Thursday, October 7, 2010

Atsuta Shrine

From Japan
When my friend Mary and I went to Atsuta Shrine we had no idea we were visiting one of the most revered locations in all of Japan, second only to Ise Shrine (shrines and temples are two entirely different places, shrines are centers for the Shinto religion and temples are centers for Buddhism).  It is not uncommon for Japanese people to be both a follower of Shinto and Buddhism since both religions have been considered compatible (Shinto operates as a guide for life while Buddhism offers an explanation for death). Atsuta Shrine is the resting place of many historically significant artifacts, one of the most renowned being a sword said to have been found in a tail of an eight-headed beast.


From Japan
We entered the grounds from the West gate, passing under the first torii and proceeded along a gravel walkway (we later learned that the gravel pathways are a significant element of shrine grounds, since the sound of one’s footsteps generates a meditative element to enhance the experience of the visit). When our path intersected with the main road leading to the shrine we turned and passed under a second torii. Observing most other visitors rinsing their hands at a pool off to the side we decided to do the same.



From Japan
Near the pool stood a massive tree, hundreds of years old. Wrapped around the trunk was a thick rope with paper ribbons hanging from it, the sign of a great deity. In Shinto, large trees in particular host especially important deities and symbolize a long and happy life.


From Japan
As we admired the sheer enormity of the tree, a friendly Japanese man approached us and began sharing a lot of background information about the grounds in English. Turns out, he had just reached retirement, but had worked in the US and Europe every now and again. When he realized we both knew Japanese well enough, our exchange became a mix of both languages. What at first seemed like was going to be only a brief encounter ended up becoming a whole tour of the grounds.


From Japan
The grounds were expansive and densely forested. Small shrines were pocketed in small outcroppings from the main path, each for lesser deities including deities for the harvest, trees, clouds, happy marriage; they all have significant roles. The main temples serve as shrines for the most important deities and centers for ceremonies. As an example, a family of four passed up by dressed in traditional clothing having just had a ceremony for the wellbeing of the two children.


From Japan
The ceremony buildings are all relatively new, either built as new additions or reconstructed from being burned in the war. While indoor weddings are the traditional method, the increasing popularity of outdoor weddings prompted the construction of an outdoor ceremony hall.
One original building still stands on the grounds, but the woodwork is riddled with traces of termite feasts. Many of the grounds’ other features are marked as being gifts from such historical figures as Oda Nobunaga, the great warlord.
From Japan
One of my favorite shrines was the shrine to the water god. There practitioners step to the center of a small stream fed from a freshwater spring and take a ladle and splash a large moss-covered boulder at the center three times to wake the god to present their petitions.
Atsuta served as an important rest stop for travelers, being at a key point between Kyoto and Tokyo. There is a special shrine for the safety and wellbeing of travelers.
Overall, it was a really pleasant experience and I would like to make a few more trips there, as well as other shrines.
In an upcoming post I will share my visit to the Koshoji Temple (Buddhist), but I’m going to hold off on that until sometime after next Friday when I return there for some big fiery event happening. So much to see and so little time! Japan is so very much like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory…

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