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Writer's Corner- New Brunswick

Torii at Toshogu Shrine in Nikko

The Search for Shinto
By Colin Curtis

   Colin Curtis, from Blackville, New Brunswick, although currently living in Tokyo, Japan has been dabbling in writing for quite some time now, but has never tried to publish anything before. Colin tells us this website will be his first attempt.
   This is Colin's 3rd short story submitted to us and is based on his intial introduction to the ancient religion known as Shinto and the understanding of it through family relatives in Japan. I think we can all learn something new from this story and perhaps come away with a better understanding of the culture so foreign to many.

    'I am dreaming,' I calmly realize…
   I walk through a bamboo forest on a cool, misty, spring morning. The birds perform in surround sound from every angle, along with the sighing breeze passing through the tall, naked, pole-like trees, which stretch so high that their tops seemingly disappear into tiny points. I can hear a bubbling brook and I quickly find it. I follow the brook until I come to a small water fall emptying into a steaming hot spring, several meters wide and surrounded by ancient cedars. Eagerly, I climb down the rocky fall and wade into the hot spring. The temperature feels too hot at first, but I ease my way in, slowly. I stretch out flat, looking up, as the sun penetrates through the forest canopy, creating golden highlights on dew charmed surfaces of needles and leaves.
   Then, all of it - the trees, birds, rocks, water and wind - suddenly speaks, as if in a well synchronized choir…"You are…as we are," they whisper.
   As my eyes slowly open and peer up at the ceiling, it takes a moment to comprehend where I am! I am drenched in sweat! There is a strange moment of bewilderment upon realizing that I am not at home. I roll to the right, as I normally would to get out of bed, and I am surprised to discover that I am on a tatami floor, which is a floor covered in thick, uniquely designed straw mats - a common element in Japanese homes. I finally regain my senses.
   'Ah…of course…I'm in Fukushima, at the home of my parents in law,' I remember, piecing reality back together, after departing from a mystical dreamscape.
   I have returned to the conscious realm!
   I look at my cell phone to check the time. It is six forty-seven in the morning, which is a typical waking time for me, as I have always been an early bird. Despite the amount of alcohol I consumed the night before, which is also quite common in a Japanese home, I am up! My wife remains deep in her own distant dreamscape, and is likely to stay there for a few more hours.
   Uncomfortable in the humidity, I quickly head to the shower, tip-toeing down the stairs, as to not awaken anyone. Once there, I turn on the gas to heat the water. It is with a wonderful feeling of relief that I stand under the shower head, rinsing away the overnight residue. The extreme humidity in Fukushima is the reason for this northern more prefecture producing such amazing fruit, which consists of apples, peaches, pears and more. The orchids are everywhere. The humidity does not make for comfortable living, however.
   After my shower, I go to the living room and quietly slide the door closed. I open the windows to let in the morning air and I am happy to learn that it is cooler outside - at least for now. I open a cold can of coffee and milk, recline on the floor and look out the patio doors to the distinct landscape of flat rice plantations and steep, jagged, green mountains. It is an enormous visual contrast to the scientifically engineered vertical, horizontal and parallel lines of Tokyo.
   This is a rare occasion - a short trip to the country-side to visit family.
   I spend the next hour leafing through a book I have been reading.
   Eventually, my reading is interrupted.
   BONGGGG! It is the familiar sound of the bell my parents in law use to begin their praying. It is followed by a rhythmic, repetitive chant that resonates through the house from the room across the hall. That is where the family's butsudan is, a shrine or altar kept in a house or temple, where the follower would kneel and pray. It is a familiar sight in many Japanese homes, and is an element of Buddhism, which is common all throughout Japan. The Shinto equivalent to the butsudan would be the kamidana, which serves a similar purpose. Shinto is Japan's oldest religion.
   It is often said, that many people here do not really follow any particular faith, strictly. Most people partake in a mix of practices that come from both Shinto and Buddhism, and perhaps more recently, from the western world. Many, however, do not believe in the spiritual aspects of these practices. They are simply cultural traditions that are attached to holidays and festivals that they enjoy, much in the same way a non-religious person might still celebrate Christmas in the western world.
   My parents in law, however, are serious about their religion.
   It has been frustrating at times, trying to learn from Japanese people about Japan's oldest, original religion, Shinto. I could simply buy a book, like anyone in the world, but I am here in Japan. I would prefer to hear, see or experience it first hand. I was quite surprised to discover, when asking people about Shinto, that many people know very little about it. In my own experience: ask them to explain even a bit and they shyly blush before telling you that they are unable to do so. I was shocked to learn that some young people are even scarcely aware of its existence, let alone its long history. Surprising - since it helped shape their very character.
   After the introduction of Buddhism to Japan in 552 AD, the lines between Shinto and Buddhism became increasingly blurred, with practitioners of Shinto gradually adapting Buddhist-like ways. To this day, some people still have a hard time identifying the difference between a Buddhist temple and a Shinto Shrine, for example.
   Eventually, in the Meiji period, a campaign would be initiated that would separate, by force, the two religions, leading to what was called 'State Shinto', which became the official, national religion and lasted until the end of World War Two. With the intermingling of Shinto and militaristic rule in Japan, many turned their backs on religion, entirely, after the war. The country's oldest spiritual practice suffered a major blow. Unfortunately, Shinto, as a peaceful, naturalistic and truly spiritual teaching, ended up lost on a large portion of the population and it never fully recovered.
   The living room door slides open and my father in law steps in - a short stocky fellow in kakis and a button up shirt, with silvery hair and glasses.
   "Ohio," he says, smiling - meaning 'good morning'.
   "Ohio, Oto-san," I reply. 'Oto-san' is what you say for 'father,' but is sometimes used to simply recognize the status of the man of the household.
   "Sleep…OK?" He asks.
   "Hai…OK…You?" I ask back. He nods, affirmatively. "OK." He says.
   Our language is a sloppily chopped up, word by word mix of Japanese, English, exaggerated facial expressions and body language, which is mostly only understood by the two of us, leaving others scratching their heads and perhaps wondering why human beings ever developed a vocabulary, at all! It often sounds, I sometimes imagine, the way a conversation between Tarzan and Frankenstein would be should they have the opportunity to meet.
   "My brother's house…Let's go…drive!" he says, motioning with his hands as if clutching a steering wheel. It's a surprising proposition so early in the morning, but I at least entertain the idea.
   "Ah…honto?" I ask, meaning 'really?'
   "Hai, hai," he says, meaning 'yes.' He smiles again. "OK?"
   "Ummm…OK," I decide. It would be a real struggle, language-wise, to get much of an explanation as to why we are going there, so I do not press for it.
   We head out and jump into his Toyota sedan.
   We drive a narrow, winding road up into the mountains, passing by several streams and at least one major river. Along the way, we see evidence of previous landslides, some recent, that have been cleaned up, with the slide areas reinforced with concrete climbing up the sides of the mountains. It is not the most attractive addition to the otherwise beautiful landscape, but a necessary one to enable people to live up in these parts. And, in a country as crowded as Japan, space is too precious not to use.
   Finally, we get to a tiny settlement, not consisting of more than a dozen houses, which are all tightly perched on the side of a mountain. The highest one of all is the house belonging to my wife's uncle. It is an authentic, old style, traditional Japanese house that is more than eighty years old - a true relic in a country where buildings are torn down in the blink of an eye, in favor of modern development. The family has held onto this house, proudly choosing to maintain their own little piece of the past.
   We go up the steep driveway and park the car.
   My wife's uncle, Yuiji, greets us at the door and invites us inside. He is a warm gentleman and always seems social, but his health is not so good and he rarely leaves the house. He is wearing a samue, which is an original style of clothing Japanese people wore before the country became westernized. Some people still wear these garments on occasion and you see them even more on a traditional holiday. Yuiji's charcoal hair matches well with the gray and black of his samue.
   We sit on the floor around the low table and Yuiji serves us some tea and puts out some cookies. For the next several minutes, they discuss what seems to be a family issue and I have little interaction with them.
   My attention turns to the rustic old house Yuiji calls home - the old furniture, old sliding doors with paper windows, old photos sitting around and on and on. It is like a cluttered museum to me. Every corner presents a new wonder. Then, finally, my eyes find something that I rarely see - a kamidana - that little home-style shrine used by those who practice Shinto. At first there is a moment of excitement, but it fades a bit to disappointment, in remembering that Yuiji does not speak English and would be unable to talk to me about it. Oto-san's English is just barely better and I would certainly lack the proper Japanese vocabulary for such a subject. Besides, Oto-san switched to Buddism many years ago, and it is still a sensitive issue to bring up.
   Suddenly, we are getting up again and it is time to go! I am not sure what the meaning was of such a short visit, but we are soon out the door and, once again, getting into the car. Yuiji bows deeply to us as we head down the driveway, and continues to bow repeatedly, until we are out of sight - which is customary in Japan. We pull out onto the main road again, but I am surprised when we do not head in the direction of home. I turn to Oto-san.
   "Ummm...home…ah…that way," I stumble with words, pointing.
   "Ah…no…destination…this way, " he says.
   "Doco desu-ka?" I ask, meaning 'where?'
   "Mmmm…nice place…maybe," he says, smiling.
   "OK." I respond back. I am always game for an adventure.
   He seems a bit in a hurry, if not frantic even…
   We drive onward and upward into the mountains! The road narrows more and more with each snake-like twist and turn. My father in law seems to be looking for the way as we go - reading signs, slowing to look into other roadways and, at one point, stopping to ask a little elderly farmer along the road for directions. The plot thickens! Now, I am really curious about this mysterious, hard to find destination.
   Finally, we turn into a narrow path, which leads to a flat parking area on the side of a steep mountain. There are police officers there to direct parking. There are cars coming and going, and people dressed traditionally carrying boxes and bags. They all seem to be walking beyond this point to yet another location.
   We jump out of the car and start walking also, following the crowd.
   My mobile phone beeps, letting me know I received an email. I flip it open and check it. It is from my wife.
   "Where are you?!" she asks. I quickly thumb type a response while briskly walking along the rough path, almost tripping at times!
   "Don't know. Somewhere in mountains. Your Dad kidnapped me. Keep you posted. Bye." I send it off.
    Along the way we come across a group of elderly women, carrying a stereo and a box of CDs. We offer to carry their things for them, and they happily accept. The extra weight does not slow us down, however, and we soon leave the women in our dust, agreeing to hold their things until they meet us there - where ever 'there' is!
   My father in law seems as if he thinks he is missing something important.
   Finally, I see a sign of something more ahead. There is some broken, ruined, moss-covered stonework along the path. Then, we turn a sharp corner and find an enormously long, ancient looking stone stairway. It consists of hundreds of steps and stretches up the side of the mountain, even farther again!
   "Wow!" I hear myself say. This journey is turning epic.
   We can hear music in the distance now - taiko drums, bells, the works! I am filled with excitement at the prospect of climbing the steps, but the crowd is going another way, perhaps an easier way.
   We continue to follow them on the winding path, making several turns, zig-zagging up the mountain. Finally, we come to a flat area, paved with stone, where the stairway has met up with us again. At the top of the steps, there is a wide, red, arch-like gate made of huge timbers. It is stunning! But, it does not stop there. There is another short run of steps, beyond the stone flat, with guide-rails matching the big red arch.
We climb the steps, quickly, finally reaching the top of the mountain. And there, perhaps fifty meters in front of us is a beautiful, rustic, old building, as big as a house, with a classic curved, tiled roof and a stone foundation. The building is of a unique, ancient style of Japanese wood construction. It is a shrine.
   The traditional music cuts through the humid air! People are dressed in their colorful traditional clothes and are dancing, eating and drinking.
   We soon meet up with the owners of the stereo and CDs and give them back their items before parting again.
   It is a traditional festival. I am very intrigued and intend to learn more.
   Along with the other festivities, there is a group of men practicing their Samurai fighting techniques. Some use the katana, the traditional sword of the Samurai, and others use a long staff. They move like well disciplined warriors, ready for action. A gray haired master corrects their posture and gives them guidance. He takes a weapon from one of the younger students and demonstrates his own mastery, drawing gasps from passers by!
   Oto-san points to a group of people.
   "My nephew…there…Let's go!" he says.
   We head across the courtyard and squeeze between people standing, watching dancers on a stage. Oto-san finds his nephew, a young guy about my age, with jet-black hair and in regular clothes. We make our way to him. We all bow upon making contact.
   "Colin, this is Hiroyuki…Nephew...Yuiji's child," Oto-san says.
   "Ah…Hajimemashite…Colin desu." I say, which is a typical first greeting.
   "Call me Hiro," He says, in reasonably good English.
   "Oh, you speak English," I say.
   "Maybe not so well, I think," he says, sheepishly, but everybody in Japan thinks that their English is horrible. They are often insecure about it.
   Oto-san leaves us there and wanders off into the crowd. He seems eager to explore the colorful festival.
   "Is this the first time to see a shrine like this?" Hiro asks, gesturing toward the building.
   "I have seen others, but I'm afraid I know little about the religion. Is it Shinto?" I ask.
   "Yes, yes…Shinto. I am a Shinto believer," he says, smiling. "It's a different religion than my uncle's…" he says, gesturing to Oto-san, in the crowd. "My father, my family and I are not Buddhist."
   This is a rare opportunity! I finally found someone who can talk about Shinto, in English, and I am eager for answers.
   "How would you explain Shinto?" I dare ask.
   "It is a bit different in each part of Japan. There is no central book, like other religions. Shinto does not have any national organization. But, the basics are almost the same all over Japan. In other religions, this world is…like…negative. Everybody wants to get to heaven or a better place. Shinto developed because of a love for this world and everything in nature. This world, we are in now, is a great world in Shinto."
   Different dancers take to the stage and the audience claps.
   "Ah, she is my daughter," he says, pointing to one of them. They are all about the age of ten. The music begins and they start performing.
   "Kawaii," I say, which means 'cute'. Hiro smiles.
   Then, for the first time since getting here, I notice that people are looking at me. Hiro notices it to. This happens often in the countryside.
   "You are the only foreigner here. Did you notice?" Hiro says and laughs.
   We watch his daughter perform and then we walk to a tent area, where they are serving food and drinks. We purchase cans of beer and sit at a table.
   I bring the conversation back to Shinto.
   "So, is there one god in your religion?" I ask.
   "Mmm, no…many. In Shinto, we say Kami, which is like a spirit or god. We believe everything has Kami, for example, a rock, tree or animal. And we believe even a place, like a lake or mountain, has Kami. If a place is very beautiful, it has a very special Kami."
   "Is there one Kami that is stronger or more powerful than another?" I am hoping my questions do not sound too elementary to him. He thinks for a moment.
   "You see, all Kami are connected as one. It all connects together, so it is a bit hard to explain. Everything is individual, but is also connected to a whole. Everything is part of the same whole. And that is the basics of Shinto. Any part of Japan would have the same basics, probably."
   "Sounds like a peaceful idea, and simple, in the best use of that word." I comment. "I can't tell you how much I appreciate this discussion."
   I thank Hiro repeatedly for his impromptu tutoring.
   His family members join us and we chat a bit and take some pictures together, before I head off to find my father in law.
   Hiro's explanation is quite clear and easy to grasp.
   Shinto is a religion that was inspired by the beauty and nature of the planet. It is a religion based upon an appreciation for all things natural, and it places importance on even the smallest of things the world has to offer - animate or inanimate. The idea that all things, living or non-living, all having consciousness or a soul - that everything from a dried up leaf on the ground, to a rock on a lake's bottom has a living energy and that everything is connected - is a staggering idea. It may also have some support from modern science. The strange concepts presented in Quantum Physics point to very similar ideas at times.
   I have learned that Shinto is so old that its time of origin is unknown. This is partly due to the fact that it was developed at a time when the people here still did not have a system of writing. Shinto might well have been created by the very people that first set foot on these islands, thousands of years ago. Could it be that these ancient people had an understanding of the real natural world that modern science is just catching up to now? If the theories introduced in the field of Quantum Physics prove positive, this just might be the case.
   One thing is for sure…the ancient tradition of Shinto is still alive and thriving on this remote mountain top and seems deeply embedded in everyone - and perhaps everything - present.
   I meet up with my father in law, once again, and I wonder if his reason for coming here just might be that, Shinto is still deeply embedded in him also.
   We begin the long walk back to the car.
   "Good time?" he asks.
   "That was great…very interesting. Thank you."
   "Mmm…thank you to." He says.
   He seems satisfied and is quiet and reflective now. He points back, to the scene we just left, as the music begins to fade away into the natural symphony of the misty, mountainous forest.
   "Japan's heart…is there…Japan's deepest heart!" he declares.


To the reader:
   Thank you for reading! The names in this story have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals mentioned. Eventually, I wanted you to know, I did buy a book! To learn more details about Shinto, I recommend the book: The Essence of Shinto, by Motohisa Yamakage, the 79th Grand Master of Yamakage Shinto. ~ Colin Curtis


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