Neon Signs and Shinto Shrines (2003)

‘A Letter from Japan’ – Published in the Spring Equinox 2003 issue of ‘The Dragon’s Egg’, the journal of The Geomancy Group.

Letter from Japan – Neon Signs and Shinto Shrines


Hello everyone, and greetings to you all from Tokyo – land of bright lights, noise and LOTS of people. It’s pretty intense – like being inside the movie ‘Blade Runner’ on fast-forward. You begin to understand why the spiritual disciplines of Zen Buddhism and Shinto are so attractive; they are one of the few ways to achieve any peace in this madhouse of a place.

It has been a very hectic first week getting the show up and running, although the local staff have been absolutely terrific. But for me the definite highlight of the week was the visit by a Shinto priest who had been engaged to bless the stage – apparently a great honour; even the local stage manager had never seen this done. Fortunately, I was privileged enough to watch the whole thing…

The stage door office, in common with all major public buildings, has a shrine on the wall that is like a miniature wooden temple, complete with opening doors, cloth banners and so on. The priest was in full regalia – kimono, big clogs and a rather odd-looking black lacquered raffia hat. Offerings were laid out along the front edge of the shrine comprising small laurel branches, glass of liquid (sake?) and some other capped flasks with unknown contents but may have been sake.

All the heads of departments, the promoters, the local managers and other bigwigs assembled facing the shrine before the priest began his ceremony with much bowing and incanting to the shrine (which is in the West), and also the North. His main implement was a lacquer spatula-type thing that he waved about a great deal, before producing a large folded bit of parchment covered in beautifully calligraphed Kanji characters, which he proceeded to chant aloud to the shrine. Jolly interesting and I could see some auric stuff happening around the shrine when the priest was working. There was also some waving of a big laurel wreath with white ribbons on and lots of hand-clapping. I understand that you clap your hands twice to attract the attention of the spirits before making your appeal or supplication, and bow to show respect.

After the priest had bowed once more and backed away, all the heads of the various departments of the theatre and our visiting company (I wasn’t asked to do this myself, much to my disappointment) had to go and make an offering to the shrine of a small laurel branch that was laid out on a bench underneath, bow twice, clap hands twice, bow again and back away. I’m sure I would have managed to do this with more intent than our technical manager, who seemed rather embarrassed by the whole thing, but then he is the head of department.

Having finished at the shrine, we all proceeded up to the stage where the priest, standing in the centre, blessed it with his laurel branch before doing the same to some of the dancers in the stalls who had come in to watch and were certainly not expecting to participate!

I had managed to do a brief bit of pendulum dowsing before the priest arrived; this was just before our dress rehearsal so I was a bit rushed and didn’t have time to properly dowse the area; instead I just found a quiet corner and quickly dowsed through the ‘checklist’. I wasn’t picking up any geopathic stress or other nastiness in the stage area, but I did dowse that there were 3 human discarnates and 4 non-human entities in the building. I also asked if there was any beneficial energy ‘units’ that I could dowse for, and got yes, 98. After the priest had finished his ceremony I dowsed again. This time the beneficial energy dowsed at 318 units, and we were down to 1 non-human entity. The 3 human ones were still there, but I think that they are like the guardian spirits of the building, and subsequently dowsed that they ‘live’ in the shrine. So, not bad going for the priest; cleared three entities and a better than threefold increase in positive energies in half an hour’s work.

A fascinating process to watch; I only wished I could find someone local who knew more about it and could explain what was going on!

I’ve managed one or two outings so far. The first day we had off I went to the Asakusa Senso-ji, which is the main Buddhist temple in Tokyo, dedicated to Kannon, the goddess of mercy and compassion.

What strikes you about the temple is the sheer bustle of it all. The avenue leading in from the main gate is lined with stalls and shops selling everything from fried rice balls to Kimonos. It’s like Camden market on a Saturday. But once you get in to the temple grounds proper, the atmosphere magically becomes quieter, despite being surrounded by concrete and large buildings. It feels a very powerful place. This temple dates back to around 682, when two fishermen pulled a gold statue of Kannon from the river. This is now housed in the main temple building that is the main focus of the place, although there are many other smaller shrines in the grounds, from tombs right down to small Shinto altars in front of rocks or pools. The Shinto shrines are all about spirit of place – rocks, pools, winds, mountains and so on, and have an almost pagan feel to them; whilst the Buddhist temples are more about dealing with elevating the self and ensuring a pure life (and afterlife). It is fascinating how the Japanese mix the Shinto and Buddhist traditions quite happily with no sense of conflict – the nearest analogy I can think of would be building a stone circle inside a cathedral. They say that Shinto is for day-to-day life, and Buddhism is for the soul; and that really seems to sum it up.

The procedure for visiting the temple is of interest. First, you have to purify yourself by rinsing each hand separately using a ladle from a fountain, and then finally rinsing the mouth and spitting it out on the ground. Then you have to smudge using the incense smoke from a large censer in the centre of the temple plaza – you can buy little bunches of incense to put in this yourself. Then you approach the temple, bow twice, clap your hands twice to summon the gods, make your request, and then throw some money into the offering box before bowing again and backing away. That’s the basic ritual. You can also buy prayer cards or sticks that you can write out your request on before posting them in the main temple, where one of the priests will hang it up in the central shrine. There are also fortune sticks where, for 100 Yen, you shake a can until a stick drops out. You match the characters on the stick with one of about a hundred little drawers, and take a piece of paper out with your fortune on (luckily with English translation on the back). After reading, you can tie this on a tree, or more likely a wire rack, where the gods can read it.

I managed to do a bit of dowsing around the temple precincts, although the aurameter did attract some attention from the locals. At the main temple, which is aligned N-S, I dowsed a fourteen-foot wide energy ley running though it!

This temple is a stark contrast to the Meiji-juku shrine, the main Shinto temple housed in a beautiful wooded park, a remnant of the Imperial estate right in the centre of town. This is altogether a more austere affair, although it covers more area. No bustling commercialism here, just beautifully kept paths and woodland walks leading to the main temple buildings, which seem completely at one with the landscape. It is impressive in its simplicity, and the surrounding gardens are a peaceful haven in the bustle of the city. Alignment is once again N-S, and the square outer courtyard can be entered from the east, west or south, with the main temple being to the north.


On our next official day off, a group of us went to Kamakura, which is about an hour on the train SW of Tokyo and just stuffed full of temples. We only saw about four in all, but that was more than plenty, as the first one, Engaku-ji, blew me away completely and I had to do some serious grounding afterwards. It was one of the top five Zen Buddhist temples (I think they said number two), and is beautifully laid out. The large temple buildings are interspersed with ponds, gardens, waterfalls and trees and the whole place has a really powerful atmosphere of serenity, as you can see in the picture. Here again, there were lots of little rock, water and tree shrines that were positively jumping with nature spirits. My favourite was the “shrine of the white deer”, a very small niche in a rock face where a trickle of water feeds a small pool, where a herd of white deer had emerged to listen to a sermon by the founding monk, or so the story goes. All I can say is that they must have been pretty small deer as it wasn’t that big; but it did have a very powerful atmosphere, and it was here that I made a connection with the spirit of place, who appeared to me as a Japanese-style deva – kimono, black geisha-type hair and so forth, exuding a very welcoming aura.

I managed to dowse a few of the main temple buildings and again found very wide energy leys. I haven’t had enough time to perform other comparative dowsing yet, so can’t comment on whether this is characteristic of energy leys in general here, or just because of the sanctity of the shrines.

On leaving this temple, we took a trek along a lovely woodland path the wound its way over lots of hills, passing some lovely little Shinto shrines on the way, including Zeniarai-Benten, which is entered through a rock-cut tunnel into a clearing surrounded by cliffs. There is a large pool full of Koi carp and a little shrine set against the cliff face at the end of a little bridge (picture). Farther back there is a cave containing a natural spring, with a tradition that washing your money in the spring would provide you with prosperity in future. The entire cave roof was festooned with paper and ribbon offerings, and the whole place had a very ‘old’ and comfortable feel.

Most of the shrines we visited seemed to be on a N-S alignment, but deep in the woods we came across an unmarked small shrine facing due east (hence an equinoctial sunrise). I was impressed to see that the bare earth all around the shrine had been swept clean for some distance, perhaps by the old lady who seemed to be the sole worshipper at the place.


The weather, which had been cloudy but dry until this point, started to close in and the path, already precarious in places, rapidly became a complete mudbath; we were glad to finally get back to the relative safety of the road, close to the famous Daibatsu Buddha (featured in You Only Live Twice if memory serves – the one where Sean Connery‘s Bond gets married in Japan). This is a very impressive metal cast Buddha at least 40 feet tall, made in the 13th C. It used to be gilt covered and inside a temple, but that was apparently washed away by a tidal wave in 1498, leaving only the Buddha statue and the foundation stones of the temple. As the temple is over half a mile from the sea, this must have been a pretty impressive tidal wave. The statue positively exudes calmness and tranquillity through its beatific expression and it was easy to feel the sanctity of the place. However the weather was by now approaching monsoon conditions, so reluctantly we decided to call it a day and head back to the train station. It was a rather bedraggled and absolutely soaked bunch of people who finally arrived back in Tokyo, to enjoy the luxury of a hot bath and a large drink in the hotel.

© 2003 Grahame Gardner

Grahame Gardner
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