounced 'Ki-your-door'). This is the city that gives its name to an international treaty.[1]  Well - today this city was beautiful. The cherry blossoms are budding, which adds beauty to an already lovely city.

This is a city of startling contrasts. It is a busy city of bicycles, scooters, pedestrians, cars and busses; it is a city of fashion shopping, the newest gadgets and digital offerings, alongside ancient shrines and temples; a city of beautiful women in high heels under miniskirts, alongside elaborately made up girls in the traditional kimono.

I Can hear you exclaim – “Kimono? Didn’t the Japanese shed their traditional dress in the mid 19th century with the import of suits dresses and other western fashions?” Yes they did. The men all wear suits and ties to work, and the women dress exquisitely and in the latest fashions. But it would seem that on holidays, and for special events the kimono and other accoutrements of the geisha or maiko are still popular with Japanese girls. I guess the arrival of the cherry blossoms warranted a ‘kimono outing’.

So we were spoiled with a festival of colours, and are grateful for the day.




[1] The Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is an international treaty that sets binding obligations on industrialized countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013


It is actually covered in sheets of pure gold!

This is the Golden Pavilion Temple, also called Kinkaku-ji in Japanese. This magnificent Zen temple was built in 1397 and it is located in Kyoto. It was intended as a shariden, storing the remains of the Buddha’s ashes. The entire temple is surrounded by a beautiful garden that looks out on the Mirror Pond.

But what was originally designed to be a tranquil setting, with waterfalls, quiet gardens and expansive space for prayers and contemplation was shattered by the crowds of Japanese tourists who flocked to this site. Cameras clicked, people commented at the beauty of the setting, and the curio stalls did a roaring trade. People queued to ring the prayer bell, and wave the incense of the prayer sticks over themselves. My first reaction was one of sadness. Here was a secular curiosity at the ‘old ways’, which is now nothing more than a commercial venture.

It was my daughter Amy’s astute comment that changed my mind: “Look at the age of these tourists Dad” she said. The majority are young people. She noted that these young people come back again and again to sites such as these. They come for picnics in summer, and see this as a suitable place to take a girl/boyfriend on a date. This has become one of the places of pilgrimage for the youth of Japan. This is not a visit done in solemn silence: it is noisy, talkative and interactive. But they keep coming back.

So I sat outside of the monk's platform, where they used to pray overlooking the lake - and offered a prayer for God's blessing on all who seek a spiritual life.



Monday, March 25, 2013

International Eating.

Oh the irony of being South Africans in Japan, ordering kebabs in an Indian restaurant, off a menu written in Japanese. The waiter was a very polite Japanese man, who knew the English names of the food on the menu. The chef was Japanese, who came out of the kitchen to thank us for coming to eat. The Indian was the photograph on the wall, the music, the decor, and the excellent food. That was fun.
Sent via my BlackBerry

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Checking the Labels.

I have just returned from shopping at Seven Eleven. And I had to do my shopping by pictures and familiar international brands. This is because I am shopping in Sasayama, Japan.

I have come to visit my daughter Amy, who is an English teacher in a small Japanese town, made famous for its black bean harvest and wild boar hunting. Amy began last August, and has just renewed her contract for another year. When her Granny Edwina John heard this, she decided that she needed to visit her granddaughter. So at 88yrs old, she instructed Jenny and me to accompany her on a Japanese adventure.

The trip to Osaka (with a stop in Dubai) took us 24 hours. Amy met us at the airport, and got us back to her home, via a bus shuttle into the city, an hour’s train trip north-west into the country, and a car ride from the station to her home. Needless to say, we were exhausted, and slept for the next 12 hours. Which takes me to the shopping excursion.

There I was patrolling the shelves while Jenny, Amy and Granny did the real shopping. (You understand that men browse for interesting, and often ‘off the list’ things, while women buy the necessary stuff that keeps us alive).The problem was that I did not know what I was looking at. The shelves were full – but incomprehensible. The labels were in Japanese. Then, just as I was getting desperate, I saw a label I recognised:  Nestlé . It was with relief that I confidently approached the shelf in search of coffee.... only to find that while the brand was recognisable, the rest of the writing on the bottle was Japanese! So I have come back to Amy’s home clutching a bottle of インスタントコーヒー.

And I am happy.