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.


Naked Men Festival, Mihama

A tip-off from another ALT about a little-known festival where half-naked men jump into the icy cold sea and have a tug of war was enough to persuade myself to check it out. It made for a more exciting than usual Sunday afternoon!

Mihama is a fishing town in the south of Fukui prefecture. It’s famous for the Rainbow Line, a scenic driving route where you can see the Five Lakes of Mikata and the local nuclear power station. Yet even in an out in the sticks place like this, there are some awesome festivals.

When my friend Teari and I turned up at the Lake Centre there was little activity going on apart from balloon-making and a tombola. Things started getting a bit more exciting when the mochi band started up, and we were of course called to the stage to hit the gooey rice dough with a metre-long hammer whilst everyone said “Yoshi” in time with our beat. I’m sure the film crew there also got shots of us foreigners getting in the spirit of the festival and we’ll probably be on local TV tomorrow!

After eating a local dish of kaki-age don (fried shrimp over rice), we’d noticed that most people had left the centre. An excited tourist officer must’ve seen us looking lost and came to help to us. She was so excited to have foreigners at this small family festival that she was literally jumping from foot-to-foot as she spoke to us! Yuko, her name was, told us that the part of the festival we’d been waiting for, the naked men of course, was five minutes down the road to an even smaller fishing village. So off we went.

Sure enough there was a bridge lined with wrapped-up onlookers and flags with colourful fish emblems on them. “Gaijin!”, said the man grilling ika squid and handed us a piece of the grilled white meat, no exceptions accepted. Seeing huge barrels of sake being sold in bamboo trunk mug, I decided that’d be the perfect tipple to wash down the salty taste of the squid. It seemed the locals had the same idea and were eagerly awaiting the bare-chested men with a bamboo mug in their gloved hands.

Yuko had told us that, the festival Hiruga Suichi Tsunahiki Matsuri (Underwater Tug-of-War) has been taking place for the last 360 years! According to legend, an evil sea serpent once entered Hiruga Lake from the Sea of Japan. The people drove the snake out by using a huge rope in the water. Now, the rope in the tug-of-war represents the snake and the aim is to rip the rope into two pieces. According to our new friend, the ritual also ensures that the Shinto gods give plentiful catches of fish in the coming year. This festival gives men the chance to act uber-macho and for women, the chance to eye the young men up, but that is just my theory.

The jolly locals started cheering as the men, old and young, appeared dressed only in white shorts and a coloured hachi machi head band. One even had a tattoo, which could’ve meant he had yakuza associations, but it didn’t cause a stir. Their torsos were red from pre-drinking and goose-pimpled from the just above zero temperature. Onlookers were urging them to jump into the water, some even offering to push them off! It seemed the bravest, or drunkest, men went first and everyone cheered as they jumped off the bridge. Profanities became universally understood in situations like these, and we easily got the gist of their “Itai Itai” as they swam downstream to the waiting rope.

For the next twenty minutes, the forty men pulled at the rope, tearing off straw that had been braiding around it. Their drunkenness must have been wavered by the cold as they did a good job at heaving at the rope, whilst a strong current pulled the rope downstream. Men on the banks also pulled at the rope and finally, the rope broke in two. The men who had pulled the longest part of the ‘snake’ had won and dragged the rope upstream in victorious spirits. The other team was still smiling as they clambered up the rocks and made their way back to a warm building, for presumably, more sake.

Within minutes everyone had dispersed to warmer places and all the excitement was over. We drove home happy to have seen such a bizarre event in a small town, where foreigners are such a novelty that they are still given free squid. Thanks Mihama town folk!