Sarah E. Gillespie is a UU seminarian & 2014 M.Div candidate at Andover Newton Theological School. In July 2013 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, Sarah reflects on her experiences in Japan.
It doesn’t surprise me that my favorite characters to write in Japanese calligraphy turned out to be “thank you” and “kami.” On my very first day at the Tsubaki Grand Shrine, I found myself staring across my desk at a woman writing elegantly and effortlessly with a handmade brush and jet-black ink. I watched her work intensely until she looked up and noticed my staring. Lucky for me she spoke English well and told me that she was writing the names and prayers of visitors who purchase shrine tokens. I had a bad case of jet lag, culture shock, and an upset stomach, but I was captivated by her and her art in that moment and wanted to learn more.
Eventually this lovely woman, Yumiko, took time to teach me the method for writing Japanese calligraphy. I learned about eight or ten words total during my lessons with her but in my practice I kept coming back to “thank you” and “kami.” These are the words that best describe my time at the shrine. I felt grateful for the experiences which, in turn, helped me listen deeper to my spiritual center.
I traveled to Ise Shrine on my second day to participate in a ritual surrounding the rebuilding of the shrine, an event that takes place every twenty years. Ise is one of the most well known shrines in Japan because it houses the kami, Amaterasu—the sun goddess. She is worshipped by shrines near and far all over Japan because the sun is responsible for growing rice, the backbone of Japanese culture and religion. It is depicted everywhere from the nation’s flag to their nickname, “land of the rising sun.”
Buildings at two of Ise’s main shrines get torn down and rebuilt on an adjacent site. This happens in 20-year intervals because of the belief that all things are impermanent. Death and renewal are necessary in life, which Shinto acknowledges. This religion chooses to embrace this impermanence rather than fear it, a very important lesson for Western religions, in my opinion. The ceremony in which I participated, Oshiraichi, incorporated processing as a group to the shrine and placing sacred white stones around the site of the new sanctuary, thus commemorating the space. You can read more here about the rebuilding done in 2013 during my visit.
This experience in Ise was just one small piece of my rich experience in Japan that led to my repetitive thank you’s. Tsubaki Grand Shrine gave me food, clothing, and shelter. But they went beyond that because they treated me like one. And even though most people could not speak to me (in English), many went out of their way to share a smile or a treat or a laugh. It was connection that I felt from the Shrine staff and that led to a deeper feeling of kinship.
For me, this is how I see the kami—the other set of kanji (characters) that took up a lot of space in my sketchbook. The kami asks us to pay attention and be connected to ourselves, each other, and the world around us. And while the word is sometimes defined as a divine being or spirit, such as Sarutahiko—the main kami at Tsubaki—it is much larger than that. It is not the same as the word “God,” which gets used and misused time and time again. Eighteenth century Japanese scholar, Motoori Norinaga, describes the kami as “anything which can inspire in us a sense of wonder and awe.”
It is the one-word incarnation of the first source of our UU faith, “direct experience of the transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, that moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.”
Kami is also the first word in the Japanese writing of Shinto, which translates to the way of the Kami. It is the way of wonder and awe and life. It is nature, humanity, divinity, and more. And when at the shrine, it’s easy to feel that presence. Nestled at the bottom of the Suzuka Seven Mountains, dotted with 100-foot cypress trees and interwoven with wandering streams, you don’t have to go far to feel the presence of the kami. This is why I wrote the word several times, mesmerized by the strokes and details needed to express its beauty and mystery.
I can’t not attempt to describe all the other incredible parts of my time in Japan: visiting Kyoto, taking part in Misogi (a waterfall purification ritual), and trying on a traditional bridal kimono to name only a few. Many of my fellow Tsubaki Scholars who have gone before me have described some of these incredible experiences, and I suggest you read what they have to say as well. All I can continue to think, say and write (if I keep up with my calligraphy) is thank you and kami. And that gratitude extends to the shrine as well as to the UUA’s International Office for making such a rare opportunity possible. This experience will continue to positively impact my ministerial formation for years to come.
Dōmo arigatō gozaimas.