Tenrikyo: A happy religion

Sometimes it’s only by chance that you come across something that really interests you or someone who you instantly click with. That’s what happened when Chiyo, a twenty-something Japanese woman, and follower of Tenrikyo walked into our dormitory room in a hostel in Nara. When I asked her why she was staying in Nara, she explained that she visits Nara prefecture every month to take part in a Tenrikyo service. Not knowing anything about the Tenrikyo religion, I bombarded her with questions for the next half an hour. She answered willingly, trying hard to find the right words to explain her faith in English. I took an instant liking to her natural persona and positive view on life.

Chiyo told me that, Tenrikyo was founded in 1838 by a woman known now as Oyasama. Tenrikyo followers believe there is God the Parent who created humans so that we could live a Joyous Life, and God could share in our joy. They believe that their bodies are borrowed from God, but only our minds belong to us and by proper use of our minds we can be happy. They compare self-centred thoughts to dust, something that should be swept away daily through prayer. Oyasama’s teachings can be read in the Ofudesaki, their scriptures. Through Chiyo’s explanation of the basic principles of the faith, I was thoroughly intrigued. I wanted to know more about the religion which seemed to have many undertones of Christianity but that was founded in the Shinto culture of 19th century Japan.

So, at breakfast the next day I asked Chiyo whether I could join her on her visit to Tenri, the city named after the religion. She cheerfully agreed and we went by train to the place where she had grown up. Chiyo comes from and lives in Kyushu, her father is a minister of Tenrikyo and her whole family are Tenrikyo followers. Yet she had gone to a middle and high school run by the religion in Tenri city, so she thought of the place as her second home and tried to visit every month.

To get to the Tenrikyo headquarters, we had to walk a kilometre through an undercover market. It soon became clear that nearly everyone in Tenri was part of the religious community and many of the shops were selling religious items, such as black happi jackets with Tenri written in Kanji on the back. It was especially busy as they day before was the main monthly service which attracts thousands of followers. In Japan there are around 1.75 million followers, but more than 2 million followers worldwide. Even though Tenrikyo is one of many new religions in Japan, it has been the most successful in terms of the numbers of people who have joined the faith. This may be as it doesn’t restrict followers for also having Buddhist or Shinto beliefs, religions that are closely woven into Japanese society.

After removing our shoes we entered the main building; there were swathes of tatami mats on which people were kneeling and praying together facing towards a central pillar. Chiyo taught me a basic way to pray: whilst kneeling, clap your hands four times then rest your hands on the mat, say your prayers, then clap your hands four times to finish and give a small bow to say thank you. Even though the building is called a ‘church’, this is probably due to Christian missionaries who helped translate the initial translations into English. There are many similarities with Japanese customs, such as washing your hands before entering the building, removing your shoes and bowing towards the holy enclaves. This is understandable as the religion developed when Japan was under a rule of state Shintoism, as well as these customs being deeply ingrained in Japanese culture.

We wandered down the wooden corridors of the beautiful building. There were followers who had white cloths strapped to their knees and hands and were cleaning the floor. Others just swept a cloth over the handrails as they walked round. The metaphor of cleaning one’s mind is materialized in cleaning their church, and it is seen as an act of devotion, as well as fulfilling a practical need.

The atmosphere of the church was not overly pious; children were playing inside and business men were quickly making their rounds around the prayer stops. Yet like entering any religious space there was an air of something special going on, people were reflecting not just ‘doing’. And just as church members have a cup of tea after a service in England, there was a hall with long tables where followers were sharing Japanese tea and freely chatting away.

All in all, this religion intrigued me and thanks to the chance encounter with Chiyo, I have a new friend and a new interest. I wonder, do coincidences happen for a reason?

A fiery festival at Nara

After two days of heavy snowfall, and more forecasted, Zoya and I decided it was a good weekend to leave Fukui behind. Wakusa Yamayaki, an annual fire festival, was my justification to return to one of my favourite cities in Japan: Nara.

We left Fukui’s stormy snow clouds and blanketed white fields by train and emerged from the many tunnels in sunny Shiga prefecture. After a quick change at Kyoto, and a forty-five minute ride we arrived at Nara JR Station. Although the sun was shining, the temperature was still hovering at 1’c due to the wind that sweeps across Nara prefecture. Nevertheless we hired bikes, donned many layers of clothing and headed towards the park.

Before going too far we came across an eccentric French cafe, named Monsieur Pepe’s. I can thoroughly recommend it for delicious beef bourguignon, vintage furniture and hilariously huge cutlery! Back in the park we biked around ponds, through forests, trying to avoid hitting deer or starting a Fenton-like stampede (watch this for a guaranteed laugh).

Kasuga Taisha Shrine

We came across the tori entrance to Kasuga Taisha shrine and walked up the lantern-lined path to the main courtyard. Female priestesses with wisteria-like headdresses were performing fortune-telling rituals, whilst male priests in traditional clothing were busy preparing for the evening’s festival. Hundreds of bronze and gold hanging lanterns decorated the orange-painted courtyard, each one with a different design. The most impressive sight were the thatched roofs of various buildings, intricately woven with cypress bark and replaced every 20 years so the traditional technique is passed to the next generation. This place is not to be missed.

This temple is part of the Wakusa Yamayaki festival as Shinto priests light a torch with sacred fire and carry it to the foot of the hill. There they light the dead grass that had been purposefully left to grow since the summer. Their our various explanations why this event took took place in the first place. One theory is the fire scared away wild boars in the surrounding forest. Another is that the fire marked the territory of competing temples in the park. Now, the festival is part of the New Year celebrations and an excuse for a fireworks display and a fun evening out for families. (Click here for more details about attending the festival.)

The real action begins

We arrived at the hill at sunset and watched as thousands of people gathered to watch the annual fireworks display and grass-lighting. Zoya was understandably worried about being just 100m from the burning expanse of grass, but it was a ninja-lookalike group of men waiting by the fire that scared me more! Dressed in all black and presumably wearing fire-protective balaclavas they looked more ominous than usual fire fighters!

Without warning, at 6.15, the fireworks started and everyone gazed up at the sky. That is, apart from a toddler who cried, ‘Kowai!’ (scary) for the first five minutes of it! Then the ninja-lookalikes spread out across the boundary and lit the tall grass with torches. Within 10 minutes the whole hill was ablaze and great bellows of orange smoke were rising into the sky. The main flames lasted less than twenty minutes and soon everyone started descending the hill and walking back to the city.

After warming up in a Chinese restaurant, we made our way back to Yazun Guest House and rested our weary legs. It had been an exhausted but exciting day.


Six months

Six months is a strange period of time. It can be compared to watching a three-hour film in a cinema: you know you’ve been there a long time, but it also goes really fast. Everything has changed since I arrived here. From the 40′ heat to -3 degrees, from being in a relationship to being single, from knowing hardly any Japanese to being able to get by, just!


When I first arrived at my flat, I couldn’t actually get in. The key was stiff and twisted in the lock. But now the steel red door, which I still struggle to get in everyday, has my name written above it and it feels like home. In August, after the week and a half of transiting from Tokyo to my red door, I was so happy to finally have reached a space I could call my own. Strangely enough, it was when I unpacked my crinkled clothes from my suitcases that I started to feel like these four rooms were my home. I would hate to be called materialistic but it seemed that a key part of identity was hung up on those plastic hangers, so maybe I am. My clothes and a few photos of my friends made me feel at home in the first few weeks. Now my flat is filled with hangings, cards and souvenirs from the places I’ve visited in Japan, each with a memory attached to it.

The first couple of months were definitely the hardest. There was no severe ‘culture shock’ or homesickness but it was the personal relationships which were new, or different and seemed so important. It was like being a fresher all over again! Yet once the school term started and I had a routine to my life, I felt much more at ease. Now, I have some wonderful friends that I’m thoroughly going to miss when they leave, especially my travel-buddy Zoya who is only staying one year.


I’m happy with the small part I play in the slick machine of the Japanese school system. In some classes, I do nothing more than be a pronunciation coach, but in others I can do anything. Last week I gave a presentation about teaching in a junior high school in Nepal and the students fell into a hazy silence as they saw photos of smiling Nepali kids all squashed in a classroom a quarter the size of their own. It is opportunities like this, to amaze and inspire students about places in the world they’ve never heard about, that makes me love my job. I also like reading their work and finding out what they’re in to. I know a lot of J-pop band names now, the best being ‘Flumpool’ and ‘Funky Monkey Babys’!

There was a new girl at school today and I felt for her. All the new names she’d have to learn, all the strict rules (she’d have to get rid of her hair braids!) and the friends she’d have to make. I remember being introduced in the staff room for the first time and feeling so out-of-place, the newbie, foreign in every way. Yet now I know my colleagues, not all their names, but the subjects they teach and whether they like having a disjointed chat in English and Japanese. Every morning as I walk into the staffroom and shout my ‘Good morning’, a chorus of ‘Ohaiyo Gozaimasu’s are returned and I feel part of the school community.

The students, too, have become accustomed to me, and I to them. Girls wish me ‘Bye, bye’ as I leave the school and give me a cute smile and a wave. At first I remember not being able to tell the difference between most of the students, everyone looked more or less the same! Even two girls in my English Club looked so similar, with long hair tied in bunches and the same height that I couldn’t get their names right. Now I could recognise one from the other from down the corridor as they look so different!


Studying Japanese before I came here has paid off. I didn’t get much further than a beginners book, but still I had the basics and could read Hiragana and some Katakana, even if very slowly. When I arrived I was hesitant to try out my Nihongo, so much so I did my introductory speech in the school assembly in English. Looking back that was a mistake and I wished I’d felt confident enough to do the first speech in Japanese. For the first few months I found it very hard to understand what people were saying and rarely tried out the few phrases I knew. Yet now I’m becoming more confident and trying to string sentences together at a just-faster-than-painful rate! When I can understand something said in the morning meeting, I’m happy for the rest of the day.

All in all, I’m really enjoying my life here. I suppose the freedom of living alone, having evenings and weekends free, and not having to worry about friendship, relationships or career plans. So I have signed the papers to re-contract for another year. I have many places I want to explore, festivals to see and things to discover.

Thanks for reading!

Photos from my balcony through the seasons.

August: hot, sticky and noisy

August: hot, sticky and noisy

November: beautiful sunsets, cool weather and golden leaves

November: beautiful sunsets, cool weather and golden leaves

December 6th: The first frost and the snow-line on Mount-Hino getting lower

December 6th: The first frost and the snow-line on Mount-Hino getting lower

December 24th: snow arrived in abundance

December 24th: snow arrived in time for a white Christmas

A January sunrise over blanketed white roof tops

A January sunrise over blanketed white roof tops