Journey to the Soul of Japan

Two thousand years ago, the emperor of Japan sent his daughter on a mission.

She was to find a new home for a sacred mirror, one of three items that had been passed down from their ancestor, Amaterasu, the sun goddess and the creator of ancient Japan. The mirror was worshipped as though it was the goddess herself, and its new resting place would become the centre of Shinto festivals, ceremonies and rituals. Continue reading “Journey to the Soul of Japan”

Tanabata: Legend of the Stars

Long, long ago, there lived a princess named Orihime. She was the daughter of a god of the heavens, and lived by a vast river of stars known to us as the Milky Way. She diligently wove cloth to make clothes for the people in her kingdom.

One day, her father realised Orihime was no longer a little girl, but a young woman who longed to be in love. Wishing to see his daughter happy, he set out to find her a suitable partner.

After searching high and low, he came across a boy tending his cow by the bank of the river. His name was Hikoboshi. He was a noble, hard-working young man. It was inevitable that as soon as he and Orihime met, they would fall in love. Before long, they were married and enjoying life to its fullest.

However, the couple were having so much fun together that they neglected to do their work. Without Orihime, the people’s clothes became ragged. Without Hikoboshi, his cow became weak and sick. The celestial god became very angry at the pair for their recklessness. He decided the best solution would be to have them live apart, on opposite sides of the river. Hikoboshi was sent to the east side, and Orihime was sent to the west. The separation devastated them.

Seeing Orihime so sad was hard for her father. So, the god made one final decision. Once a year, on the night of the 7th day of the 7th month, Orihime was permitted to see her beloved husband. Over the years, Orihime worked tirelessly on her loom and Hikoboshi took great care of his animals. Their love stayed strong and they worked hard knowing they had this one special day to look forward to.

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This tale of Orihime (Vega star) and Hikoboshi (Altair star) was originally adapted from a Chinese legend. Today, it is celebrated as a traditional festival known as Tanabata.

At Zojo Temple in Tokyo, a special display made up of hundreds of candle-lit paper lanterns was set up last week on July 7th. These lanterns represented the Milky Way ‘river’. It was beautiful with Tokyo Tower in the background! As well as the river, hundreds of lanterns decorated by elementary school children were also displayed. Their drawings depicted what they want to be in the future – bakers, dressmakers, teachers, train drivers, Anpanman! Many of the children came to the temple with their parents. It was so touching seeing them earnestly search for and find their creations!

As a custom of Tanabata, people write their wishes and prayers on colourful strips of paper and tie them to bamboo tree branches. Ceremonies are conducted at many shrines and temples, like Kanda-Myojin Shrine, where musicians play traditional instruments, girls perform a traditional dance, and priests pray for all of our wishes to come true.

The Lucky Cats of Gotoku-ji

Okay, so I don’t like to brag (very often), but I think it’s safe to say I live in the best suburb of Tokyo, if not Japan. (That might be stretching it a bit, but whatever). Before I became a Tokyo resident, whenever I told people I was moving to Setagaya, the reaction was always ‘Ooooh, wow! Nice place!’. Setagaya is the biggest of Tokyo’s 23 wards and is known to be pretty fancy, lots of rich people and celebrities live here, and there are loads of parks and gardens. In the spring, I felt like I was living in a fairy-tale land with magnificent cherry blossoms lining the streets. It was especially beautiful at Kinuta park and Baji park’s horse racing club (my sakura pics here). Places like Kyodo and Shimokitazawa are awesome for people spotting – lots of young university students and trendy high schoolers, as well as wealthy people driving around in their Bentley’s and Merc’s. Around the train stations, it’s always busy and crowded, but as you leave the main business areas, you find yourself in tranquil, laid-back neighbourhoods. And the best part, it’s all within 20-30 minutes of the big guns, Shinjuku and Shibuya. I honestly do feel lucky to live in such a great place!

So adding to my list of things I love about Setagaya was an experience I had the other day. On a Saturday afternoon stroll, I stumbled across a quirky temple tucked away behind residential houses and nestled in a small wooded forest. Walking into the Gotokuji Temple grounds, you are greeted by a small but beautiful, green garden. Old tree roots weave over and under the moss-covered ground. A three-tiered pagoda challenges the height of the towering cypress trees; and a black lion on top of a giant incense burner stands in the middle of the path straight ahead. There were only a few other visitors so I took my time taking photos in the afternoon light. After 20 or so minutes I thought I’d keep looking around… Never did I expect to see what came next! As I walked towards the main temple building, I saw the strangest thing: hundreds and hundreds of maneki neko all lined up. It was a bit creepy, actually. My first thought was that the keeper of the temple had some strange obsession with these ‘lucky cats’. After consulting my digital brain (my iPhone) I found out that this temple was the birthplace of the beckoning cat!! How cool is that? There are a few stories as to how the cat statue came about but the most common legend is as follows: a daimyo (a lord in the Edo Period) was going home from his visit to the capital, when he was beckoned to a small, poor temple by a white cat. Not long after, a dangerous storm hit, and the man was able to take refuge in the temple. The cat saved the lord from any trouble the storm could have caused, and because of that, he decided to fix up the temple as well as designate it as his family temple. The lord, Ii Naosuke, and his entire clan are all buried in the graveyard behind the temple. When the cat died, it became a sort of god, and people made offerings to the temple and this ‘lucky cat’.

Click on the images below to see a larger picture.