A Shinto Wedding at Hie Jinja Shrine, Tokyo

Japanese Shinto Wedding, Barry CrispAs I exit the station leading out to downtown Akasaka, Tokyo, I am greeted by the warm spring sun and the hustle and bustle of a mid-morning main street – a perfect day for commitment and expressions of love. I reach a crossing and up on a hill partially isolated by trees sits Hie Jinja (shrine) enveloped from its urban surroundings. I am entering via one of the side entrances; long stone steps and believe it or not, an escalator. I am later to find out that the best spot for a picture is through the back, where innumerable small red torii’s (gates) arch over a long stairway leading out onto the street.

The outskirts of the Shinto shrine (Shinto is characterized by polytheism and animism, and involves the worship of kami [gods], or spirits.) is protected by monkey statues with two smaller monkey statues (a married pair) flanking the entrance to the prayer area. The monkeys’ are a dominant feature in many shrines as they are considered to be the messenger of Gods. Hie Jinja celebrates marital harmony and fertility and sports the usual shrine accouterments – lots of torii, a large courtyard, a hand washing area, a bell to tug if you feel the need to offer up a prayer, and quite a few connecting buildings including a charm shop where you can buy small souvenirs, as well as living quarters for the caretakers.

The “Mountain King Festival” (San’o-matsuri), held every year in mid-June, is one of the three great Edo Festivals held in and around the shrine.

I climb the steps, take a look around and before making my way to reception I visit the Temizuya (place for washing one’s hands) and perform my hairei (formal worship) in the large courtyard area, which is occupied with a few tourists and local workers having a quick break under the foliage. The hairei process is very simple, but enriched with history and importance. Allow me to explain it step-by-step.

Temizu (water on the palms/washing water)
1. Go to Temizuya before worshiping at a shrine.
2. Take the ladle in the right hand, scoop water and pour over the left hand.
3. Transfer the ladle to the left hand and cleanse the right.
4. Transfer the ladle once more to the right hand, and pour water into the
cupped left hand: Use this water to rinse the mouth.
5. Wash the left hand once more.
6. Return the ladle to its original position.

Hairei (formal worship)
1. Wash hands and rinse mouth before worship (temizu).
2. Proceed toward the altar.
3. Make the bell ring by shaking the rope.
4. Offer some coins in the offering box.
5. Bow twice deeply.
6. Clap your hands twice.
7. Then bow once deeply.

After giving a prayer I take a slow-paced stroll appreciating the shrine’s beautiful architecture and the artistic placement of Japanese pine trees and the many woody perennial bamboo plants. I love bamboos, and it is hard not to – its strength, speed in growth and relaxing green tone are breathtaking. It seems to me that nothing in Japan is laid out by accident, everything is done to create the most striking picture of beauty and peace of mind. Serene, tranquil and ethereal do not do the majority of places in Japan justice. If you subtract the cars, escalator, modern shops, skyscrapers and electric cables, then it is easy to picture what the atmosphere would have been like in ancient times.

Japanese Shinto Wedding, Barry CrispJapanese Shinto Wedding, Barry Crisp

The Hie Jinja shrine was founded by Ota Dokan (a Japanese samurai warrior-poet, military tactician and Buddhist monk). Dokan is best known as the architect and builder of Edo Castle (now the Imperial Palace) in what is today modern Tokyo, in 1478 and is dedicated to the God Oyamakui-no-kami (God of Mount Hie in Shiga prefecture). The shrine is one of many branches from the Hiyoshi Taisha shrine (also known as Sanno Gongen) located in Sakamoto, Otsu City, in Shiga prefecture.

Unfortunately, the original structure was burnt down in the bombing of Tokyo during the Second World War. The Hie Jinja possesses one National Treasure, a sword. It also holds 14 Important Cultural Assets, 13 other swords and one naginata (a pole-like weapon that was traditionally used in Japan by members of the samurai class).

I enter the reception area in search of my friend and aspiring social entrepreneur Megumi, and her husband-to-be Masaomi. I was excited for them, but also for the fact that this was going to be my first experience of a Shinto-styled wedding ceremony, a relatively rare experience for gaijin (foreigners) in Japan.

I was warmly greeted by an assistant for the day who directed me to a waiting room congested with family members. I said ‘hello’ to a lady standing next to the door whilst still listening to the assistant’s instructions, to which she finished off by introducing me to the lady at the door as being the bride’s mother. Needless to say, my initial casual ‘hello’ was quickly followed by a slight bow and a “nice to meet you”. It was the first time to meet family members, so I had not the faintest idea who-was-who. I opted for a brief escape at a side door hidden behind the bamboo plants looking out over the courtyard, which is where I spotted family friend and main photographer for the day Takaaki.

He is carefully selecting the best angles and spots to get photos of the bride and groom. Takaaki is a pleasant guy, smart, professional and with an honest smile and warm heart. If he were not the budding photographer that he is, then he could easily be working in the shrine itself as a priest, and I mean that as a compliment.

I re-enter the building to ready my camera. Megumi walks in behind me dressed in her traditional white wedding kimono called a shiromuku, which is painted with subtle gold patterns. Her hair is pinned up with a beautiful and intricate snow-white hair bouquet. Light make-up adds the finishing touch to a pure and elegant bride. She looks dazzling. She sits down in the corner next to her mother listening to the order of ceremony from the elderly female assistant. She gazes in my direction from time-to-time with an angelic innocent smile as my camera clicks away. Her engagement ring sparkles and rests on her long slender fingers, soon to be accompanied with a life-long companion. Her mother, a woman with grace and pride listens tentatively.

It is time to take photos she announces, I exit outside onto the courtyard with the bride and her assistant to meet with Takaaki and the groom, wearing his traditional black montsuki haori hakama wedding outfit. The sunlight radiates off Megumi’s kimono fiercely, meaning the location has to be perfect so as to not cause an imbalance in the contrast between bride and groom. Of course this does not naturally pose a problem with the new generation of photographers who equip themselves with either Photoshop or Aperture software programmes, but to keep things pure and as natural as the moment should be, it is best to get the right snap-shot using the natural light.

Japanese Shinto Wedding, Barry CrispJapanese Shinto Wedding, Barry Crisp

Takaaki talks with the assistant to let her know his selected spots, and then we begin our photo session. Takaaki was more than ready for the photo-shoot, with several generations of Nikon cameras dangling off and around his shoulders, they all served a purpose and neither were neglected. I gazed through my lens as the couple struck prominent poses, very formal and reserved in expression. A smile here and there followed by laughter when the cameras took a brief rest. This is the Japanese way, very traditional, very simplistic.

After all the photos were taken, the bride and groom were led back inside the shrine quarters to return moments later for the official beginning of the wedding ceremony. Leading the line and with the assistant holding her kimono from touching the ground, Megumi, walks gracefully side-by-side with her husband-to-be ahead of family members out through the courtyard. On cue, a suited cameraman begins recording and assistants all over the courtyard keep things rolling smoothly.

The assistant lets us know that time is ticking on and so we proceed to a long narrow room. Megumi insists that I should come in so that I could take photos from the back. I felt a bit reluctant because this part of the whole ceremony is strictly for family members only. I felt like a VIP guest. I stand at the back not daring to take a photo during the official introductions. Any shutter sound now would surely amplify throughout the whole room. I stand and watch with a smile.

During the small gathering the fathers of the bridegroom and of the bride introduce their respective family members one-by-one. Megumi’s father had passed away several years prior, so it was her mother introducing the bride’s side of the family. I am sure he was smiling down on Megumi and her mother right at that moment and sending a warm prayer from above. After the introductions were complete, the bride and groom were taken outside to follow a red-carpeted route led slowly by two Miko maidens and a Shinto priest. A whisper of love and serenity filled the courtyard. Nothing is rushed, and nothing needs to be.

It was at the request of the bridegroom and bride that a few select friends were to be allowed to attend the wedding ceremony within the inner sanctuary of the shrine. I was ushered to enter at the opposite side and told that photos were not permitted. A long black wall-high veil was then drawn across so that visitors to the shrine were unable to see inside during the ceremony.

The air is cool and everyone including myself looked on with gleaming eyes. The first thing I noticed is that there were seemingly no bridesmaids or best-men, which is customary in Western weddings. Knowing that the couple had met many years back, I was also sure there was not a nakoudo (matchmaker) in attendance. I take my seat at the very back so as to breathe in the whole atmosphere and investigate my surroundings. As one would expect from an old and carefully constructed shrine, the concreted floor lays contrast to the beautiful interior design and wooden joinery. The ceiling is decorated with a rainbow of flowers for every season of the year. As with life, they blossom and die in a beautiful cycle of tranquility and permanence.

Japanese Shinto Wedding, Barry CrispJapanese Shinto Wedding, Barry Crisp

Family members are seated up on a stage facing the couple, who sit centred and apart with their backs towards the other attending guests. The Miko maidens stand on either side and from a small side-room an older Shinto priest comes out to conduct the ceremony. It is a perfect hub for anybody seeking a moment of satori (awakening). My thoughts digress to an old Zen Buddhist story, but which is relevant to a newly wedded couple.

Two Zen monks were walking along a river when they came upon a beautiful young woman. The bridge was out, she tearfully explained, and she needed to cross the river right away. “Don’t worry,” said one of the monks,” just climb on my back and I’ll carry you across.” The girl climbed on the monk’s back and he took her across.

The monks then continued on their journey, but the second monk was very upset. Finally, and a few hours later he couldn’t stand it anymore and asked, “How could you, a virtuous monk, allow a woman to ride upon your back?”

The first monk said, “Are you still carrying that lady? I put her down when we crossed the river hours ago.”

This short tale gives people an insightful lesson to life of releasing yourself from the unnecessary baggage that resides in our egos (minds). One must keep their inner temple clean and free.

The ceremony begins and everything and everyone falls silent except for the birds chirping, the breeze whistling, the coins clattering, hands clasping, and people chit-chattering all from behind the black veil. Live traditional music slowly ebbs and drifts over us from behind the concealed background. The sound and atmosphere merge with those that are coming from outside to create a harmonious setting for things to proceed.

The Miko maidens begin the San-san-kudo, a ceremony of three-times-three exchanges of nuptial cups, which both the bridegroom and bride perform with delicate attention. Inside the cups, however, is not water but sake (Japanese rice wine). The bridegroom only is obliged to say his piece facing towards the Shinto priest. The ceremony proceeds in utter peacefulness, and to the untrained eye, almost emotionless.

To add a Western twist to the ceremony the exchange of wedding rings takes place. The glitters of white teeth begin to flicker around the shrine, but as to be expected no kissing follows. Everything remains pure and sacred. As the ceremony comes to a close the Miko maidens perform a short, slow traditional dance in which twigs of ‘Sakaki’ (Cleyera Japonica) from the sacred evergreen tree are given to the bride and groom and then exchanged amongst each other in worship to the Gods. The Miko maidens move effortlessly across the ground, tiptoeing, legs bending back, arching, and wrists twisting. To finish the ceremony, the newlywed’s respective families drink a cup of sake to symbolize the bonding of the couple as well as of the two families.

The newlyweds and their families are led out through a narrow corridor into another gathering room, which they will remain for several hours taking photos, talking, drinking and eating. This is not a wedding party, but merely a formal gathering. Back in the reception area I begin to form new friendships with those who attended. We talk about how lovely the ceremony was and the dashing groom and the beautiful bride. As we descend the shrines stairs on the way to lunch, I glanced back over my shoulder to catch a glimpse of the sun’s rays majestically slithering its way through a thousand green fingers. “Omedetou gozaimasu”, congratulations, and may your new life be filled with peace, love and harmony.


This piece was written many years ago and shared on my previous project websites, UK-JAPAN.net/Guruguru Japan (no longer online), as well as on Japan Travel Centre’s Japan Guide. It’s beyond me why it so long for me to share it here…