Standing on Ceremony: Soaking up Rituals in Japan

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Adventures with Friends, Festivals, Global Culture, Temples

Ceremonies and rituals are a constant source of fascination for me. There is an air of mystery to them, at least to a relative outsider like me. The scientist in me makes me more matter of fact, but that same scientific spirit also makes me curious about the unknown and unfamiliar. The symbolism behind rituals seems like a poetry of sorts, and I appreciate the careful thought that likely served as the foundation for their development, probably years and years ago. And while I don’t always agree with the underpinnings of rituals, there is often an undeniable beauty to them. From even a purely visual perspective, they can be captivating.

Rituals in Japan are no exception. If you’re lucky, you too might have the privilege of observing a few.

For years, I had wanted to experience Japan. After a recent trip to Tokyo, I can only say that I have barely scratched the surface, however I hope to (and likely will) build on that experience in the very near future. Experience is the key word here. From even a beginner’s perspective, I can advise that Tokyo is truly a place that needs to be experienced to fully appreciate. It is a city that assaults the senses – but not in the same way that a city like Delhi or Mumbai does. With the exception of its famously hectic intersections, I don’t find Tokyo overwhelmingly chaotic. Perhaps that’s because New York City was my most recent hometown before moving to Hong Kong. Tokyo is a place where each day instead builds – layer by layer. A little (or big) surprise seems to loom around every corner. My kind of city.

It would be impossible for me to encapsulate the feeling of Tokyo in a single post, so for now, I will share just a few musings. Perhaps they will will inspire you to visit (or remind you of) this magical city.

The gorgeously carved underbelly of a giant lantern at Kaminarimon ('Thunder Gate') at Sensō-ji

The gorgeously carved underbelly of a giant chōchin lantern at Kaminarimon (‘Thunder Gate’), the entrance to Sensō-ji

Sensō-ji in Asakusa, Taitō-ku is Tokyo’s oldest and most famed temple. Rich in symbols and of Buddhist inclination, Sensō-ji swarms with temple-goers practicing various rituals, especially on weekends. After you make your way through the seemingly endless stalls hawking wares on Nakamise-dori, the legendary, centuries-old street leading up to the temple, incense smoke envelopes you. Adults and children alike can be seen fanning the smoke over themselves, believing that the smoke is ‘healing’ and will help alleviate what ails them. Not for those of a weaker respiratory constitution (or those with sensitive eyes).

Temple-goers fan 'healing smoke' over what ails them

Temple-goers fan ‘healing smoke’ over what ails them

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Near the main temple hall, visitors frequently queue up to toss coins in honor of the bodhisattva Kannon Bosatsu, to whom the temple is dedicated, and also for good luck. Of course, it’s difficult to resist a photo op right in front of the main hall, with a striking red chōchin lantern at its entrance.

Michele, Satoko, and Takinori, about to toss coins inside the main temple hall at Sensō-ji

Michele, and our most gracious hosts, Satoko and Takenori, prepare to toss coins inside the main temple hall at Sensō-ji, guarded by a giant red chōchin lantern

O-mikuji (‘sacred lot’) is a (usually) charming tradition whereby one pays a nominal amount (typically 100 JPY these days) for the opportunity to predict one’s fortune (or curse). After dropping your coin, shake a metal canister until a stick labeled with a number falls out. Withdraw a paper from the corresponding numbered drawer, and read on.

Hoping for good fortune via o-mikuji

Hoping for good fortune via o-mikuji

One’s o-mikuji reflects what the future portends, business or personal, or both. And it runs the gamut from a great blessing to a great curse. Remember that I mentioned this ritual is (usually) charming? Well, note the image below – my o-mikuji – and I think you’ll understand. Let’s put it this way – a new Japanese friend kindly offered to translate the other side (before I had a chance to note the English) and her face was instantly stricken with panic, then she muttered ‘oh no’ under her breath. I kind of wish I kept my 100 JPY and spent it on some beautifully wrapped Japanese sweet instead! And it was apparently not enough to be advised that I have ‘bad fortune’. I had to laugh (better to laugh than cry) as I kept reading. Just to ensure there was no room for misinterpretation, there were further clarifications that I am pretty much doomed in virtually all aspects of life – marriage, travel, my home, friendship, health, and on and on. It seemed only a heavy dose of sake could help ease the pain.

My very sad o-mikuji reading

My very sad o-mikuji reading

Fortunately, it seemed that I had a bit of an ‘out’ (thank you, Satoko – for trying to cushion the blow). Tradition holds that someone with a bad fortune can fold it up and tie it to a nearby metal post or tree, which may either keep such bad fortune at bay on the tree or blow it symbolically into the wind. Now I am someone who tries to adhere to logic – so perhaps you’ll agree with my slight skepticism that this really works, since those with good fortunes often tie their o-mikuji to the same post in the hope of even greater luck. Hmm..I kind of wanted to toss mine into the nearest fire – although I feared that might make matters worse. And I don’t think my little knot worked, as the very next night, I suffered a brief case of food poisoning (all the more shocking, since it happened in ultra-clean Tokyo). It does make one wonder..

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Tying o-mikuji onto metal posts – either to amplify one’s good fortune or hope that one’s bad fortune is swept away by the wind

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Michele ties up her o-mikuji (thankfully for her, more on the moderate side than mine)

Joking aside, symbolism is a crucial part of Sensō-ji, and it’s striking to learn that Sensō-ji is a symbol in and of itself. Having been destroyed during World War II, it was rebuilt and now represents rebirth and peace to locals.

Also destroyed during WWII and rebuilt, Meiji in Shibuya is another justifiably famous site in Tokyo. Sprawling over 175 acres of land, Meiji is a delightful Shinto (‘way of the gods’) shrine dedicated to the Emperor Meiji and his wife, the Empress Shōken, and is located within a dense forest of over 100,000 mostly donated trees. Strolling into this peaceful oasis in the heart of Tokyo is itself a process of discovery. Besides the forest itself, another choice finding is the roped wall of sake barrels. I’m not sure it reflects well on me to admit my immediate desire to tap into one of them (remember my bad fortune mentioned above). But even if I could, despite their beautiful exteriors, I would be disappointed by the contents – at least on that particular day. Alas, the barrels are empty kazaridaru (‘decorative barrels’) and are donated by brewers. During festivals, the barrels are filled with sake, as sake has long been believed to symbolically unify people with the gods. (And my enjoyment of sake gains newfound justification.)

Barrels of sake donated to Meiji Shrine

Decorative kazaridaru barrels (for sake) donated to Meiji Shrine

Before entering the shrine, visitors must perform temizu, whereby they purify themselves by cleansing their hands (and technically, mouths) using wooden dippers filled with water from a chōzubachi basin. It’s a lovely gesture – except in winter, when that water is frigid, and there are no towels for drying! A similar ritual is performed at Sensō-ji and other similar sites.

Purifying by water, at Meiji Shrine

Temizu purification by water, at Meiji Shrine

Once inside the inner precinct or sanctuary, visitors toss coins, bow, and clap their hands, in a ritual similar to what is performed at Sensō-ji. (Note that no photographs of this process are permitted here.)

Near the inner sanctuary, wooden ema plaques, commonly found in Shinto shrines, are inscribed with prayers and wishes and dangle from small pegs. The indigenous Japanese Shinto religion is focused on the connection of present-day Japan with ancient Japan. But as I observed the multiple languages penned on the ema, I couldn’t help but ponder the idea that sites such as Meiji also allow for a brief, but still significant, unification of cultures.

Wooden ema plaques bear prayers and wishes by visitors

Wooden ema plaques bear prayers and wishes

Despite my apparent bad luck, as dictated by my o-mikuji at Sensō-ji, I did strike some good luck in the form of not just one, but two, weddings at Meiji. Few cultures in my observations exhibit such careful, aesthetic consideration and interest in design as that of Japan. Weddings exemplify this attention to detail. To the delight of the tourist paparazzi including myself, both wedding parties were incredibly gracious and generous in allowing us to watch and photograph.

Similar to western weddings, there is a wedding procession. However, here, it is led by both the bride and groom, accompanied simultaneously by the full wedding party.

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A pop of red punctuates a solemn Japanese wedding procession

Traditionally, the bride wears a stark white, minimally adorned wedding kimono known as a shiro-maku (‘white-pure’) and either a white hood known as a watabōshi (pictured below) or a rectangular-shaped tsuno kakushi over her hair.

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A young bride dons a white hood (known as a watabōshi) and white shiro-maku kimono for her wedding ceremony

After the procession, the bride removes the hood and reveals a stunningly elaborate hairstyle (bunkin-takashimada), which is usually a wig festooned with golden ornaments and ribbons.

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After a quick touch-up, the bride turns toward the gorgeous late-afternoon light before returning to her husband and the rest of her family and friends

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The bride showcases her elaborate bunkin-takashimada hairstyle

The groom wears a comparatively simpler wedding outfit, a mostly-black montsuki kimono, often emblazoned with his family’s crest, a haori overcoat, and frequently pinstriped hakama pants.

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The groom dons a simpler montsuki kimono and haori overcoat for the wedding ceremony

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The bride’s mother beams with pride and joy

Not surprisingly, obi sashes play a role in the traditional dress during a wedding, however in this case, the wedding party sported quite subtle versions with a likely deceptively ‘simple’, box-shaped taiko musubi knot – appropriate for a classy celebration.

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Obi tied with a subdued taiko musubi knot

After the ceremony concludes, brides layer on a brightly colored kimono called an uchikake, generally made of silk brocade and often colored red for good luck. This is the last time she will wear such a kimono, as they are reserved only for young, unmarried women. Perhaps that realization brings a brief moment of longing for such a young woman, but the prospect of a long, happy future with her new husband quickly brings peace.

A lovely bride in a brightly colored wedding kimono shares a joyful moment with family and friends

Another lovely bride in a brightly colored wedding kimono (known as an uchikake) shares a joyful moment with family and friends after her wedding ceremony

Ah, Tokyo – what an enchanting city, brimming with traditions new and old (some of the ‘new’ to come in another post). I admit I experienced more than a couple ‘Lost in Translation’ moments along the way – in such a beautiful way. It is a culture that thrives on ritual, respect, family, hospitality, sophistication (and somehow simultaneously, quirk), and yes, very hard work. I, for one, cannot wait to immerse myself even further.

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Globetrotter based in Hong Kong, travel and street photographer, Getty Images contributor, award-winning blogger of WanderFong.com - seeking true beauty in travel and life!

17 thoughts on “Standing on Ceremony: Soaking up Rituals in Japan”

  1. What an interesting write-up, with nice illustrative photos. Don’t worry about bad fortune. You will live a happy and prosperous life. There, I said it!

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  2. An absolutely superb post with great write up and incredible shots… Perfect title too 🙂

    Can’t ask anything more from this post 🙂

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    • Oh, Sreejith – thank you so much for such a wonderful comment and for your continued support. You made my day 🙂 Thank you for reading, as always!

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  3. Ann says:

    Simply fascinating and so illustrative. Nice to live your experiences vicariously.

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    • Thank you so much for reading/viewing and for such lovely comments. I’m so glad you enjoyed it, and I appreciate your support!

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  4. Incredible photography, highly impressive writing. Having just visited to Japan, I can certainly relate. I love how Japan culture is very well in tact despite how modern the modern world we live in now. If I had my way, I’d go back again to Japan to hopefully see the mainland area and soak up more of its tradition and culture. For now, it sounds like there’s more to explore for me through your blog. 😉

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    • You have made my day! Thank you so much for reading and viewing and for your kind words. It is such an inspiring city (I can only say ‘city’ for now, with my limited experience in Tokyo), and I cannot wait to explore further – both within Tokyo and in other cities and hopefully the countryside (and mountains), as well. I hope to return next month and again several more times this year. Definitely please stay tuned for more! 😉

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  5. Pingback: Outliers: On Individuality, Illusion, and the Importance of Being Different | hong kong fong

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