Snow and Joy

My first sighting of snow in Tokyo occurred in Classical Japanese class two weeks ago, when humongous blobs of white came barreling down from the gray sky. I watched this through the large window I sit by in considerable awe. I had forgotten the existence of snow, of the white flakes that fell crisply in the bitter Illinois wind as I trekked through the layered accumulation on the ground in my winter boots to do my chores – of the joy and thrill of slipping and sliding on the ice that covered our long driveway all the way home from the bus stop with Kazami, laughing up a storm. As I watched this Tokyo snow, these huge blobs that drifted furiously down to hit the ground and disappear almost instantly, all of these snow-related memories came flooding forth. Yet it was not sadness, or homesickness, that erupted within me as I did this, but pure happiness. “Yuki! (Snow!)” I shouted, “Look, everyone! Snow is falling!” The girls in my class, who I have come to love with all of my heart for their purity and openness, laughed at my sudden outburst, but they looked happy to see the rare snow, as well.

A couple days later, on Friday, Saki-chan and I had no school because of a national holiday and Akiko-san was off from work, so we decided to drive down to a jinja (shrine) located in the Ibaraki prefecture. Akiko-san explained to me as we left the house early in the morning that it is an old Japanese tradition to visit a shrine in the early Spring. In the Edo times, people gathered money in a “bank” all year long to use to make the trip down to a Jinja, stopping by an onsen (hot spring bath) on the way. In other words, it was a spiritual vacation. Her father had never missed this annual trip and she wanted to continue this tradition. In the car, we ate bananas, strawberries and baked chesnuts for breakfast as snowflakes – more flake-y and light this time – hit the window pane again and again. All three of us were in good, energetic moods as we exited the busy city, but soon the lull of the car put Saki-chan and I to sleep.

An hour and a half and a nap later, the scenery outside my window had changed from the gigantic skyscrapers of central Tokyo to flat rice fields sprinkled in white and long greenhouses capped in snow. “We’re in Kasama!” called Akiko-san from the driver’s seat, “We’ll be there in five minutes!” Kasama (笠間) is the name of the town the Inari Jinja is located in and the name is said to have originated from the word 風間 (kazama) , or “where wind cannot pass through”.

Sure enough, five minutes later, I found myself staring out into the spectacular, enormous Inari Jinja. Japan has two main religions – Buddhism and Shinto – and thus has two different places of worship: temples and shrines. This Inari shrine is devoted to the kami (deity) Inari, also known as Ukanomitama no kami. “Uka” stands for food, or the “mysterious spirit dwelling in grain” , so basically, Inari is the deity of the five grains and foodstuffs. It is also known as the deity of fertility and reproduction, rebirth, growth and productivity, and protection against fire. Many other Shrines across Japan are devoted to this important deity, but the Kasama Inari shrine is one of the three largest and most famous of these. It was founded in 651 AD during the reign of Japan’s 36th Emperor Kotoku and remained popular in the Kanto area throughout thirteen centuries. During the Tokugawa reign (or Edo period), because the Kasama Domain’s fuedal lord gave the Shrine a devoted patronage, the Kasama Inari shrine became known not only throughout the Kanto area, but all over Japan. Today, more than 3.5 million people visit the Kasami Inari shrine in a given year.

Perhaps because of the snowfall, or because of the economic recession, the Shrine was not crowded when we approached. Akiko-san sounded sad as she recounted that it was the first time she had seen so little turnout. As Saki-chan warmed up inside the Hall of Worship, Akiko-san and I explored the expansive shrine. Placed all around the shrine in various spots were statues of foxes, which are said to be messengers to the Inari deity. On both sides of the walk up to the main shrine, little shops sold souvenirs. There were also many large, ancient-looking trees that stood grandly next to the shrine.

Akiko-san had signed us up in the Prayer Office for a special ritual worship performed by the shrine’s priests, so after the quick tour, we went inside the Hall of Worship to sit down with about thirty other people in front of four priests in ancient customary Japanese kimono wear. We bowed our heads as the priests performed the worship. The pitch and sound of the prayer by the oldest priest sounded similar to African or Arabic chants. Halfway through, one of the priests shook a broom-like object above our heads to symbolize the driving away of evil spirits. Near the end, Akiko-san, as the representative of our family- went forward with the other representatives to place an evergreen branch on a tiny table as an offering to the kami.  She bowed, clapped her hands twice, and bowed again. The bowing represents the showing of deep, great respect for the kami and the clapping is said to represent the unification of ying and yang.

After eating a delicious lunch of udon and soba noodles at a local noodle restaurant and visiting a sake shop, we said our last goodbyes to the Inari Shrine and got in the car again. This time, we headed towards the ocean, or the Oarai seashore. The snow had changed to pouring rain and the wind was strong near the ocean, but nevertheless I was very happy to see the Pacific. The sky above was gray, covered in looming clouds and dangerous, large waves thundered toward the shore. I walked down the cement steps and closed my eyes to the waves crashing, again and again, against the rock-covered sand. When I opened my eyes again, I looked out into the dark expanse of water that seemed to continue out forever.

And there, out in those strong, undoubtedly freezing waves, was a small black figure. I peered closer and was astounded to discover that it was someone – too far away to tell if it was a man or a woman – surfing in a black wet suit. I watched, amazed, as the tiny person rode a wave or two, only to be swallowed up again and again. Suddenly the figure disappeared into a particularly large wave and I became terrified that he or she had drowned. Yet soon enough, I was able to spot the black blur of the surfer’s suit, trying to get back on the board yet again.

Watching this, I tried to imagine what it would be like to be out there in those icy waves, feeling the cold wind hit my bare skin, as rain trickled down from the sky. What would it be like to be so far from safety – trying to ride a small surf board in the middle of winter? As I wondered and watched, as wind and rain splashed against my face, as the waves kept on barreling toward me, I was suddenly wrapped up in an indescribable emotion – of wanting desperately to laugh and cry at the same time – of joy and sorrow and all of the above, of life hitting me all at once.

Later, after I had picked up a light blue heart-shaped rock from the shore, I turned back to the dark surfing figure and hoped with all my might that he or she would be able to escape the chaos of the ocean to tread back safely to shore.

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