Irrespective of whatever faith you might hold, or if you count yourself among the growing ranks of the agnostic, shrines can be appreciated as much as a cultural experience as a religious one. For native religions to flourish, an appropriate national character or mind-set has to exist.
Accordingly, the writers of this new and much needed guide, two well-established authors on Japanese culture, examine the fertile socio-psychological ground that made it possible for Shinto to secure a firm purchase in Japan.
With no central book, the religion must be practiced and well supported to thrive. Shrines are generally very well maintained in this country. It is a rare case to come across a truly dilapidated one. It would be like abandoning the gods.
While the book covers well-known places of worship like the Meiji and Ise shrines, there are structures that may not be familiar to all readers, like the modest Aiki Jinja in Yoshioka, Tsubusumu Jinja, a shrine located on a small island in Lake Biwa, and Yukoku Inari Jinja in Kyushu, its main structure built on vermilion-colored scaffolding. The guide provides detailed background information on architecture, customs and rituals, clothing, symbolism and much more. It also gives the reader a rundown of all the major deities, a necessarily short list given that there are a whopping 8 million of them.
I’ve always thought of Shinto as a pantheistic belief, the mother faith in many ways of all people, the religion having its roots in the animism and shamanism that defined the practices of many ancient communities in the world.
And with no founders, prophets, miracles, or divine channeling of messages, Shinto may be one of the more credible of today’s faiths, it’s reverence for nature sitting well with the concerns of a green age. Predicated on the idea of coexisting with the forces of nature, rather than exploiting them, there is much to be learned from this non-doctrinal faith and this fine guide to all its intriguing aspects.
A very different guide, but an equally timely one, is Judith Clancy’s comprehensive overview of Kyoto machiya, or merchant houses. The writer’s credentials are unimpeachable, having lived in Kyoto for over 40 years. Monochrome images for the book are provided by another longtime Japan resident, the photographer Ben Simmons.
Spared the obliteration visited upon cities like Tokyo and Nagoya during the air raids of World War II, many of Kyoto’s heritage structures would be destroyed during Japan’s subsequent decades of ill-considered development. The supreme irony, of course, is that many of today’s mediocre, boxy constructions, including a main station a friend once compared to space junk, have failed where the more refined architecture of the past might have succeeded, in earning the respect of visitors.
Clancy examines the development of the city in parallel with the cultivation of aesthetic values that would resurface in the construction of machiya, townhouses that fell somewhere between the impecunious row houses of the lower orders and the sumptuous residences of the aristocracy.
It is imperative in Japan to give a building a function; otherwise, it will be condemned. Over 140 restaurants and cafes situated within converted machiya and other historical structures are included in this title. Heritage doesn’t always come cheap, so it was with relief that I read of the affordable lunches, green tea and sweets sets listed in this guide. Where you might expect such settings to suggest native menus, many of the restaurants here are non-Japanese. Among these are French, Chinese, Korean, Thai, Spanish and a surprising number of Italian eateries.
Working-class grub like noodles and soba is also featured on some machiya menus. These fine structures represent not only a commitment to good food, but also to architectural heritage. Visitors can feel gratified they are making a contribution to the longevity of these establishments.
Clancy opens our eyes to the beauty of details: carved transoms, timeworn posts and beams, paneled flooring, reed screens, dark-stained lattice windows, and the sight of now-rare woods like paulownia and zelkova. The naka-niwa (inner garden) is a miracle of spatial design. Acting as a light well and air vent for dark, stuffy interiors, these masterpieces of compression are often secreted within the walls of private homes, remaining inaccessible to the public. A meal in a machiya provides the opportunity to view these gardens at leisure.
In these days of digital tablet guides, its heartwarming to find publishers still dedicated to producing books that have texture and spatial depth, the warmth that only paper, with its shadows and grain, can transmit.
Stephen Mansfield is a British photo-journalist based in Japan. He is the author of several books on Japanese and Asian subject.