The Search for
By 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
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
as we are," they whisper.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
OK?" He asks.
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.
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.
honto?" I ask, meaning 'really?'
"Hai, hai," he says, meaning 'yes.' He smiles again.
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.
that way," I stumble with
way, " he says.
"Doco desu-ka?" I ask, meaning 'where?'
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
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
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
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
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.
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
Nephew...Yuiji's child," Oto-san says.
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.
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
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
"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
"Kawaii," I say, which means 'cute'. Hiro
Then, for the first time since getting here, I
notice that people are looking at me. Hiro notices it to. This happens often in
"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.
bring the conversation back to Shinto.
"So, is there one
god in your religion?" I ask.
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
"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.
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
One thing is for sure
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
"Good time?" he asks.
very interesting. Thank you."
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 deepest heart!"
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