St Patrick’s Festivities

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St Patrick’s Day was a few weeks ago now, but hopefully not too late to read about. The past two years in Japan I just stayed in Kanazawa for St Patrick’s Day and went out for an expensive glass of Guinness with my compatriots. This year, however, I was inspired by my students to mark the occasion properly. In February and March my students were learning about Ireland in their textbook and they had to do a presentation about the country and its culture. It was interesting to see what the students researched; Irish sports like hurling and gaelic football, famous places like the cliffs of Moher and the Giant’s Causeway, foods like Irish stew and soda bread. Because Ireland doesn’t have a traditional costume like the Japanese kimono, some students talked about Irish dancing costumes and Aran jumpers. They were interested to know that Jonathan Swift was Irish because Gulliver’s Travels is a popular children’s book in Japan. I’m glad that they could find out more about Ireland than just our reputation for drinking.

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I’ve never been to the parade in Dublin city because you have to get there early to stake out a spot, transport is difficult and there are a lot of drunk people around. Most years though, I went to my hometown’s parade. Sports teams and various clubs and groups would walk/perform, local businesses would advertise and give out sweets to the kids watching, and vintage car/motorcycle/tractor enthusiasts would drive.

In March there are St Patrick’s Day events held in cities all over Japan, from Okinawa to Tokyo. On Saturday 15th there was a parade in Yokohama and one in Tokyo on the 16th, so I went to the Kansai area to visit both of them. The Irish Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Frances Fitzgerald and the Irish Ambassador John Neary were in attendance.

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The Yokohama parade was held at 1 o’clock in Motomachi, just beside Chinatown. It went down a narrow street so as it went by, it felt like the spectators were part of the parade too. It was only a small parade, but I was very impressed with the groups in it. After the Irish pub sponsors came groups of traditional musicians and dancers, who would pause regularly to play or dance for the crowd. It was how I imagine seeing foreigners in kimono must seem to the Japanese at first – a little uncanny, but great to see people interested in your culture (especially if you don’t appreciate it as much as you should). Some of the musicians were really good, and the little girls doing step dancing were so cute in their outfits.

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There were also non-Irish-related groups in the parade such as a Chinese restaurant, and several marching bands, which added some international flavour, which suited the Yokohama setting. As well as the Chinatown, there’s a US military base and some international schools in the city.

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The biggest St Patrick’s Day parade is in Harajuku, Tokyo, where it has been running since 1992. Unfortunately I missed that parade because I was too busy enjoying the first ever ‘I Love Ireland’ festival in Yoyogi park, just a few minutes away. There was a stage where performers sang, danced or played music, food and drink stands, and stalls selling Irish products or promoting Irish businesses. A lot of people there were wearing green and there was a great atmosphere.

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Colcannon, fish and chips, and … nachos.

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Ise Shrine

 

あけましておめでとうございます!

Happy New Year!  I’m back in Japan now after my Christmas holiday in Ireland.  Today is Coming of Age Day in Japan which is a National Holiday and celebrates people who are twenty years old officially becoming adults.  I saw some girls in town today decked out in formal kimono, but I didn’t take any pictures.  This post is from a trip I took back in November to Ise in Mie Prefecture, south-east of Kyoto.

The Ise Shrine is one of the most important shrines in Japan, as it’s dedicated to Amaterasu, the goddess of the sun and the universe, from whom the Emperor is descended.  Amaterasu is purported to have bestowed three sacred treasures known as the Imperial Regalia to one of her early descendants – a sword, a jewel and a mirror.  The mirror is kept at Ise, and the three treasures have been presented to each Emperor at his ascension since 690 A.D..  Only the Emperors and a few high priests have ever seen them, and no pictures of them exist.

The reason I’m interested in this shrine is because since 690 A.D., every twenty years the entire shrine complex is rebuilt.  In university, for my final year dissertation, I researched the restoration of medieval buildings in Bologna, Italy, at the beginning of the twentieth century.  While I was researching theories of conservation, I came across this shrine because it’s a famous example of Japanese conservation, i.e. the conservation of concept, not materials.  Although the buildings are made of completely new materials each time it is rebuilt, it is rebuilt in exactly the same style and with the same construction methods as it was back in the seventh century.

All shrines in Japan used to be rebuilt in order to purify them, but the cost is so high that now only the Ise Shrine does it.  It takes many years to prepare the building materials and there are many rituals and festivals for it as well.  The new shrine is built in a lot beside the old shrine, and in October, the divinity was officially moved to the new structure.  From then until the New Year, both old and new shrines were standing, until the dismantling of the old shrine this year.  The parts of the old shrine are then sent to other shrines in need of repair.  I visited in November so I could see both shrines and do some autumn leaf viewing.

gekuThere are two main shrines within the complex, the Outer Shrine, Geku, and the Inner Shrine, Naiku.  The Geku is located very close to the train station and houses a goddess of agriculture who brings food to Amaterasu who resides in the Naiku.

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These next pictures show the old shrine.

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The next two pictures are of the new version.  Because this is such a sacred place, we are not allowed to photograph inside the shrine fences, but we were allowed to go through the gates and look at the inner building.  Some very well dressed people were guided to the front of the inner building where they bowed and prayed.  Access to these shrines are very restricted because of their holy and imperial status.  Some of the buildings are surrounded by fences so you can only see the roofs.

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The building below is the shrine shop and its interesting to see that it’s built in a later, Buddhist-influenced style.

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I would highly recommend visiting the Sengukan museum, just outside the Geku because, although there isn’t much English signage (but pamphlets and audio guides are available), there are videos, pictures and models to help you understand the importance of this shrine.  There were videos of the rituals that take place at the shrine, examples of the craftsmanship that goes into building and decoration, and there is a scale model of the Geku main building and an exhibition eplaining the ancient techniques used to build it.

museumThe Naiku (Inner Shrine) can be reached by bus from the Geku or the train station.

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Everywhere was really busy because I’m sure everyone wanted to see the new shrine, but it was great to see that so many different types of people went to visit it. There were elderly devout people, families on an outing and young friends on a trip together.  I would imagine in other years, or times of year, it wouldn’t be so busy, which would be nice, but I was glad to be able to see both buildings.  My photos can’t really give the sense of having two identical buildings side by side, one brand new like it was unpacked from Ikea yesterday, the other twenty years old and weathered like a garden shed.

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These buildings mightn’t seem as exciting as other shrines or temples you can find in Japan, but they are very important historically and architecturally.  They represent a very Japanese form of architecture, remaining separate from the foreign-influenced Buddhist temple architecture.  The main shrine of the Naiku is built in the Shimmei style, which has its entrance on the long south side, as opposed to the gable end (like the Taisha and Sumiyoshi styles).  The floor is elevated on posts, the walls are built of planks, and the gabled roof is thatched with grass, topped by ten cylindrical logs, perpendicular to the roof ridge, and with forked finials over the gables.  You can see in the above picture that these last are ornamented with gold.  The buildings at Ise are unpainted, though most other shrines around Japan are finished in vermilion.

As I was leaving the Naiku, a procession carrying a mikoshi (portable shrine) went past.

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