Elizabeth Nguyen is a third year UU seminarian at Harvard Divinity School. In August 2012 she was the recipient of the UUA’s Tsubaki Grand Shrine Scholarship. Tsubaki Grand Shrine is an ancient Shinto shrine in Suzuka, Japan, and an historic interfaith partner of the UUA. In this essay, Elizabeth reflects on her experiences in Japan.

And the cypress soars up, yes! Of course that divinity would come to earth here.

It’s mid-September and in the living room of my Boston apartment, the afternoon sun makes the books all splayed out before me all pretty and glowing. To call them piles would be generous. Rev. Yamamoto Yukiyasu’s Introduction to Shinto nestles near Howe’s The Larger Faith: A Short History of American Universalism. Bass drifts up from the street, in this new neighborhood, where Washington St. becomes Hyde Park Avenue and I’m hunkered down with words and stories all around. I’m supposed to be studying for my interview with the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, immersing myself in history and theology, personal reflection and paperwork. But that’s what’s next. This is about the thing behind me, fanning out so sweet and strange, a recent past now far away: My August in Asia. Three weeks in Vietnam bouncing from South to North and back again, beaches and tiny squids red with chili and bright with lemongrass, the street my father grew up on: a place I’d never imagined I’d visit. And then a miraculous gift: ten days at the Tsubaki Grand Shrine, near Suzuka, Japan.

And it’s here, in my living room, sun on books, and my new neighbor’s music that I read the words of the Chohai, the morning prayer that I chanted every day for that brief time. The Japanese transliteration is soft in my mouth, familiar and potent. Sumeragamautsu Kamurogi Kamuromi no Mikoto mochite.

And like that I’m back to that last day in Vietnam which is also my first day in Japan. By the next morning I’m learning to tie my kimono and hakama, white on white, left crossing over right.

The physical place stuns me. Trees and buildings sharing space, bright moss and shiny beetles. The soft swish, brooms on bare wood floors and flutter of priests’ robes. Taiko drums call me to prayer and the reverberations are with me still.

“Practice,” says Asada. “It gets easier.” Rev. Ochiai, one of the priests who manages the Shrine’s international activities, has arranged for friendly Rev. Asada to join me for dinner that first night. Over cold noodles, dumplings and eggplant with ginger we’re talking about seiza, the kneeling position used in many aspects of prayer and ritual. He tells me that he has been at the shrine for 3 years. “I’ve been here for 1 day!” I reply. He laughs easily into his noodles.

There are moments of sheer humor – like when the shoes brought for me were too small and I turned around to find that Rev. Ochiai has disappeared up a ladder into a trapdoor in the ceiling in search of larger sandals.

I find my favorite tree – a sort of split one that looks like rocks spilling from a deep center.

There is such joy in this: I go to Ame-no-uzeme’s shrine, the wife of Sarutahiko Okami, the kami of guidance and direction who is enshrined at Tsubaki. She is known as the guardian of good matches and of the arts. I go to her to pray, not for a good match, but in gratitude for my partner of four years, for the wisdom to act well for our relationship. And I pray for renewal in my dance and writing, two practices that I’ve often lost track of as the hustle and deadlines crowd around. It feels like a miracle that I’ve been delivered here: Here before this waterfall at Ame-no-uzeme’s shrine, on this ground. I am a serendipitously delivered parcel to this divine being, guardian of the two aspects of myself most alive in this moment.

I spend my days reading about Shinto, wandering the smaller shrines on the grounds, and soaking up everything I can. I ask the Miko-san, Shrine attendants, to include me in whatever activities I can. They are generous with their time and English and smiles, teaching me how to fold the sacred paper spirals that hang on the ropes all around the shrine, how to clip the evergreen branches for rituals just so. I count fortune papers and serve omiki, the sacred sake, food of the gods. I spend a day at Ise Jingu, a vibrant and significant shrine nearby and another in Kyoto, a whirlwind tour of shrines and temples. There is misogi, the central rite of this shrine, when I join the 50 members of the misogi society who have covenanted to do misogi together, once a month, for two years. We take turns, coming to stand in the waterfall and shout out a prayer for purification. For restoration and letting go, knowing that we are all in need of this renewal, this coming back to nature, awe and harmony.

And then there is Chohai. The morning prayer that has become my favorite part of these days. We greet the kami by bowing twice, clapping twice, and then bowing once more. We chant, letting vowels roll out over tongues. I bow down and I mean it because I’m bowing before nature’s awe, before the grove of trees that first called the families here to build this shrine. After years of bowing my head in prayer while at the same time resisting, or even giving into the urge to hold it high, yearning for open, mutual communion with god, these honest bows are a relief. A true honoring of what is in my heart and what is before me.

And then, like that, it is the last day. My bags are full of candy and last minute gifts of sake and books, a calligraphy brush and postcards. I say thank you over and over, wishing I could think of a better way to say this simple thing.

The mythology of the Tsubaki Grand Shrine is that this is where the descendants of Amaterasu, the sun goddess, came to earth. Sarutahiko Okami guided them.

And the cypress soars up, yes! Of course that divinity would come to earth here.

Back in my apartment, back in Boston, surrounded no longer by trees but by books, no longer the taiko drum calling me to prayer, but bass from the street below reminding me to dance, my eye catches Paul Rasor’s Faith Without Certainty. This way, the way of the kami and this Unitarian Universalism, are both certainly faith without certainty. Faith that knows awe and mystery and doubt and also says, “Yes! Divinity is here, on earth!”

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