Tokyo, Japan: Samurais in Sacred Forests


IMG_0756Samurais in Sacred Forests

“The Games of the 32nd Olympiad in 2020 are awarded to the city of … Tokyo.”

As the megawatt city of 13 million residents looks to its future along its neon precincts of gadgets, video games and anime, this traveller to Tokyo is hankering for a tree change of the most majestic kind.

I feel like I am riding through one of MC Escher’s impossible realities. As the bus weaves north along the expressway several storeys high between Tokyo’s myriad skyscrapers, the landscape slowly morphs into green grids of paddy fields and hills of bowing bamboo.

After two hours I arrive at the Sacred Forest of Kashima Jingu with its Shinto shrine built in 660BC.

The Sacred Forest is not on the radar of guidebooks, which means I can wander with the locals in its 70 hectares of forests, ponds and deer park, which are scattered with haiku scribed on wooden posts.

My English-speaking guide, Tanaka-san, is brimming with information.

First we cleanse ourselves at the small pavilion called the temizuya, by rinsing our palms and mouths.

We should be entering beneath the majestic 10 metre granite torii, but it collapsed in the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011. Today, two cedar saplings grow in its place.

Tanaka-san gestures politely as he explains to me the origin of the torii. “The sun goddess hid in a cave and the world became dark. The gods had to coax her out so they set a cockerel on a perch and as it crowed, the sun goddess appeared. Torii actually means bird perch.”

His eyes crinkle and smile as he continues.

“The deity enshrined here is Takemikazuchi, the god of warriors and martial arts. Centuries ago samurais worshipped here to feed on the cosmic powers of the rising sun goddess.”

We enter beneath the lavish vermillion Romon (Tower Gate) that transports us from the everyday world into the enigmatic forest.

“Feel the air change and sense the spiritual energy,” Tanaka-san enthuses.

We stop at the Haiden (hall of worship). Following Tanaka-san’s lead, I show my respect by bowing twice, clapping twice and bowing again.

As we walk the winding gravel paths fringed with ferns and moss-knuckled tree roots that are overhung by cedar, cypress and cherry trees, I look up for the kami (spirits) who live in their branches.

One thing I notice is how the massive tree branches are supported by elaborate bamboo scaffolding. Tanaka-san explains that all trees must be preserved.

It’s a day of celebration. Children are dressed in their finest kimonos as they are purified to gain protection from the deities. They are given fortunes written on paper. Good ones are taken home whereas bad fortunes are tied to a branch and return to the gods.

Kashima means Deer Island. The deer within the forest are said to be descendants of divine messengers. The phrase passing the buck may have originated here. Finding a dying deer in front of your house warranted execution, so you moved it to your neighbour’s door.

In the centre of the Sacred Forest rests the metaphoric fate of Japan. A mythical catfish lives far below. As it thrashes, it bucks the country, causing earthquakes. Its head is pinned down by a keystone, which is held in place by the god, Takemikazuchi. I ask Tanaka-san about the 2011 earthquake. He quips, “Takemikazuchi must have gone for sake!”

Tanaka-san leaves me to wander on my own down the hill to the Sacred Pond. It’s here that I experience my first tea ceremony. To flavour the green tea, I’m given a burnt bamboo stick to stir it with. As I turn the tiny cup to its various positions and slowly sip, it allows me time to take in the nuances of the forest’s quiet beauty.

My walking loop finishes at a small museum where I can almost touch suits of samurai armour. They’re made of lacquered wood and leather; the 1000-year-old saddles are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. There are helmets with facial hair and shoes made of fur and feathers. The sword hilts are bound with leather, sharkskin and twine.

I try and lift the three-metre replica of the 5th century chokuto (straight sword). I can’t imagine how strong the samurais were to swing this hefty weapon about.

In my last minutes of wandering before leaving this sanctuary for the bustle of Tokyo, I’m conscious of the music of the forest. Visiting Kashima Jingu has meant switching off the 21st century. No iPods to intrude, just the nightingale’s song, the cracking of crows and the breath of the cedars.

About the Author: Marian McGuinness is an Australian freelance writer who has travelled beyond the Antarctic Circle to beyond the Arctic Circle. She has explored skull-riddled catacombs and ice cathedrals, French wine caves and opal-bearing mining tunnels. Marian is an award-winning travel writer who uses her travel experiences to write stories for children. Read more about Marian’s adventures.

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