Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (122): The air’s apparent

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, November 27, 2011

THIS is going to stump everybody, including the Japanese readers: What is the object shown in the following photograph?

Here’s a hint, but it won’t help at all: Those are five-meter-square stainless steel sheets.

The answer? It’s a Shinto shrine in Asahi-machi, Yamagata.

In fact, that’s a photograph of the Kuki shrine’s main sanctuary, the site in all shrines which houses the shintai, the sacred object in which the spirit of the deity resides. The deity in Shinto is described as the yaoyorozu no kami, or the 800 myriads of divinities, which some (but not all) interpret as being different aspects of the One. Therefore, the presence of the divinity is manifest in every aspect of life.

Some deities are divinized ancestors or famous figures of the past. (That’s the point behind the often misunderstood concept of the Emperor as a “living god” until 1945, or the enshrinement of the spirits of the war dead in Yasukuni.) Natural phenomena are deities: the wind, sun, moon, water, mountains, trees, and rocks (including those that are phallic- and yonic-shaped). Man-made objects can be divinities: mirrors, swords, polished stones (tama), bells, clothes, dishes, and, after Buddhism began to exert an influence, paintings and statues. Mirrors have been used in Shinto worship since ancient times, so the creation of what is essentially a large mirror isn’t as odd as it might seem at first glance.

The deity worshipped at this shrine is air. That’s why it’s called the Air Shrine (unless you can think of a better translation for 空気神社).

On the approach to this site, one passes through monuments to earth, fire, wood, metal, and water, the five elements that created the cosmos.

As you might expect, Asahi-machi is located in a glorious natural setting — the somewhere in what city slickers would call the middle of nowhere — and the primary occupation of the residents is rice and fruit cultivation. Before he died in 1986, Shirakawa Chiyo, one of the older Asahi-machi natives, offered the opinion that the town should build a shrine in which air was the tutelary deity as a way to give thanks for the clean air that was a blessing to them all.

Nothing came of Mr. Shirakawa’s idea when he was alive, but it began to get serious consideration a year after he died in 1987, when the town launched a municipal development campaign. Because this is a religious institution, the money to build it had to come from private citizen/sector donations. Even though the Japanese are extraordinarily ecumenical, that wasn’t an easy sell. Still, they collected the money they needed and finished the shrine the following year.

Yeah, they pray there.

The idea behind the use of stainless steel for the air shrine was that it would reflect natural views of the surrounding area throughout the year from different perspectives. This would help people reflect on the existence of air.

Yeah, they have festivals there too.

The townsfolk designated 5 June as the local Air Day, which coincides with World Environment Day. They hold the Air Festival every year on the Saturday closest to Air Day. The main sanctuary is open to the public for viewing the divinity and pausing for reflections suitable for the spirit of the occasion. There’s also a performance by the miko of kagura, or Shinto Dance, which is traditional at shrine festivals. That’s shown in the photo above.

Oh yeah, there’s even a video:

And to conclude here’s a question theological but not rhetorical — Is the sound of the wind on that video the voice of the divinity?

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3 Responses to “Matsuri da! (122): The air’s apparent”

  1. toadold said

    If I recall the post correctly a gentleman attending a “comparative religion” conference in Japan asked a Shinto Priest:
    “What is the theology of Shinto?”
    “We don’t actually have that. We have lots of dances though.”

  2. camphortree said


  3. […] Matsuri da! (122): The air’s apparent ( […]

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