In Japan, it is in the most unassuming places that I find myself breathless with wonder. Ono-sensei drove Monica, Miyuki and I into the mountains for the annual Kagura Festival this past Thursday. The small, twisty roads cut in along the mountain cliffs, barely hugging the ridges of the ravine. The higher we drove the more peril it became, making me think that part of the effect of reclusive Shinto shrines was that you arrived with a better appreciation for your life, having fared the journey. And then the space abruptly opens up, and there before us is a tiny hamlet, rising up along the slope and down the length of the river. Monica and I marvel at the village as we pass though, wondering how- long ago- someone had stumbled onto this narrow vista and decided to settle. In the mountains, green tea field terrace the cleared away forests and rice fields line the river, barely leaving room for the houses in between. This is made uncomfortably apparent as our minivan squeezes onto the edge of the road in order to allow another car to pass, giving us an intimate close-up of every molecule of dust that lays on the window between our prying eyes and someone’s living-room. The van stops alongside a diminutive dam that should be embarrassed to even be there. Sure enough, a steady but meager jet of water is being compressed through it while the surrounding stream looks on, a bit disgruntled about the whole thing. The surrounding trees are the colour of burnt sand and cardinal. And it is here, on this completely unassuming and random strip of road, that we park and make our way to the festival. I look around for any signs of a shrine, but there are only the remnants of an old farm lining the roadway. We cross a rusty bridge in front of the dam and come to a converging path that leads up in both directions. Never would I have assumed that this was the entrance to such a reverent place. And it truly is reverent. A torii gate stands ahead of us on the path marking the entrance to Nisho-jinja (shrine). The stone steps leading up the mountain are gradual and wide, which makes the carpet of green moss shrouding them all the more spectacular. It is like stepping into a mythical world. There is something truly breathtaking about the path we follow to the shrine. The forests in Japan have an almost incongruous was of growing: neither dense nor sparse, neither dark nor light; cedars and oaks dot the forest, but little underbrush grows, leaving rocks and roots exposed. The jutting rocks make the path before us calmingly enclosed, as though they are tucking everything in neatly. We are so mesmerized by the scene that we can barely walk two steps without taking a picture or inspecting something. Ono looks like a proud parent, stopping to read the Kanji from the grey slabs that line the final steps ahead of us. “These are all the people who have made donations to the shrine,” he tells us, and even though the words are meaningless, the sheer volume of names etched into the stones leave us with little doubt of the value of this place. Music comes suddenly from above us and we hurry on, stopping to nod and bow to various individuals along the way. We take off our shoes at the base of the shrine and ascend, squeezing past a group of Oba-chans (elderly ladies/grandmothers), nodding and bowing again, "Sumimasen... ohaiyo gozaimasu... sumimasen" and are barely seated before a tiny warm cup of Sake is pressed into our hands. In Japan, Sake is synonymous with “happy occasions” and there is barely ever an excuse not to receive at least a small cup. Even Monica takes a quick (though singular) drink- the first I have seen in a year! Within the small shrine, the atmosphere is so jovial that I can hardly believe we are in a sacred place. Along two sides of the room- lined with thin and heavily worn tatami mats- people are gathered behind low tables- crouching, kneeling and lounging amidst platters of sashimi, fruit, dried fish and bottle and bottles of sake. As I gaze around the room I realize we are- by far- the youngest people to have come. In the center of the room, a man is dancing with measured and unhurried steps, facing east and bowing, facing west and bowing, moving to each edge of the tatami, his face serious with either concentration or adulation. I recognize him as the father of one of my students (Sumida san), who I had the pleasure of meeting at the last enkai. To see him so serious now, in complete contrast to the jovial man I knew him to be, was remarkable.
Behind him are the musician, padding away on small drums and clanking cymbals. The space in which the dancing takes place is small enough that I could take three giant steps across it. The effect of this panoptic space is that everyone observes everyone else while simultaneously observing the dance before them. I sit poised with my camera in one hand and my sake cup in the other, told over and over to “drink up” so that it can be refilled again. If I chance to have a hand free, more food is pressed into it or I am asked to pose for a picture. “Shinto is very exciting!” I proclaim sometime into the fervent activity. By now, those who may have been too shy to approach us before a glass of sake are more than willing to strike up a conversation. Even the dancers are laughing to one another as they circle around the room. It is as though they are sharing a private joke in the midst of their dance. Their laughter is contagious.“Nihongo wakarimasu ka?” A man wobbles towards me and kneels close by, leaning into me enthusiastically. I tell him that I only speak a smidge of Japanese (and that is actually exaggerating), which invites him to dictate the entire history of the shrine and the festival. I, meanwhile, nod politely and smile, glancing helplessly to Ono-san who obligingly translates. “This shrine is very old. And this festival started at this very place over 700 years ago.” The shrine itself is perhaps 500 years old (possibly more). I'm amazed, to say the least, asking question after question. But above the clamor of cymbals and drums it is difficult to understand. I make a note to quiz them on a more composed occasion. What I did learn, though, was that after the dance and the festival first originated here- inspired by the local Shinto priests- it spread throughout the region and is now widely practiced at various shrines. Less religious than frivolous, the festival is a chance for some twelve or fourteen specified Shinto devotees (not exactly priests, from what I gathered…there was a great deal of difficulty in articulating what their title might be) to pay homage to the local spirits through song and dance. Oh, and Sake. Paper “kami” are strung throughout the shrine and often through the village as a representation of these spirits. The festival is also a celebration of the seasons, this one in particular marking a bountiful fall harvest (as noted by the bountiful harvest before us!). Shinto is said to be the more unruly sister of Buddhism (note: Shinto Shrines, Buddhist temples). From what I understand, it is very much a regional religion, heavily influenced, if not modified by, Buddhism and Confucianism. In addition to the observance of traditional customs and ceremonies, Shinto is far less religious than its predecessors. The result is an eclectic mix of venerated spirits that are taken directly from any given local: in the mountains, for instance, the central celebrations revolve around agriculture spirits; near the sea, fishing spirits, and so on. In Wakayama Prefecture, Nachi no Taki (the largest waterfall in Japan) is venerated as a divine Shinto spirit. This is not to say that spirits are limited to local. There is an infamous shrine in Kagawa prefecture, way a top the mountain, that reveres divers. Whatever the cause for celebration, these festivals have one thing in common: a sense of community fueled by convivial revelry. More than anything, these festivals offer a glimpse of the true Japanese spirit as, each autumn, the community gathers to reign in a bountiful year and settle in for the oncoming winter.