Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Friday, March 28, 2008

A Quickie Springtime Adventure

Spring Vacation this year is:
  1. much too short
  2. much too busy
  3. turning out to be no vacation at all
  4. which is no surprise at all
  5. but anyway...
We had a spot of nice weather a few days ago, and I miraculously found myself having nothing I really needed to do. The Mrs. was off slaving working at her school, so I loaded the kids into the car and took us out for a bite of lunch for a change. I then thought about taking care of shopping for my wife's upcoming birthday, but I realized it was still more than a week away. Therefore, I changed plans and decided to go on a random adventure. Basically, I opened up Navi-chan's monitor screen and asked the kids, "Okay, which direction are we going?" After a short debate they settled on southeast, so...

Stop #1: Ikisu Shrine
Ikisu Shrine is one of the Three Great East Kanto Shrines, which also include Katori Shrine and the oft-mentioned Kashima Shrine. I've been to the latter two many, many times, but for some reason I had never had a chance (or a reason, actually) to visit Ikisu. In fact, although I had long known of its existence and had a general idea of its whereabouts, I had never really known its exact location. Well, as I headed southeast and into the city of Kamisu Ikisu Shrine appeared on the screen. It was on a route I had never taken that just happened to be going in my direction, so I made it our first destination of the day.

I could tell just by looking at the image on Navi-chan's display something I'd often heard: Ikisu is by far the smallest shrine of the three. It is also the simplest. Kashima Shrine's mysterious forest, which is the true shrine rather than the buildings, covers a sizable chunk of the city of Kashima even though it is far smaller now than it used to be. (Actually, much if not most if not all of the campus of Ye Olde Academy is on land that used to be part of the shrine.) Katori's forest is only somewhat smaller, though it contains more development. By contrast, Ikisu's forest, which still looks eerily out of place in the middle of the residential area where it is located, is only about the size of a typical city block. It is still dense enough to obscure light and vision, however.

The difference in scale between the shrines can be easily summed up by looking at the rōmon, or Chinese gate, at the entrance to each. Actually, the presence of a rōmon at a shrine is unusual; it is actually an example of Buddhist architecture, and in the case of Kashima and Katori it hearkens back to the era when both served as Buddhist monasteries in addition to their function as Shinto shrines.

Kashima Hatsunode 2007-3

In this picture, which I took during the New Year holidays last year, you can see the famous, red rōmon at Kashima Shrine, which is also the largest of its kind in Japan and a national treasure. It's hard to tell how big it is, but each of the squarish alcoves just above the mass of people holds a life-sized statue. The rōmon at Katori shrine is somewhat smaller but still impressive.

Ikisu Shrine 4

By contrast, here is the rōmon at Ikisu Shrine with my kids to show its size. Definitely a difference in scale.

There is also a very big difference in the haiden (worship hall). The ones at Kashima and Katori Shrines, which are similar in design, were originally built in the 17th century. Both designated national treasures, they are spared from the Shinto rule of tearing down all shrine buildings, burning them, and rebuilding them every twenty years and instead only have their thatched roofs replaced.

Ikisu Shrine 1

This is the haiden at Ikisu Shrine. It was apparently built in the 1950s. Definitely very different in size, design, age, and personality. Then again, the shrine itself hasn't been around as long; Kashima and Katori are both said to have been founded in 660 b.c.(e.). Ikisu was established in 807.

Still, despite its smaller size, younger age, and lesser impact (not to mention a rather iffy color scheme...), on the spiritual level Ikisu Shrine is no less significant. All three of the Three Great East Kanto Shrines are dedicated to Amaterasu no Omikami (a.k.a. the sun goddess, who is chief in charge of the deities of Earth), but each also honors a particular lesser deity. Kashima is dedicated to Take-Mikazuchi-no-Kami, a general of Amaterasu long honored by the Imperial family as a patron deity of samurai (and still apparently worshipped by practicers of martial arts, particularly karate). Katori is dedicated to Futsunushi-no-Kami, another general of Amaterasu and a patron deity of lightning and swords (also worshipped by practicers of martial arts, particularly aikido). Ikisu Shrine, however, is dedicated to Chimata-no-Kami, a deity whose purpose is to protect others from the ravages of evil spirits or demons. In this respect, it almost seems as if Ikisu has more relevance to the lives of ordinary people.

You wouldn't know it, though. Not only was the shrine smaller (and more tastelessly painted) than the other two, but its personnel was less friendly. The priests and acolytes at Kashima and Katori I've met have generally been very pleasant and eager to talk. At Ikisu I saw only one man, apparently both the caretaker and the seller of charms and talismans, but when he saw me coming with my kids he quickly shut his window and vanished into his back room. Oh, well. No sale today, mister.

I should be fair, though. Ikisu does have some interesting features. I didn't see it while I was there (and didn't even know about it until I started doing web searches for more details about the shrine), but over on the bank of the nearby Hitachi-Tone River there are a couple of ancient wells said to have been built in the 2nd century. The larger of the two, made of raised, white stone, is called the "male vessel", and the smaller, which looks like earthenware, is called the "female vessel". Apparently they both contain springs which still issue water. Known collectively as "oshioi", they are only visible at low tide. Another feature, which I DID see, was an Inari shrine near the main entrance. Neither Kashima nor Katori has one of those. Inari is a Shinto (and sometimes Buddhist) deity associated with fertility, agriculture, and commercial success. His/her/its shrines are all over Japan, and they are particularly popular with (surprise, surprise) people involved with business.

Ikisu Shrine 5

This is the Inari shrine in the Ikisu Shrine complex. As with most Inari shrines, its entry walk is enclosed by a number of torii (Japanese shrine gate). These are donated by individuals or businesses as offerings in hope of being granted success by the deity. The number of torii here is relatively modest; at more famous Inari shrines one can often see dozens of them.

Ikisu Shrine 6

Going closer, we can see another characteristic feature of Inari shrines: the attendant kitsune (spirit foxes). These are believed to serve as messengers relaying prayers to the deity. As is traditional, they are dressed in red yodarekake (prayer bibs). One tends to see a lot of the color red at Inari shrines as it has come to be seen as his/her/its trademark color.

Anyway, my daughter and I had fun poking around the shrine compound. My son, however, decided to act like his usual short-attention-span self. After he repeatedly went around barricades and into clearly-marked restricted areas (in search of playground equipment, or so he said), started kicking at a 1200-year-old foundation stone, and then tried to climb the sacred tree, I decided it was time to move on. We got back into the BLUE RAV4, fired up Navi-chan, plotted a course southeast, and went on our way.

That will be another story.


  • Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. The shrines. The kids. The narrative.

    Moody, come on over to my place and claim your award.

    By Blogger San, at 7:43 AM  

  • So nice...... wish I could join :D

    By Blogger Selba, at 8:46 PM  

  • Very enlightening tour. Thanks.

    By Blogger Happysurfer, at 7:37 PM  

  • One day I will come and visit Japan so that I can stop sitting here saying, "One day I am going to visit Japan."

    And when I do visit I will come over there and slap you because when are you ever going to have a REAL holiday???

    By Blogger Olivia, at 8:36 AM  

  • We went there a couple of years ago and I was disappointed at the "newness" of the buildings, but the site and the history are fascinating and you tell it well, as always. We walked out to the little harbor on the Hitachi-Tone and looked at the wells, but it was high tide I guess and in spite of the sign there hard to see what they were talking about.

    I think those bibs are red with the blood of those who try to vandalize the shrine at night and are torn apart by the kitsune.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 5:11 PM  

  • Wonderful pics of the shrine.

    Kids will be kids.. enjoy them..

    By Blogger Robin, at 11:20 AM  

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