Of Place and Wind 12: Of shrines, temples and churches

Tetsuya Kaida evaluates his relationship with religion, and the significance of shrines, temples, and churches in his childhood.

From the moment when I started to unwind the thread of my thoughts, the story has slowly expanded, coming to include issues as large as the principles of the universe. Although this feels like the perfect time to bring it to a close, there is not much I can say about the universe. I guess my imagination and sensitivity only reach as far as the moon (laugh). So I’d better put the universe aside and talk instead about religiosity.

I must confess that I am one of those people whose relationship with religion can best be described as loose. I have no religious bone in my body and no interest in religion whatsoever. Such a statement probably sounds not only unscrupulous, but also irreverent toward my ancestors who married and died in the Buddhist tradition. Some readers might think it disqualifies me as a writer.

My engagement with religion encompasses the following moments and moods.

- My family has long been affiliated to a temple in the village where my father was born, not far from which lie my ancestors’ graves.
- My mother was a rather devout Buddhist, who prayed in front of the altar every day.
- Her birthplace must have been a similar countryside area with its own Buddhist temple.
- I got married in a church, because Christian weddings were popular at that time.
- It felt absolutely natural and my parents did not oppose it.
- After getting married, I did not go to church and felt no particular interest in Christianity.
- When I lost my mother, we held a typical Buddhist funeral ceremony for her and she received a posthumous Buddhist name.
- She now rests in a grave at the temple that held the service, because it was close to my father’s house.
- I have been so neglectful of visiting her grave ever since that my father finally gave up on me.
- I guess not even my mother has any expectations of me anymore.
- Every time I visit my father, I join my hands in prayer in front of the Buddhist altar with my mother’s commemorative tablet.
- When I travel abroad and happen to see a church or mosque on the street, I often take a quick peak inside.
- These days, I watch films like The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons with innocent excitement.

By now it should be clear how devoid I am of any sort of religious consciousness or preference for a religious affiliation. Although I haven’t really had the chance to compare, I believe that many Japanese people have an ambiguous stance towards religion. But this remains to be proven.

If the discussion ended here, it would not be saying much. Therefore, I would like to use this last chapter to revisit some memories of my childhood, when I approached this sort of things with a pure unbiased mind. Let us make a time warp back to my elementary school years.

It was a time when I used to go to the shrine almost every day. To play hide-and-seek, marbles, tops and kites, eat snacks while spilling them all over the place, have bicycle races, make bonfires, play with water at the stone basin used for purification, shelter inside the pavilion for kagura performances when it rained… The shrine was the ideal playground that gave you the freedom to do anything. It had a forest in the back, where we gathered insects or played with sleds in snowy winters.

I can still remember the lonely cry of the cicadas breaking the silence of summer evenings. At each end of the forest, there were two trees that must have been really old, and for some reason it felt unusually exciting to play around them. Almost every week we went on escapades into the forest that stretched up into the mountain. Just once, I saw a white snake inside the temple grounds and thought it must have been a messenger of the gods. I always felt there was a certain presence behind the offertory box at the front of the main hall of the shrine. But probably there wasn’t anything. One day when my father scolded me really badly, which he did not normally do, I ran to the temple and cried there in the rain all by myself. On festival days, the entire community would gather at the shrine. It was there that the sacred palanquin was taken out from and where it returned. My friends and I loved the rice-cake soup and sweet red bean soup served for free out of huge pots. Even now, I am clueless as to who prepared those soups. On one occasion, sweets and coins were thrown to us from the top of the yagura wooden scaffold which was built for the festival every year. It felt good to have some unexpected pocket money. The strange thing is that I do not remember seeing someone on top of the scaffold. Or perhaps it is not that strange.

The shrine was a special ‘place’, with a warmth that embraced us, the children, as we walked around and with its centuries-old trees that watched over us.

The temple where I played during my last years of elementary school was a little different. Its atmosphere seemed to warn that, should you try to do the same things as you did at the shrine, the priest would appear out of nowhere to yell: “Hey, no misbehaving in here!”. Again, it is not that there was something in particular at the temple. It just didn’t seem to be a suitable place for children to play. At my mother’s request, I once spent one night there doing Buddhist practice with a friend, but, from meditation to the bowl of simple vegetarian soup, there was nothing fun about it. I felt irritated and just wanted to go home (laugh).

But there was also another temple that my friends and I often went to and which was very beautiful. It had a strangely-shaped pond resembling the character for ‘heart’, spanned by an arched stone bridge, where lots of colorful carp swam around quietly. The turtles on its small islands could have easily been ten thousand year old and the birds of the four seasons flew freely between the banks of the nearby river and the pond. I think the temple had a main hall, an eastern hall and several other pavilions, each with its own significance and function. The pines, cedars, cypresses and maples in the garden had been planted with consideration of the overall balance and appeared majestic and solemn through the eyes of the child that I was. The Buddhist monks who were receiving training at the temple were probably in charge of their maintenance. This is the impression that temples give: that they have been created through the intervention of the will and mind of humans.

As children, we were sensitive to this gaze, which was not of others but of the temple itself, and were careful not to make too much noise when playing.

Another of our favorite playgrounds in those times was a monastery surrounded by a large vineyard, which was separated by a river from a bamboo grove. Needless to say, it had a church. As soon as you stepped inside, you found yourself enveloped in an atmosphere and fragrance that were completely sealed off from the outside world. A current of chilly air swept past. The church contained countless images of Mary and Jesus, which hung on the walls to the right and left, making me feel that this old tale from a foreign country could not possibly have any bearing on my life. In the center at the front of the church there was a raised platform that you were not allowed to step on, which must have contained the cross. From there, the space was symmetrically divided into a left and a right side and in the back there was a balcony with a pipe organ. Unfortunately, I do not remember having ever heard any music being played on it. I do have a vague memory of a corridor to the side of the church, which led to a two-story building with many doors and a prohibitive appearance. I believe it was there that the monks lived.

Playing in the monastery was out of the question and all I could do was walk around as silently as I could, with my mouth shut, furtively observing the monks. I wondered what had brought all those people there, what they were doing and why they weren’t returning to their countries. I was even more puzzled by the Japanese people working in the vineyard and their motivations.

At my mother’s insistence, I even started to attend English classes at the church on Saturday afternoon. The idea did not appeal to me and in the third week I somehow managed to find a reason and convince my regretful-looking mother to stop wasting my precious Saturday playtime (laugh).

Sifting through my memories, I realize that, of all religions, I may have an affinity with Japan’s oldest belief system, Shinto. “There is a god residing in all living things, as they are”. Shinto does not need to seek any reason for this assumption, nor does it make a big fuss about its correctness. I like this warmth, softness and freedom that it allows. There is no convoluted logic. It contents itself with just that. Like the ‘blowing wind’.

I know! This weekend I’ll go see the three ‘places’ where I used to play as a child. I’ve never thanked them properly and it’s about time to set things right. I may discover something I did not know about the many years that have gone by.

By Tetsuya Kaida

(This article originally written and published in 2010.)