Gods and Men

men and shrine

Every so often even gods of small neighborhood shrines need to be taken out for a stroll. Many men assemble, wearing all white or close to nothing and in the early morning swagger around the shrine as they wait for the procession to start. It seems the most clean-shaven middle-aged men with conservatively groomed hair and designer glasses appear for this kind of event in the least amount of clothing, even going so far as to wear a sumo-wrestler-like loin cloth with the shrine-provided traditional white over shirt and cotton sweatband wrapped around their head. They chant the loudest and have the biggest smiles. Younger men with long orange hair, instead, look bored and self-confident; for them it is just another display of machismo. These are the men who will carry the portable shrine into which the god is laden for the festival. They come from the neighborhood. They come to break their regular, perhaps monotonous daily routines. This is a highly special occasion.

Having seen posters announcing this occasion a little over a week earlier, I got up as early as I could on the morning of Sunday, May 21, to view the once yearly festival at the neighborhood shrine, Shimo-Goryo Jinja, right on Teramachi street, south of Marutamachi. It was beautiful weather after a string of damp, rainy days. The god must have been pleased by the prospect of an outing.

I thought I would arrive in time to view the first procession at 10. Yet upon my arrival, very little was going on at the shrine and among the festival stands that were just opening up, except that many men in white were lounging around the streets. I must not have missed anything, I thought, as I went into the shrine to give my respects to the god and admired the ancient-looking portable shrine that was made ready in the central raised platform. It had gold tori gates on its sides, behind which curtains of gold pieces chained together hung. The top of the shrine was covered in a red cloth emblazoned with the imperial crest. Certainly a well-backed god this is, I thought.

As I wandered back out of the shrine, I could hear chanting out on the street. I stood still under the red tori gate just as all the men in white came marching in, chanting and clapping their hands, to assembled on the grounds of the shrine. Looking over their sweatband-wrapped heads into the shrine, I could see a few men in formal kimono and black suits on the central platform, their backs to the portable shrine their faces to the crowd. I couldn’t hear their opening speeches, but every so often a man with a megaphone would begin a cheer that the crowd would conclude in unison. The rest of the time, the men in the back, those closest to me, seemed not to listen, but smoked profusely next to the no-smoking sign erected to protect the dark old wooden structures of the shrine from fire.

As finally the speeches came to an end, the time they had all been awaiting arrived. Some women who were wearing the same white traditional shirts over their everyday clothes began carrying out tea kettles from which they poured sake into small white saucers. This is hardly enough, the men seemed to be thinking. But then there is serious manliness to be demonstrated; one mustn’t be inebriated, their conscience prodded them.

Now the time had come. Now the show could begin. Amid cries to avoid hitting the massive woodwork, the portable shrine was lowered from the platform, carried through the front gate of the shrine and placed on sawhorse-like supports in the middle of the street. Here, a man clambered up a ladder out of the masses of other men in white to affix a golden phoenix with a red tassel hanging down its chest to the top of the small shrine.

With a cry of “se no de!” the shrine was again lifted and off they went, down Teramachi street and onto the wide city avenue Marutamachi. Police went ahead, directing traffic, as the shrine dutifully swung onto the left side of the street (traffic in Japan goes on the left). A large coach filled with school children on their school tour of Kyoto followed slowly right behind the white crowd, the children waving, and smiling out the windows at the small group of people who waited to follow the shrine across the street but who, unlike the shrine, had to obey the red light in front of them.

The shrine turned into a side street, where the men again climbed all over the shrine to affix even longer beams to the bottom with long, purple ropes amid pounding and splashing of water. I watched curiously from behind the shrine, getting as close as I dared to the white crowd of men, when one of them, an elder gentleman with a sprig of laurel in his headband came over to me and suggested I go to the front of the shrine for a better view. I moved to go around the building to avoid the crowd of men, but the nice old man told me to push through the crowd, saying “gomen, gomen, sorry, sorry” and waved his hand in demonstration. I nervously followed his advice, and got a closer view of the rope-tying business. The men were pounding the ropes with wooden mallets to tighten the knots, and finally drenched them in water to secure them around the beams.

After the knots were finished even more men could carry an increasingly heavy burden that now could be bounced around so that the large bells securely fixed to the frame jingled with the rhythm of the crowd. The nice man came over to me again, and I noticed he held a fan. He was the leader of this whole undertaking! He went back to the crowd and with the wave of his fan signaled the shrine into the large intersection at Marutamachi and Kawaramachi Avenues.

Yet, this crowd seemed to have only subtle leadership, as it drew into the large open space. Perhaps it was mostly the god’s guidance that led them. And then a cry came up “mawase! turn!” and with a lurch, the men lifted the shrine above their heads, and slowly, slowly the shrine began to turn clockwise, as all the traffic sat patiently for the god to be appeased. Yes, gods are above the law. If you think about it, a god cannot be blamed for washing a whole house into the ocean. A god cannot be punished for killing hundreds in an earthquake. And so the traffic laws must bend to them as well.

The scene reminded me vividly of a similar occasion in downtown Amherst my sophomore year of college at a 5 college protest against the Iraq war, just as it threatened to break out early in 2003. Students from UMass, Mt. Holyoke, Amherst, Smith, and Hampshire colleges gathered at UMass and paraded into the center of Amherst, chanting as this white crowd of Japanese men now did. On that March evening, students had filled the main intersection of Amherst and made a circle, holding candles as symbols of peace. My memory of the circle of candle-holding students in Amherst’s intersection was a reflection of the turning shrine in the intersection before me. The atmosphere of unity and excitement among the students was similar to that of the white-clad men who were turning the shrine. Both were actions no one would even consider on a normal day, but on this Sunday a god needed to be aired.

And I wondered what it must be like amidst those men. All together they continued to cry “mawase! turn! turn!” Every inch of the long beams was held up by hands raised above the men’s heads and more men circled around the perimeter. I could see how even as the shrine turned, hands moved to take over loads other hands could no longer hold. So much energy was concentrated in this crowd. Why was such energy never used for large protests in Japan, I wondered. Yet in such a regulated culture, even the escape valve for mass lawless urges is provided within a framework of shamanistic religion and carefully regulated by the police who conducted traffic. But the camaraderie of this group of men, who helped each other and let themselves be helped by others was more peaceful than the students’ peace protest, where students had drummed the rhythms of their chants on the cars stopped by the flow of protestors.

Just as mysteriously guided as when it had begun turning, the shrine now stopped and moved north on Kawaramachi. Yet the men now looked a bit more tired and hot as the sun goddess continued to bless their procession. Again supports were brought out and the shrine was lowered to give the men a break. This was only the first short leg of the parade, which would continue until late afternoon, winding through the neighborhood, crossing the river once, returning to the west side and even eventually going down the street outside my apartment.

Satisfied the god of Shino-goryo would be adequately provided for by this group of honorable men, I returned to the main shrine and enjoyed a lunch of octopus-filled savory pancake-balls (takoyaki) that were simply delicious. It was a superb neighborhood festival.