by Jay and Sumi Gluck
(authors of the guide books of the same name)
The Ripley-type and Strange As It Is Unseemly cartoon-columns have not had anything about Japan in them for a long time. So here is a column full of earth-shaking trivia that can feed them for years a steady dribble of Japanoiserie.
We hope the artists illustrating them do not copy their characters off old Dutch Delft chinaware or Victorian era theater programs for the Mikado, as is usually done. We were, with great ceremony, invited to initiate some few years ago Venture magazine with an article by each of us on Japan. After long lectures on the necessity for accuracy etc., we went to work, checking, double checking and rechecking.
Then our general article on travel tips went to an artist who did his research in the usual Victorian era program for the Mikado, this one for a performance somewhere up the Amazon.
He had “Modern Japanese Lady in Kimono” incorrectly cribbed from an early 19th century woodblock print, and the modern Japanese man, that slave in cybernetic machines, had a top knot and sword!! My God!!
Speaking of gods, the Japanese attitude towards them is rather classical Greek. Gods are only human, only more so. Shinto has no temples (a building in which one worships a deity), only shrines,’ in which the deity is enshrined, or resides, and before which, from the outside, the mortal pays obeissance.
Note, you can slide open the front door of a Japanese house and just walk and yelling “hi there!!”, but you don’t do that with a god’s house.
Or you shouldn’t—without of course taking off your shoes before mounting the little stairway. Slide open the door and the inside is empty—usually. A wooden box, vertical, may be there, containing folded paper, kami, a play on words. Kami: paper, god, above. In Kyushu you might find a phallic rock, fertility shrine.
In the god’s house, who is at home, a god or goddess? No clothes line to peak at. But look up at the chigi, which are a pair of boards continuing the roof line up to form a V, or horns, above the roof peak at front and rear.
The ends of these boards are cut at a 45 degree angle, the boards themselves rise at a 45 degree angle. Thus the out at the end, if one way, would shape the board end to run parallel to the earth; if cut the other way, would line up the board end vertical to the earth.
If horizontal, the resident is a goddess, if vertical a god. Simple as that. In Kyoto one shrine, whose name slips us at the moment, houses a conglomeration of deities.
Yes, the front chigi are vertical, the rear horizontal. In Ise at the Grand Shrine, the inner shrine is the home of the Sun Goddess, the chigi are horizontal.
The outer shrine is the home of the Rice Goddess but its chigi are vertical, Legend tells us that Emperor Yuriaku moved her here from Kyoto in 478 AD, moving out to make room for her, an older deity Kuni-toko-tachi-no-mikoto whose frank name Earthly-ever-erect-augustness indicates his masculinity. Having been evicted in a hurry, he never had a chance to take down his chigi, it seems.
And when evicted, where did he go? Down the road a mile beyond the Sun Goddess’ place to Sarutahiko Shrine. It seems he bounced someone, too, for his present house sports a horizontal cut on the chigi.
Do the gods eat? A basic ritual is the offering. At Ise, the Sun Goddess comes down the road to join the Rice Goddess at meals, which are served daily at 9 am and 2:30 pm autumn-winter and 8:30-3:30 spring-summer — either of which you can see.
The menu reads thus, for each: four cups of water, sixteen servings of rice, four of salt, plus portions of fish, fowl, fruit, seaweed and vegetables in season. Lesser deities at Ise receive the same except for half portions of fruit.
As to other natural functions, we know of no celestial Johns. However, Earthly – ever-erect-augustness, also known as Sarutahiko, the phallic-nosed monkey god of fertility, goes out to plow the fields the first Sunday in February at Asuka-za Shrine, Asuka Village, just outside Nara.
With him goes his girlfriend, the puffy, vaginal-faced Goddess of Fertility. The plowing ends up with the couple showing the rice seeds what they want them to do to bring forth a lush harvest.
The Japanese invented ‘kleenex’ type tissues, and after cleaning themselves up, the gods toss the tissues to the farmer audience who scramble for them to take them home for the family god-shelves.
Are such rites taken seriously? Villagers call in the Shinto priest to follow the prescribed ritual to bless new tractors. At Nagoya’s Taga-ta Shrine a few years ago during the fabulous March 5th Honen Matsuri, a grand fertility festival when larger-than-man-sized (larger than the man himself not just-than-the-man’s) phalli are paraded through town and clashed against collossal straw donuts lugged from the matching female shrine. Talismans are sold, of shrine boxes containing phalli.
The US alrbase at nearby Komaki used to provide a lot of “worshippers” and talismans were made in various colors, for all comers. A very earthy-brown farmer crashed through the crowd while we were there, waving an immense shrine box at the priests “Look, look, what have you done. It’s pink, I tell you, you sold me a sacred pink one. You want my house full of blue-eyed pale-face kids. What have you done!!”
The priests apologized profusely and exchanged it for a brown, and of a larger size to show their genuine remorse. Their polite Japanese smiles were broader than usual, to cover their laughter. They, the priests, might not believe it, but at least one parishioner did.
Pardon the plug, but Japan is full of such rites and we cover a lot of them in Japan Inside Out, the books. There are none at this time of year, or we’d let you in on them. February-March is the time. But Asukaza-shrine in Nara and Takata in Nagoya are worth the visit just for the sacred phallic rocks in the gardens, and the latter’s strange twin pine trees with the pubic moss growing in the crotch that ladies gather for their shrines at home.