As I type this the sound of Japanese flutes streams into my room. Outside my bedroom window a procession of brightly dressed priests passes. Today the people of my town are welcoming back their gods.
The common Japanese name for each month is its numerical status. January is literally “First month,” February is “Second month,” etc. But recently I learned there are older names for each month. February, for instance, is the month of wearing extra clothes. November is literally the month of frost. October is called the month of no gods.
There are two religions that are common in Japan: Buddhism and Shintoism. In the Shinto religion gods are worshiped at various shrines throughout the country. Most towns have one or more shrines in them. High hills often have a path leading up to a shrine on top. According to Japanese lore, for a few weeks in October, all of the gods leave their shrines and head to Shimane prefecture, in the southwest part of Japan’s main island. There they have some sort of big meeting or conference, and then after a few weeks they return. Today is the day the gods are welcomed back.
As an anthropology major, every part of me wants to prize and give value to the Japanese culture. I respect and admire my friend Chloe who has learned the Japanese tea ceremony and diligently practices on the koto, a Japanese stringed instrument. I applaud my teammate Bryan for learning kendo, the art of Japanese fencing. And in my time here, I’ve loved learning kanji, the fancy characters that make up one of the Japanese alphabets. But it is hard to love days like today.
Around noon I stepped out for a few hours. I love seeing my students dressed in traditional Japanese garb
instead of the jeans and a t-shirt they usually sport. (These two girls wanted me to take their picture, so I obliged).
I wandered down the street lined with booths.
I bought octopus dumplings and went goldfish scooping. Later, I ventured back out to watch what was going on. It looks like men carry small shrines down the street,
imbibe copious amounts of alcohol along the way,
get in the river (it’s 53 degrees and there is a stiff wind),
walk a little ways,
then get out of the river.
They all seem to enjoy it, which is pretty cool. Japanese people work extremely hard, and it is really nice to see them enjoying themselves.
Still, days like today sadden me a little. It’s hard to watch the crowds and know that they think their gods leave. They ring bells to get their attention when they enter shrines. I look at their gods and see…emptiness. Sometimes as a Christian I take God’s love for granted. I forget how radical it is that Jesus not only loves me on a daily basis, on a consistent basis, but that He sent his son to die for me. I forget that isn’t normal. That the very concept of this relationship I’ve had for 25 years is unknown to many of my neighbors. This isn’t the Bible belt in America where anyone who doesn’t know made a choice. This is Japan. And they haven’t the foggiest.