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.


Nara: a city of temples, deer and bicycles

I like cities where the main form of transport is the humble push bike and Nara falls into that category. It feels more like a large town than a city and has more in common with my favourite places in England, Cambridge, Richmond and the New Forest, than I’d imagined.

Filmed in 1975 and 2012


Nara is most famous for the Daibustu, the largest bronze statue of the Buddha in the world that is housed in a large wooden building dating back to the 8th century.  I stood in exactly the same spot that my grandparents did when they came here nearly forty years ago. My grandfather filmed the temples here and the rest of their travels on a lightweight film camera. Until last winter, the reels of film had been stored in an iron chest in my grandparents home, waiting like a time capsule for an occasion to be dug up. My interest in Japan facilitated this occasion and with a projector, another antique-looking contraption, we were able to relive my grandparents holiday to Japan in 1975! The park hadn’t changed in character, it was full of tourists taking photos and deer trying to sniff out food from the tourist’s bags. The main difference was the fashion, especially flares that were so popular back in the seventies!

The deer


The giant Buddha left no lasting impression on me, so I went for a walk in the park for inspiration. This World Heritage Site may be impressive but it is the 1,500 deer in the surrounding woodland that are the main spectacle of Nara. I could’ve easily tricked myself into thinking I was back in the New Forest or Richmond Park if it wasn’t for all the Chinese tourists tormenting the deer. The ‘thing-to-do’ in Nara is to buy crackers and wave them up and down so the deer bow to you before eating the cracker, but I saw none of this amicable behaviour between the two species. Instead tourists tease the deer, and the deer push, shove and kick until they get the cracker. To me it just looked like the deer were extremely hungry and needed a good meal, not to have to fight for every cracker! So I left the crowds behind and wandered round the outskirts of the large, forested park. The only sound were trees singing in the trees and the cracking leaves under my feet; it was wonderful. I surreptitiously ate the last of my Christmas cake and a fire-baked yam, without attracting any attention from the deer, and savoured the moment.


New Year preparations

The highlight of my day in Nara was was nosing around the streets of the old town, Naramachi. It was two days before the New Year holiday started and people were rushing around, unlike Christmas Eve in England; buying presents, stocking up on food and cleaning their houses. Here, the latter activity is much more important than in the West, as all houses should have a thorough clean so bad omens are swept out before the start of a new year. I saw men sweeping the temples, women hoovering the houses and futons being aired on balconies. Old women were haggling for the cheapest price on mikan (satsumas) and buying decorations to hang above their doors. My wanderings and photo-taking went unnoticed as everyone else was so busy.

I treated myself to a pot of organic ginger tea in a beautiful cafe in the centre of town. There are many independent and unique cafes here, which is one reason I’ll be coming back. Check out www.naraexplorer.jp/dining/cafe for inspiration.

Another reason is to stay at Yazun Guest House again. It is a 80 year old two-storey house set between tall modern and ugly hotels. A young Japanese couple have taken good care of transforming the traditional building into a warm and friendly guest house, without losing it’s authenticity. The dormitory I stayed in had tatami flooring, sliding doors and minimal style decoration. I would recommend this place for its friendly owners and Japanese-style layout, and it’s just a few minutes walk from the train station.

One night is enough to explore this place in full, but if you only want to feed the deer, an afternoon will do. I’ll be coming back here to see the forest in another season, or perhaps in February, so see the herding of the deer. Maybe I’ll hire a bicycle too and pretend I’m back in Cambridge.


An old man enjoying free-wheeling down the hill

Now, onto the bright lights of Kobe.