Gods Help Us!

Posted by on Oct 29, 2011 in Mie, Travel Volunteer Journey | 3 Comments
Gods Help Us!

Last year we met a guy in the Philippines who lost his faith in Catholicism because of Frodo Baggins. It was hard to deny his logic: if Tolkien could create a world so vivid and steeped in history as Middle Earth, then of course the Greatest Story Ever Told, could be just that – especially when people stood to gain from its telling. We shrugged and conceded that perhaps he had a point.

It took less than the machinations of hobbits to bring down my faith: Chinese Whispers. “If a childhood game of passing simple messages around a room could be corrupted in five minutes,” I said to myself as a 14-year-old, “How could there be any hope of accuracy with a lifetime of stories told over thousands of years, translated through dozens of languages and dialects?” Once that thought got in my head, religion had lost me forever.

Travelling is not conducive to building faith, either. Visiting religious ruins, or sites of massacres from religious wars, or the temples of doomed civilisations, always leaves us feeling the same: heavy with a kind of sadness that so much effort and resources and, in some cases lives, were lost in order to worship myths.

But just because we are goddless heathens, that doesn’t mean we’re not fascinated by faith. In fact, we’re almost religion tourists. The buildings, the outfits, the religious fervour… It’s always interesting – the people especially. Even though we often find it bamboozling, there’s something very special about watching pious practitioners caught up in ecstasy. Maybe it’s because we’re jealous of trusting so completely in something so invisible, but we seek it out in every country we visit.

Alongside the devotion, we really like the architecture; religion has turned us into design dweebs. Because they’ve been given so much by their followers – and in some cases taken it – religious buildings tend to be palatial, ornate affairs that are undeniably beautiful. Pick almost any faith in the world and you’ll find a spectacular HQ. The indigenous Japanese faith of Shintoism is no exception.

Arguably* the country’s most important, Ise Shrine, in Mie prefecture, is a sprawling complex consisting of 125 individual shrines. It is the centrepiece around which the entire city is built.

For its part, Shintoism seems a lot less dictatorial than many other religions. It’s one of the benefits of polytheism: you can pick who you listen to and when. The pre-Christian Romans had a similar set up. They followed gods depending on their needs: pray to the god of war before the battle; pray to the god of forgiveness as you clean the viscera out from under your fingernails.

Things a good deal more sedate with modern Shintoism, though. Pray to the god of harvest, pray to the sun, and to the moon, pray for love, happiness and a big family… It’s vaguely similar to the native religions of the Americas, where people made offerings to the powerful spirits of nature in the hope of a better life.

In short, even though this sometimes literally means worshipping a rock, it’s hard to hold too many grudges with Shintoism, especially if you’re willing to ignore the whole Emperor-is-a-god thing (although it’s worth noting that the right to divinity was relinquished after the Second World War).

*I say it’s arguably the greatest shrine, because we would argue very strongly that it’s not. Why? Because we’ve no idea what it looks like. Very few people do: this is one of the most secretive, exclusive structures in all of Japan. While the “inner” shrine receives an eye-watering 8.8 million tourists a year, less than 0.01% of them get to see much more than a few smaller buildings (many of which are selling religious trinkets) and some roofs of other buildings beyond a giant CCTV-watched fence. Inside lies Kotaijingu, the main shrine where the sun goddess Amaterasu is enshrined, and where the hoi polloi are not welcome.

That’s what you can (or can’t) see on a good year. As the rules dictate that the shrine must be disassembled and rebuilt every 20 years (the next one is scheduled for 2013) there is currently quite a lot of maintenance going on. From the wrong angle, it looks more like an unfortunate building site than a home of the divine.

Yet most visitors are happy with their lot. There’s a beautiful park to walk around, lovely bridges, and some of the biggest trees in the country. Gods or no gods, it’s a pleasant place to bring the family. And there’s no entrance fee.

Except there kind of is. If you’re willing to pay (we heard the figure of ¥5000 mentioned) then you can pass beyond the outer wall and into the sanctum beyond. We didn’t speak to anyone who had ventured so far (though we did see a small group coming out) but it’s unlikely they saw a great deal more than the hoards outside.

However, if you’re the right person, it is possible to see more: the other four chambers that lead towards the centre are reserved for figures depending on their importance: members of government, priests, the royal family… To see the innermost sanctum, home of the sacred mirror, an item that was said to have been given to the imperial line by the Amaterasu herself, you can be no one less than the emperor.

And there lies one of the biggest fundamental problems we have with religion: that it tells some people that they are not good enough, and rewards others who have arrived on earth through nothing more than a fluke in the their parents’ genes. To us, that kind of cruelty and favouritism sounds more like the work of man than any god. Nevertheless, we’re looking forward to visiting more religious sites and, yes, more shrines – we just hope we can see them next time.













  1. Sandra Levine
    October 29, 2011

    A wonderful, insightful post, one of the best of many. I am so glad that you were chosen to be the travel volunteers. I don’t think anyone could do a better job, even myself.

  2. Kavey
    October 30, 2011

    Your reasoning resembles very much my own.
    A fantastic post, very interesting indeed.

  3. Eric
    November 10, 2011

    200% agree with this blog entry!

    And to add my 2 Yen: if everyone simply did follow the common (and basic) principles of any religion… Heaven would be on Earth!