The line for Hikawa shrine fanned out from the shrine gates and into the edges of the highway wrapping around the high concrete walls which enclosed the premises. Hundreds of people nestled against the walls, respectfully shuffling towards the entrance. They took up a two-foot-wide stretch on the border of the road. When a car came past, the crowd scrunched up even more.
People of all ages, families of all sizes, but mostly Japanese, slowly packed into the shrine complex. Hikawa shrine is at the northern end of a long touristy stretch in Kawagoe called “Little Edo.” The neighborhoods retain many structures from previous eras in Japan which start in the Edo period and move through other famous periods like the Taisho and Showa eras. Some royal Edo era buildings were physically picked up and moved to Kawagoe and – as such – this is one of the few places in Japan where one can witness actual Edo architecture of its time.
It’s January first, 2020, and all of these people are out about town visiting shrines and temples like this Hikawa shrine for the Hatsumoude tradition. Hatsumoude (初詣) is a tradition where families and individuals make their first trip to a Shinto shrine in the year. New year’s traditions in Japan are full of firsts: first view of sunrise, first trip to a shrine, first dream of the new year.
This may be a first for Japan: the first time that a penguin and a deity of the arts stroll into a shrine for hatsumoude. Benzaiten carried Gin close to her body, like a basketball under her arm. The sound of her hard, wooden shoes punctuated their entrance among the shuffle. Above them two torii gates, each made of stone. Beneath each sturdy gate hung a thick rope. Hanging from the rope, a series folded holy papers. The shuffling crowd further halted each time someone paused to politely bow before entering the gates. A thin stream of guests exiting the shrine complex would turn around as they leave and bow as well.
The shuffle scooted and scattered a little as the crowds visited a temizuya just inside the shrine grounds. Here, families waited their turn patiently in the 8-degree Celsius winter morning to wash their hands (and sometimes mouths) with cold fountain water.
The large shuffling crowd led straight up to the main shrine where folks waited their turn to toss in a coin to the offering box, bow twice, clap their hands to announce their arrival to the deities living within the shrine, offer their prayers, sometimes clap again to close their prayer, and then bow again before leaving.
Benzaiten cued up with Gin underarm. She wore a knit cap, a red yarn sweater, and a long olive-green jacket with fake fur lining the hood which draped over her shoulders. The jacket was un-zipped which revealed large block university letters: UCLA. Both hands were tucked warmly into her pockets. The left hand clutched a few coins which she set aside for today’s shrine and temple visits. 5, 50, or 100 yen here and there don’t really amount to much, but on days like today Benzaiten would be visiting several shrines and temples. At each place she would be spending about 300 to 500 yen. There was a lot to do during Hatsumoude visits: purchasing ema boards (votive prayer boards) to write on, buying o-mikuji (paper fortune slips), fishing for fortunes, buying hitokage dolls to send down the river of purification, purchasing purifying incense at temples, and offering money to coffers. She felt for a 5 yen coin in her pocket: those were the lucky ones.
The line ahead slowly decreased, and the line behind amassed. Looking around, the other entrance to the grounds was marked by a dozen food stalls: yakisoba, chocolate covered bananas, takoyaki, grilled sweet potatoes, amazake (there are several kinds but they are all typically a warm, fermented rice drink), skewered yaki-dango (grilled rice mochi dumplings, sometimes coated in a sweet and savory soy based sauce).
The row of praying folk in ahead of Benzaiten and Gin slowly dispersed. She put Gin down and gave him a coin to offer. They tossed in their coins and bowed twice each. Benzaiten clapped her hands, Gin clapped his flippers together. They both prayed.
Benzaiten put her hands together and lowered her head. I’m really just here to express my gratitude.
Gin put his flippers together and closed his eyes. Heartfelt and warm well wishes to me family on the Antarctic. That and abundant krill and fishies for the young ones.
When each finished, they bowed silently and left the offering zone of the main hall.
Unlike the entrance of the shrine complex, the rest of the area was quiet chaos. Groups of people moved back and forth across the grounds to take part in the various Hatsumoude activities. Children fished for small plastic fish in a large bowl. Each little fishy carried a fortune in its belly. Across from the fishing pool, people where laying small paper dolls in the river of a small landscape garden. First, the visitors would blow three times upon the paper doll, then they would rub the doll on the areas of their body which needed healing or purifying, and finally they would lay the doll down in the stream where it would quietly float downstream beneath a miniature torii gate straddling the water. The dolls would disintegrate by time they passed the gate. Debris from the disintegrated bodies built up like misty clouds on the other side of the gate, further down the river. Even further down the river, the water ran clean.
Up and behind the landscape garden, transients huddled beneath a small roof. Their cigarettes and vapes left a small trail of fragrance floating over the food stalls on the opposite side of the wall near the entrance.
On the other side of the shrine grounds a small line formed for o-mikuji and ema. To the side of the fortune slip line about 15 people gathered in an old building to take a break from the cold. Two or three space heaters glowed orange and red.
Just a little bit further from the rest shack, a small trail led back around the main halls. On the end of the property a long series of smaller shrines hosted praying guests. Unlike the main shrine, these were more personable and served the guests’ specific desires: one for good business, one for fertility, one for healing. Each wooden shrine was in the shape of a small house or hall.
In front of one such house, a pair of foxes. Inside their house, a crowd of baby foxes. Even further beyond the family of foxes, two giant trees towered over the rear of the main hall. The two trees were bound together by a thick rope, similar to the ones hanging from the stone torii gates at the front entrance.
With total absence of order, families and couples moved between these parts of the shrine grounds. Benzaiten and Gin walked flipper in hand trying not to get separated in the crowd.
“Sorry, Buddha,” a woman ladled cold water from the pond below and poured it over the head of a Fudo Myo-O (不動明王) statue. In the king’s right hand was a large sword with tip pointing up to the heavens, and his left arm’s fist rested on hip with elbow extended out. This was a “mizu kake fudou son” (水かけ不動尊). Instead of offering money here, one may pour water over the statue’s head as an offering. As the water ran over the statue’s head and body, the statue maintained a quiet fierceness.
“Gomen, ne,” the woman reiterated as she finished pouring the ice cold water over the crown of the statue.
A man next to the woman kneeled down next to the pond, where dozens of turtles roamed about below.
“They seem pretty tough; I wouldn’t worry too much.” He said.
She smiled, putting the ladle back in its resting spot, “But I feel bad for him, it must be so cold!” When the ladle was back in its place, she crouched down next to the man. Without a word, they each extended a had to each other. One palm up, one palm down: a snug fit. Ripples reached out from the corner of the pond where a turtle slipped beneath the water.
Next to the pond and statue of “The unmoving wise king” stood a 5-foot-tall shrine to Benzaiten, originally the Hindu goddess Saraswati and now Japanese syncretic deity between Buddhism and Shintoism. She is one of the seven lucky gods, and deity of literary arts and music to boot. Unlike the unshakeable, unbreakable wise king – Benzaiten wasn’t left to deal with the elements. She rested inside a wooden house which stood on stilts above the edge of the pond.
Far back behind Benzaiten’s shrine and past the Fudo Myo-O statue was a shrine which seemed to be dedicated to ‘Mizuko’ (水子): children lost pre-birth. The couple moved from the Fudo statue back towards this Mizuko shrine, where they made an offering and prayed. They stayed awhile there as if a part of home rested there. In the pond, baby turtles climbed onto the backs of adult turtles.
Kitain and Toushougu
Benzaiten shuffled over a bridge lined with orange edo-era looking streetlamps. Across the bridge, she entered a maze of food stalls and vendors. She couldn’t see much above the crowd, so Gin gave directions from his perch. Benzaiten’s fur-lined hood made for an excellent pouch to nest in.
Some vendors were the same as at other shrines and temples selling typical Japanese street food, but here and there a few stalls sold local goods that one might see in Kawagoe’s traditional Japanese sweets & snacks alleys. As per Gin’s directions, the two shared a couple skewers of yakidango (焼き団子) and warm amasake (甘酒). People like to point to Japan as a place which exemplifies highly codified social etiquette. “You can’t do this, must do this this way, if you do this that’s a faux pas.” Really, it’s not much more codified than anywhere else. Everything everywhere among everyone is highly codified. But that’s the power of generations verbalizing, re-inscribing, and reifying.
“You can’t walk and eat in Japan because it’s seen as rude, but you can just drink beer in the street! Isn’t that crazy?” is the kind of thing you might hear a tourist remark over and over. Well, that’s not quite the full story. All rules are subject to their time, place, population, and occasion: such is the case with eating while walking in public. Here at the temples and shrines on the first of January, everywhere you look you’ll find families eating and drinking as they walk around the outskirts of the holy premises. It’s tradition.
In front of Lunaglaire a 900-meter-long wooden staircase slowly ramped up on three-meter-wide wooden pillars. She could hardly comprehend where trees could grow so thick in Japan, and – wherever they grew – how they got here to Izumo. The low angle of approach only made the staircase look longer and the shrine at the end seem taller. As the staircase itself hid the main hall’s pillared foundation from view, this massive shrine hall seemed to hang suspended in the air 45 meters above the ground.
With the sun unseen, twilight set in soft against grey winter clouds. There was no distinction between where one cloud began and another ended, there was simply one continent of clouds bringing the twilight sky in close to the earth.
Compared to a normal staircase, feline lunaire didn’t use as much effort to get up each step. Still, just looking at the length of the distance left ahead of her though brought on physical premonition of how tired she would be once she stood in front of the main hall of the shrine.
“Izumo” (出雲), where the world of deities and myths was supposed to connect to the common world, “Yamato” (大和).
Luna’s back and hips began to ache. She knew her paws would feel it tomorrow. Not too far away small birds flew in circles.
The smell of seaweed and saltwater lightly coming in underneath the more obvious woodland smells coming in from below. Cedar and spruce. The smell of the earth baking under the sun all afternoon and evening.
In the silence, silly curiosities amused her. Making this epic approach to the Izumo shrine was like getting off an international flight into new territory: Which side of the walkway should I walk on? Do I pass on the left or the right? Who cedes the right of way, those coming up or down the stairs? Or does it depend on celestial status? What takes the hand: mortal versus celestial status, or direction of passage on the mountain?
Up ahead, a figure passed one of the lamps at the end of the bridge. The brief absence of flame from Luna’s vision was enough to catch her attention, but she still couldn’t quite make out who the figure was at this distance 700 meters away. Who ever it was, they had it easy, coming gently down the stairs.
The feloon kept pace. 652 meters. Mercury wondered who this person, or identity, was. Did they come bearing all the worries she had? Did they come on the high or low tide of their personal challenges? Did they find themselves envying the success and opportunities others enjoy as if automated to do so… before they even had a chance to think before their judgement leaped forward? 647 meters. Did they understand all of the things they knew they should do, and yet find themselves unable to take action? Did they keep in touch with everyone as successfully as the world requests of us? 636 meters.
Where were they born? To whom? What did they think of their childhood? 625 meters. Who were the ones that got away? Who is/are the one now? 612 meters. Who was their first, and she didn’t mean first love, but their first real loss…first tragic grief? 589 meters. Is the world beyond the clouds free of anxiety? 544 meters. Why do the deities even bother coming down to Izumo for conference en masse? Indeed, do they even come? 499 meters.
What do they make of our new year? Does it stir them just as it does us? Are they overcome with traditions and nostalgia while also ecstatic with hope for the imminent future? 421 meters. Do they yearn needlessly? 387 meters. Do aspirations serve them well, or are they simply useless vanities in a world without care? Is their world actually a world without care? 370 meters. Do they fear for dwindling resources? Are their bodies born to die? 313 meters.
What are their most cherished memories? Do deities feel joy, and – if so – what is it that stirs them, moves them, exhilarates them? 284 meters. How do they perceive the delights of the mundane world? Is there anything missing from their world that we enjoy without a second thought? 265 meters. How far would they go to aid their kin, or friend? 247 meters. What are their secret struggles? Which versions of themselves are played per social force and which are nurtured per social support? 209 meters.
Which story would entertain them again, and again, and again? Which story heard once has lasted them a lifetime? 188 meters. Have they ever taken a nap beneath the half-filtered sunlight of a maple tree sprouting leaves in early spring? 153 meters. What do they think of cats? 137 meters. What is that one joke they can tell and it always gets a laugh? Do deities tell jokes? 101 meters.
Suddenly, the deity stopped. Instinctively, Luna stopped silver in response.
It called out to her. “Can you stop?”
Perplexed, Pierrot of hair stood on her haunches. “Stop?” One ear twitched.
The deity again took up their gentle descent. “To stop thinking at me. I haven’t had a moment of peace since I stepped down from Izumo. Quite a shame if you consider this wonderful night view. If you have a thought or prayer for me, I’ll be audience to it, of course; but don’t you think it’s a little unfair to think so many questions at me knowing that you can’t hear my thoughtful responses in return?”
“I didn’t know.”
“I didn’t make it through half of your questions before the next one came on.”
Luna sped up to the feet of the deity and rubbed the length of her spine across the deity’s shins. The mercurial one didn’t have a good answer, so they just plopped down, belly out.
Benzaiten smiled and bent down, petting the soft belly of the beast. “Well, now you know. See, we can speak just fine. This way we’re both given an opportunity to voice ourselves. Now, which question do you want me to answer first?”
The Lune thought for a moment. She lifted a paw and dabbed at the deity’s petting hand. Her tail made whimsy above the wooden staircase.
Benzaiten sat down, letting her legs hang off the edge of the giant staircase. The clouds began to thin leaving just hints of the brightest stars and planets. Loonaire gingerly crawled into Benzaiten’s lap, but not without first tapping Benzaiten’s lap to test the firmness of this soon-to-be nest. She swirled up into a moonish reflection.
“Well, let’s start with this one: What do you think of cats?”