The Ise & Japan Study Program 2017

My name is Lukas Wilde, I am a media scholar from Tuebingen University, Germany (learn more about myself at our department’s page or at my private site). From February 19 to March 12, 2017, you will find daily updates about my adventures at the Kôgakkan University’s “Ise & Japan Study Program 2017” right here!

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Day 20: “Kyara-ing Shinto”…?

Hello everyone. It seems kind of fitting to finish this series of articles slash travel reports with an English transcript of the presentation I gave yesterday evening. It was really challenging to me to prepare (and hold) it in Japanese, but although I did not make it into the regional newspaper like other participants, I am quite happy with how it turned out. Especially since I had the pleasure of many conversations about it during the farewell dinner afterwards with all kinds of people. So, what have I been doing here in Ise? What follows is a slightly expanded version of my presentation, I hope you enjoy it.

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Day 18-19: Kami-sama

Sorry everyone that I haven’t been posting yesterday. Everyone here, including me, was kind of freaking out about our presentation today, so we all did some good old hikikomori to work through the night… The presentations are later today in the afternoon, but everything is prepared from my side, so I have some time to kill. I think I will do a final post tomorrow about my topic, but I thought I might wrap some other things up first. As I mentioned before, we had a fantastic last lecture on “Japanese Mythology” two days ago, given by the excellent Hashimoto-sensei, and (to me) this would have made for a great opening into the whole class. He was approaching shinto with Claude Lévi-Strauss and Mircea Eliade, and it is of course a bit silly that know words like “shinsou shinri” (depth psychology) or “kouzou shugi” (structuralism) while I have serious troubles listening to stories what the city looked like 60 years ago. Anyways, his lecture seemed, in the best sense of the word, “post-structuralisic” to me, in that it was at the same time deconstructing religious myths (i.e., explaining them in structruralis terms) without reducing them to these structures, or rather, without giving these structures a higher “ontological value” as the actual functions that these myths fullfil. If that makes any sense.

His general impetus was that we can not translate “kami”, and we should certainly not translate it as “gods”. This works the other way round as well: the appropriate Japanese transcription for “God” can thus only be ごっど (“goddo“), maybe. While his argument was that you would not “translate” his name as “Mr. Bridge-Root” either, it is of course true that “kami” – whatever it may denote – is not a proper name but a kind of description of a class of phenomena (the same could be said about “God”, probably, which denotes a single phenomenon not in need of a proper name, either). We have been learning a lot about the structure of Shrines before. They usually have a “haiden“, which is a kind of outer hall for prayer, and a “honden“, the main sanctuary that you are not allowed to enter (were allowed that in many occasions). Within the honden, there resides the “shintai“, a “sacred object”, literally the “body of the kami”. This is what the whole shrine is all about, and they are never displayed to visitors. The three original sacred objects (sanshu no jingi) are, of course, the legendary Mirror Yata no Kagami, the legendary Sword Kusanagi no Tsurugi, and the legendary Pearl Yasakani no Magatama. In many other cases, the artefacts are swords, mirrors, or pearls, as well. Mirrors are especially fascinating since the word “kagami” (Mirror), which you write with the kanji 鏡, could also be expressed phonetically with the kanji 仮 (ka) and 神 (kami), which would mean “a reflection of the kami” (thanks to Bert for pointing that out to me). In any case, artefacts are only one form of sacred objects since, in its most elementary form, shinto is about the worship of nature, so the shintai might also be an ancient tree, or those two rocks in the ocean. Mount Fuji is, of course, a kami, and there is a shrine to worship it/him/her, but there might still be a sacred object, since Naiku’s Yata-no-Kagami-mirror is only where the spirit of Amaterasu Ômikami is worshipped, but “it” “is”, of course, more properly the sun itself that is worshipped.

So, do we have a threefold structure of the deity: the object where it resides (shintai), the natural phenomenon itself (in the sky or wherever), and the “actual” kami, somehow identical yet different from the other two? No definite answers there! However, after Hashimoto-senseis lecture, a few things started to make more sense. First, what do these kami “do”? His answer was fantastic: nothing, at best, they are just there! Much like Totoro (you know, in “My Neighbour Totoro”), they are not known for standing up early in the morning to go to work. We better think about them as sleeeeeeeeping all day. That’s great. And it is a metaphor, obviously. Sleeping means just “being in harmony”, being there. If they actually do “act”, it will always be a kind of disruption, like an earthquake, something we do not particulariy like. So the original form of “prayer” is a kind of “oyasumi nasai“, “sleep well, kami-sama”.

This brings us, finally, back to our food-question: what happens to the food that the kami are presented, two times a day, by the shinto priests? Its really not much of a mystery at all: the priests eat it. They like food. Everyone likes food. It would be a shame to do anything else, and why would any kami want that, anyway? Kami “want” nothing anyways. Although its really funny to think about the concept of “offering” in this way (its really not much of a “sacrifice” if you eat it yourself, right?), it is also fitting: Offering food to the kami is as much something you do for yourself, since it just symbolizes “being in sync” with the things that are. The kami are there. They don’t care much about you. They don’t, because they are not intentional beings, I think. And here is, of course, a connection to Buddhism, where the whole idea of will, purpose, desire, and intention is leading you astray anyway. In a weird way, this seems like a purely self-referential symbol that doesn’t point beyond itself but still is all the more symbolic, somehow: i think, at that point, it would be necessary to bring the concept of “tradition” into play, as a kind of type behind the token, and that is what is being symbolized. The repetition, the temporality, the continuity. You *could* pick any other form. It is only form, because there is no content, but it is not a random form, but one that is fostered within continuation. It could be anything. But it isn’t. Probably, the mirror is also just a mirror. And the sun just the sun. But it is still shining, and that’s something. So we better find a way to synchronize to that, and that way is *some* kind of tradition, some continuation, some form.

I think, in any case, we have to imagine the concept of “kami” much more like a natural phenomenon: the forces that exist. Or maybe this is wrong and it is the other way around: the kami are not an extension of the natural into the beyond, but the kami-world is the spiritual within the material and trivial and mundane: everything that “exists” has some kind of flux, some kind of continuation, some kind of transformative vector which should – at best – not be interrupted. But more streamlined. So, although the word “spirit” has some other connotations which might not be quite fitting, the way the “spirit-world” is represented in many Anime and Manga (think “mushishi”) is, it seems to me, a pretty good first approximation. Most important of all, the kami are not dependent on naming and identification, so every little piece of hill and every little stream can be thought of as “kami”. Naming and identifying is secondary, at best. So, yeah, if you read shinto in this decisively non-nationalistic way, Germany would be littered with kami as well. In the end, its just that you are fascinated by nature as some kind of process, and everything else should be an extension of that fascination: A  continuous process, as well. I think. Maybe that’s all the insight I am going to get. Now I have to get back to my presentation. Different topic. But connected, maybe. I’ll tell you more tomorrow.

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Day 17 – Closing In

People of the internet, you have not been commenting for a long while, I have to say! This adds to the feeling that somehow, soon, all the fun is going to be over and I don’t know how much is going to be happening still. Most of the classes are over. Today, we still had a fantastic lecture about Shinto and mythology that should have been the opening of the whole programme, so expect at least one more post wrapping that thing up, somehow… Other than that, we have been in the old harbour, cruising around in old boats and busses. We were shown any community center that Ise has to over and I really have to say that the organizers made sure we didn’t miss *anything* Ise has to offer. We even walked into a traditional smithery where elderly people were producing metal nails for the production of ships. That was very impressing, but I also couldn’t stop wondering whether we shouldn’t just let them be, not walking in on them, working on their metal nails, for their ships, in that age, while a bunch of foreigners walks in on them. You get my point: we have really, really taken everything out of Ise, and it was fantastic, thank you. Now.

Tomorrow will be a final feedback round, and then we are preparing for our presentations on Thursday. We are to do *something* connected to Ise or Shinto within a timeframe of 15 minutes on Japanese, apparently the press will be there, and the general atmosphere is between completely-freaked-out and whatever-it-will-be-fun-anyway. What can I say? I found this old Sento place in the Kawasaki area: you have to take one station by train in the Bimmelbahn that comes every 25 minutes and walk down an old industrial canal for about 10 minutes. Then you come to an old bulding with a neon sign proclaiming “Asahiyu”, and you are suddenly within a filmset of the 1970s. Really old furniture, generally more elderly people than young ones, but is this kind of public bathhouse that is there for the whole community, where construction workers and used cars salesmen meet after the day. They have this special custom in Asahaiyu, though, that they have a truck drive out to the ocean every day to carry a load of fresh oceanwater to the Rotenburô (the outside bath) that they heat until it is really, really, really hot. Apparently it was customary among Ise-pilgrims to clean themselves in the ocean or whatever. Anyways, I have been in the Asahiyu three times now, I think maybe as the only foreigner there for the whole year (or I like to tell myself so), and I really like the atmosphere, enjoying a cold milk while watching random television after two or three or four really hot baths. I should find the time to make my way to Kawasaki at least one last time before we are closing in.

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Day 15-16: Old Traditions and Young Deer

Back in Ise, back in the regular programme, and I have no idea how to catch up with the posts… The day before yesterday I met the rest of the group in front of Kyoto’s Yasaka Jinja again, but it feels more like a week or two. Also in terms of exhaustion: it is really hard to focus on coherent thoughts at the moment, so bear with me. The senseis arranged for a senstional kengaku programme, in Kyoto as well as in Nara. We had exclussive tours through places you could never see as a tourist, and we met up with a lot of shinto priests who gave us the chance to talk to them not only about the big facts, but also about their daily lifes: how they can also marry and have children just like “regular people”, how they also pray at Buddhist temples, what their “job hunting” after graduation looks like, and how they approach their faith in travelling abroad. Since shinto is so much about local deities (this mountain, that river) this is a particularly fascinating aspect to me. It also cuts into the problem how shinto was (and is) connected to nationalism, of course. This is a very tricky subject that kind of looms on the edges of every topic. There has been the one or the other lecture that was less than optimal in its approach, lets put it like that. In a way, I am glad about that, since the whole “nihonjiron“-discourse (a kind of cultural essentialism about the uniqueness of Japan that is, at best, questionable) is certainly a very big issue. So, to me, it would feel wrong if we were completely sheltered from exposure to certain points of views. It would probably be easy to do just that, and then the lasting impression would be that shinto is *only* about “fun and food”, and nothing else. On the other hand, a lot of meetings with priests like the one from Yasaka Jinja left the impression that for every person who has a political agenda that, at least to me as a German, I would prefer to engage *much* more critically, there are many more shinto priests who tell, quite authentically and with a great laughter in between, how they find spirituality also while they are travelling Mexico and generally everywhere, in culture as much as in nature. I suppose one sign that we are learning something here is the general realization that at the end of it all, there will be no final answers to how this belief system works, just a lot of people that engage in many different ways with all those traditions, rituals, and places.

Anyway, one highlight today was the Kasuga Taisha in Nara. While I have been in Nara many times, I never made my way up there, it is quite far up north where the mountains begin. Its origin dates back 1300 years, and there are approximately 3000 lanterns around, stone and bronze, that cover the whole huge area in the forests. They were donated from worshippers from all over the country since the Heian Period, so many of them are really, really old. In contrast, the actual shrine buildings are reconstructed every 20 years again, just like in Ise. And generally, it is one of the most beautiful and peaceful places I have seen in Japan. But of course, Nara is also about the deer that roam the parks and streets of the city freely. It certainly helped for the impression that there were the most cutest of deer around everywhere, grumpy old ones as well as adorably fluffy young ones! This is only the “peak of the iceberg”, as we say in German, of what happened, but it has to be enough for today.

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Day 14 – Contrasting Views

Just three small observations from Kyoto after the first wave of exhileration to be back in my heart’s dearest place on earth has settled!

1. Why are here so many people? I didn’t know there existed so many people in the whole world?! Are those… cosplayers? What is going on here?!
2. What are all those people that look, speak, and behave so incredibly weird and impolite? Ah, right, other foreigners… I forgot that they existed…!
3. After two weeks of feeling permanently not competent enough in Japanese to get everything out of the classes, after two weeks in which no Japanese person even pretended to have heard the strange language of English before, it is really, really emberassing if you get this overexcited “ooooooh you are so greeeeeeeaaat in Japanese, a natural” if you say so much as “konnichi ha”. I hence pretended to speak only English. Seriously guys, this can not go on! Luckily, when I met the Tomitas later, my host family from 2015 where I am now staying for the night, its finally like talking as normal people again.

But seriously, I am so excited to be back here if only for a night, my old tatami-room even smells the same, and the Tomitas are still the greatest people on earth, I don’t even know where to put all those happy-happy-feelings!

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Day 13 – Commercial Break

I am sorry but we have to interrupt our regular programme for a short commercial break. I will be going to Kyoto and Nara  for a few days, so I will continue the regular updates from monday or tuesday on. In the meantime, enjoy a commercial break with a video about the beauty that is Ise. I transcoded this – with my own hands – from a usb-stick we were given from the town administration, and although it is an ad it really contains beautíful imagery.  See you again next week.

01 Iseshima2016PV (English) from Kastenwesen on Vimeo.

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Day 12 – Look at the Fun we are having!

No other way to put this and not much else to say today! 🙂

Step 1: Ninja Turtle-Feet

Step 2: First Layer!

Step 3: All the Rest!

Step 4: All the Boys!

Step 5: All the Rest!

Step 6: Fun!

The Fun Never Stops! Thanks to Philo for this Pic!





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Day 11 – The Businesses of Lesser Priests

Today, some hard facts again (mixed with a good amount of storytelling and lore): the businesses of lesser priests! These guys are called “onshi”. That’s a pronounciation of 御師 special to the Ise-area. My dictionary translates them as “low-ranking priests”, and they are recurring characters in almost every lecture here. Part of the whole shinto thing with all those rituals is that you have incredibly many ranks and levels, like in Karate or something, and you can actually level-up your whole life. Or stay an onshi and do lots of business. I have a weird fascination for these guys, partly because of that translation, partly because they had some really shady businesses going on, and mainly (probably as a combination of both) because it is nice to image what they would like in a cool historical (phantasy?) comic/manga/anime (check out google image-search again! No contemporary artworks to be found)!

The general idea is that, since normal people were not allowed to enter the Ise Jingu, Naikû und Gekû, for hundreds of years, this class of lesser shinto priests served as innkeepers, tour guides and administration officers in the self-governed Yamada area since the early Heian period. They had a lot of shady deals going on: priests from all over the country were doing their pilgrimages to Ise, so they had to rely on onshi to find a place to stay once they were here. High-ranking government officials and feudal lords from other areas who wished to worship the deities had to rely on onshi to convey their prayers in their stead. They also began to visit regular people to sell talisman and other stuff in the Edo period. But in 1872 the fun was over: during the Meiji restauration and the increasing state control over Shinto, the middlemen were cut and all kind of onshi business became illegal. About 750 onshi at the time became unemployed. Many artefacts and documents related to them were lost.

This is certainly fascinating because it would make for a phantastic setting for a role playing game or something. But the onshi were also of high cultural importance, since they established libraries and schools and invited scholars to visit. Also, they more or less invented paper money. In the Edo period, there were two different money systems in Japan, in the west they were paying with silver, in the east with gold, and Ise was right at the center. The onshi thus started to produce paper money, called Yamada Hagaki, as early as 1610, only China did that before (England started only 50 years later). Over ten stamps were used on top of each other to make forgery harder, and they changed their design completely every 7. This went on for over 250 years, until that, too, had to stop in 1872. So, yeah, a phantastic setting for storytelling in various media! Anyway, today we have been to the house of Maruoka Sodayu, a former mid-level onshi, whose residence (from the Meiji-period) is the only remaining onshi-house that survived to the present day.

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Day 10 – Information Overload

A recurring theme here seems to be that every morning I worry it might be difficult to write a new journal entry here in the afternoon, then after the lunch break it all turns around and there is way to much to put in one post only. So I am franticly looking for a kind of narrative anchor to connect all those impressions. The one for today could have been “Arts, Crafts, and the Daily Life of the Past”. Where do I start? You just want to see the pictures anyway, don’t you?

In a nutshell, we started with lectures on pilgrime to Ise in the morning and then the kengaku-overload started. As I said, the topic today seemed to be arts and crafts, so we visited not less then four fantastic sites all across town. Most were historical museums located in incredibly old buildings from the Edo period, so I really felt like in a jidai-film with a spectacular set design! Except that it was all real, of course, and most of the crafts were still being practiced as well. First, we have been to a pharmacy where the owner is now in the 6th generation. We also visited the papermill IseWashi which is producing washi, this fabulous Japanese paper, much in the same way that they did it since the early Meiji period long over a hundred years ago. Some of it is intended to be used in the shrines, and as soon as there are certain Kanji on the paper it apparently becomes sacred and we could not take pictures anymore. Don’t even start to ask (semiotic?) questions about that in the comments, the shintoism specifics get more and more complicated every day. Most of my pictures are from the old ryôkan (guesthouse) Asakichi, though. People have been staying there (up until this very day) since the Edo period, many famous ones amongst them. Basically, you could turn every picture you took there into a calender poster.

Anyway, after a while it became impossible to absorb more information, I kind of sleepwalked through all those imaginary film sets. You really have to admire the Kôgakkan senseis for this incredible program that is, in a very Japanese way, perfectly planned, time-efficient, leaving nothing to chance (we even took pre-ordered taxis from one point of town to the other). But today, it felt like we couldn’t quite keep up with everything, or maybe that’s just me. Except that I know it isn’t. Or maybe I want to make up excuses that not everything is *that* fantastic as it must look to envious readers from home – who are going to hate me anyway at this point. But we are really very, very exhausted, I can say. Now go enjoy the pictures. 😉

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Day 9 – Syncretism

Most of the classes are about shinto. Today was a reminder that it is quite impossible to discuss shintoism without consideration of buddhism. This is easy enough to get if you consider that there are about 2 million Christians living in Japan, about 92 million shintoists, and about 87 million buddhists. The total population number is 127 million, so you can see that most consider themselves to be both of the latter. Kôno-sensei, a specialist in region studies, gave a wonderful lesson on how both faiths are connected to each other in a syncretistic way. This is called shinbutsu-shûgô: it includes the idea that the kami of shinto are manifestations of the buddha, or the other way round (this raises some interesting gender-questions, by the way, since Amaterasu is decidedly female). So you can find a lot of shrines that have temples included, or the other way around. In fact, a few days earlier, Mayo-sensei made some really good points why it may not be “incredibly helpful” to think of both as seperated belief systems, an idea that might have come up only as late as in the 19th century when shintoism and buddhism were first strictly seperated by the Meiji administration (they even had to, kind of, “invent” shinto burial rites, since this was usually a buddhist domain). A lot of questions came up in the discussion. For instance, it is well known that in shinto you worship your ancestors in shrines, so they can become kami after they pass. At the same time, buddhism clearly values the idea of reincarnation. This seems, one would think, like s strong contradiction. Kôno-sensei explained to me that reincarnation was never much in focus in Japanese buddhism which makes it somewhat special from other “asian” versions. However, as with everything here, the point is that nothing is very dogmatic to begin with, contradictions don’t need to be decided by authority. So you can basically figure this out for yourself.

Afterwards, we went on another Kengaku-tour to the mountainpeak of Asamayama by bus to visit the most important buddhist temple around, Kongôshôji. This might be my favorite location in all of Ise so far, reminding me a lot of the beautiful mountain places in the Kyoto area. Attached to the temple area are buddhist burial grounds with gigantic sotôba, wodden poles for the deceased where friends and relatives place small offerings (we saw quite a lot). The largest were up to 7 meters high. I could have stayed much longer, and this is something to say since it was incredibly cold on the mountaintop. I thought I was dressed warm enough, but when we were allowed to visit the main temple hall (which is normaly strictly forbidden), we naturally had to take our shoes off. After only a few minutes the coldness became literally painful. I am not sure which deity might count that as an offering from my side, but in any case it seemed to work: after the field trip we were rewarded with (naturally) a fantastic lunch in a traditional Ise restaurant.

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