Monday, 24 November 2014

"Soul of Japan" Exhibition

A few days ago I managed to attend this exhibition sponsored by the Japan Foundation of Rome.
It was presented as "Profondo Giappone" but we were told that the original title of the Japanese version was "Nihon no Kokoro", roughly rendered as the "Soul of Japan" of the title of this post.

It focused on the activities and rituals (the most important being the "Shikinen Sengu", the ritual reconstruction of the main shrines happening every 20 years) happening around the Ise Jingu, one of the three biggest shrines in Japan, and definitely the most important.
I was lucky to manage to attend the inauguration of the exhibition, presented by the author of the pictures himself, Minamikawa Sanjiro.
The photographer introduced himself the various shots, the visit was rendered as a "walking interview", so we could get a fresh comment and explanation about every shot (or series of shots) by Sanjiro-san himself, it was a very original presentation and quite fun and interesting!

Sanjiro-san was wearing the typical happi worn during the rituals of the Shikinen Sengu.
He explained us that every "group" wearing the same happi was coming from a certain district of Ise (his was Sakuraki-cho), and each district was dedicated to a precise mansion at the matsuri.
The duty of Sakuraki-cho is transporting the new woods to use for the reconstruction from the sea to the top of the mountain by Isuzu river. The charming point of Shinto rituals is that every action is part of a ritual, and the ritual itself, perpetuated constantly during the years, comprise the very essence of this religion.


It's said that when an epidemic followed in Nara, the place where the sacred Mirror, representing Amaterasu, was preserved, the Emperor of the time decided to move the sacred icon to a better place as an act to placate the angry forces of nature, the kami.
Princess Yamatohime was given the task, and she picked Ise as the new location of the mirror for its extraordinary spiritual and natural strenght.
So, Amaterasu, the goddess of Sun is enshrined in the inner, main shrine, Naiku.
Around ten years later, the nephew of Amaterasu, Toyouke, goddess of rice, was enshrined to the outer shrine, Geku, to provide the goddess for food and company.

Because of this it's said that Ise is so generous that one needs only three hours to find everything to sustain themselves: shelter, food and clothes.
The many rituals of shinto and expecially those related to the Ise Jingu, focus on these three basic needs: here clothes for the priests are prepared manually (women weave the silk used for the winter clothes, men take care of the hemp, used for the summer clothes), so is the food (one of the most important matsuri is the Kanname-sai, dedicated to the first rice harvested in Jingu) and so is the wood, obtained from the rich woods of cypresses and timbers of the mountain.
--In the pictures above you can see some shots of the various stages of such celebrations of thanksgiving.
The picture in the middle shows the ritual preparation of abalone: it's dried and cut in a slice! --How interesting!

Another important aspect besides the purification and the offerings, apart of the ritual focused on the "placation" of the gods, is that of the "entertainment": this part of the ritual is usually carried out through special ritual dances, called kagura:


Above you can see some details of the pictures that fascinated me the most about this subject.
Of course also other "events" can entertain the kami: the procession of the mikoshi, the taiko drums-- Everything that involves a festive mood.
The shinto rituals follow the events of how the kami managed to let Amaterasu out of the Celestial Cave after she had enough of her brother's commotion: the merriment of the matsuri was what picked Amaterasu's curiosity, making her leave her refuge and giving light and sun back to the world.

After this first introduction, enter the pictures dedicated to the reconstruction of the shrine complexes of Ise Jingu.
The complex is composed of 250 temples, besides the two main shrines of Naiku and Geku, so you can imagine the efforts that reconstructing the whole thing means.
It's not just the temples and pavillions that are reconstructed, but also the torii and the bridges leading to the various temples.

In this series of pics you can see the various phases of the reconstruction:
Everything is made and made of with the "new wood" brought in by Sanjiro-san and his fellow countrymen!
For the construction only woods is used: wood is the material of the shrine, the connections between the various pieces are made in wood, and even the utensils to put the parts together are made of woods.

As written in the explanatory booklet that was presented to us at the beginning of the exhibition, released in celebration of the 62nd Shikigen Sengu in 2013, "wood is central to Japanese civilization. The concepts of sustainability and reutilization, and the maintenance of know-how and skills are considered more important than the actual physical existence of a structure or building. This is the essence of 'eternity' as it is expressed at Jingu, and the reason for choosing to build and rebuild dwellings for the kami, instead of permanent structures of stone".

Another touching moment of the Shikiken Sengu, the transportation of the stones:
As it's allowed to bring only two stones per person (one for each hand), it's important that the most people take part in the ritual.
Without limits of age or gender, here are some shots of the contributors sharing the same smile of fulfillment.

Some precious pictures of the Geku (right) and the Naiku (left) as just completed.
In the picture of the Naiku you can see the old building, the darker one, still up before the definitive dismantlement.


These shots are peculiarly precious, as both temples, and the Naiku expecially, are not accessible and visible from up close.

Climax of the Shikiken Sengu is the moving of the Sacred Mirror, the "body" of Amaterasu, from the old to the new temple:
Sanjiro-san managed to take this picture by using a powerful camera with special lenses... The original picture was completely pitch black because the ritual is secret as is the revelation of the Mirror, so it was performed at a great distance from the audience-- He had to use a software to make these suggestive shadows and silohuettes visible... He said that as the picture started to become "visible" he got the goosebumps-- He just saw a blue light out of the whole thing!

The exhibition closes with the first visit of a pilgrim right after the shrine complex was completely reconstructed:
It's a picture that explains just perfectly the serene and peaceful atmosphere of the Ise Jingu, the holiest place in Japan.

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