Thursday, April 16, 2009

Washinomiya Shrine: Animated Animism

What I loved best about visiting Japan's shinto shrines was that everyone's welcome. It doesn't matter what you believe or what you're praying for; you may not even know what god you're praying to anyways. That's the beauty of shinto: everything has a spirit, real or fictional. And that brings me to this piece I wrote almost a year ago about the amazing happenings at Washinomiya Shrine, the oldest shrine in the Tokyo area which was only a 6 minute walk away from my apartment. I sent this piece to the editors of two of Japan's leading English newspapers and never heard back from them. So finally, after almost a year of procrastination, I'm publishing the piece myself for my greatest fans.

Anime Craze Enriches Small Town Washimiya
J. N. Burrus

On April 6, 2008 over 4000 anime fans gathered at Washinomiya Shrine to walk in the fictional footsteps and meet the real life voices behind the Hiiragi sisters, the lead characters in the smash anime/manga Lucky Star. The event was held at the shrine but organized by the Washimiya Chamber of Commerce. The festivities came after Mayor Kenji Honda made the sisters “special town residents,” solidifying relations with the anime series and easing the locals’ anxiety about the visiting fans and cosplayers. The huge event brought devoted members of the anime sub-culture to the conservative small town that is relishing the attention, and the business.

“Washinomiya Shrine is a sanctuary for anime fans,” said Lucky Star fan Masashi Yamada, 29, an apprentice kimono maker from Washimiya, Saitama. Yamada was thrilled to see so many fellow fans welcomed to his local shrine. The event celebrated the animated sisters’ official, albeit special, residency status. The mayor’s gift of citizenship signals a new milestone in the unfolding relationship between the townspeople and fans. The same fans that were once thought strange and stereotyped as otaku are now welcomed by city officials and marketed to by businesses lining the roads to the shrine.

Visits to the shrine skyrocketed after the popular anime magazine Newtype released an article detailing how to reach various Lucky Star locales around Saitama in August of last year. The article called the locales “holy places” and Washinomiya Shrine is, hands down, the holiest place of all. Though most at this latest Lucky Star event hailed from the Tokyo area, some fervent fans made pilgrimages from Osaka, Fukuoaka, and even Hokkaido to attend.

Long before becoming the home of the fictional Hiiragi sisters, Washinomiya Shrine was famous for being the oldest Shinto shrine in the Kanto region and home to Saibara Kagura, a Heinan period ritual dance that is designated an important national cultural property.

At first the townspeople didn’t know what to make of the “strange” anime pilgrims drawing cartoons of big-eyed girls on the shrine’s prayer tablets. Every so often a handy fan will make a mega prayer tablet and fill the thing full of high quality work. These pieces are true works of religious art, most of them at least.

While the prayer tablet manga adds a modern touch to the ancient shrine, not all the pilgrims express their fandom with markers and wood. After all, an anime sanctuary without cosplayers is like a church without a choir. The cosplayers (people dressed in costumes playing like they’re anime characters) show up wearing red school girl uniforms and neon pink, blue, and purple hair just like the Hiiragi sisters and their animated friends.

Despite the appearance and practices of the fans, the locals are warming up to them, or at least to their wallets. Tape a Lucky Star poster on your shop window and watch business boom.

In a highly successful move, the town Chamber of Commerce printed up 10,000 crisp color copies of the Hiiragi sister’s “special residency certificate,” put them in a Lucky Star poly-folder and sold them for 300 yen a pop. The certificates went on sale just before Sunday’s event outside Washimiya Town Hall. Commerce head Shozo Suzuki said that on the first day alone 2,763 copies were sold raking in 828,900 yen. 1,000 more copies were sold before lunch the following Monday to late coming fans. [That's $11,000!] Sales will continue until all 10,000 certificates find homes.

Washinomiya Shrine has never been so active. The first Lucky Star event held in December gave fans their first chance to meet the Lucky Star voice actors. This first event brought over 3500 people to the shrine and helped spread the shrine’s name around just in time for the 2008 New Year’s celebration. Suzuki stated that over 300,000 people worshiped at the shrine this past New Year; almost four times the previous year’s 80,000 visitors. 2008’s New Year’s attendance is especially staggering considering the town’s population only sits at 34,866 people.

The influx of visitors to the town’s greatest (and only) landmark worried townspeople at first but shrine priest Hideo Watanabe said they haven’t had any problems with the non-traditional visitors. Just the opposite is happening, instead of bringing problems and worries to town, anime pilgrims bring prosperity and a sense of unity to the shrine and the surrounding community. Watanabe is glad Lucky Star fans feel welcome at the shrine because “a shrine is supposed to be a safe place for all people.”

Watanabe had no theological hang-ups about the secular event held on shrine grounds as "the most important thing,” he said with a glowing grin, “is that people are visiting the shrine and learning about its long history. That’s good for the heart.”

His words were right on target. Throughout the day I spoke with many fans that aside from being Lucky Star aficionados have also become shrine historians and armchair Shinto theologians. Local fan Masashi Yamada gave me a tour of the shrine where he told me the details about everything, from the shrine’s ancient ritual dances to the gnarled old trees planted by rulers past.

While showing me around the shrine Yamada also told me his interesting anime theology. “In the West,” he explained, “you have the word ‘animism’ which means that everything, rocks and trees and so on have spirits. That’s what Shinto teaches. Anime works the same way because it makes still images move, it gives them life and spirit.” Yamada doesn’t just watch anime; he engages it in depth.

Yamada is not the only one expanding his knowledge. On the organizational side of the event, Suzuki of the Chamber of Commerce said the shrine’s growing popularity among the anime community inspired him to start reading the comics too. Everyone is curious about what is happening at the shrine - both in the comics and in real life.

The Lucky Star events held at Washinomiya Shrine mix Japan’s modern anime culture with its traditional cultural heritage like no place else. The encounter between these two worlds enriches, both financially and spiritually, anyone who is willing to look past stereotypes and open their mind to something different.

Washimiya machi is located in northern Saitama just one hour north of Tokyo on the Utsunomiya Line. At Kuki, transfer to the Tobu line and get off at Washinomiya station, the first stop after the transfer. Washinomiya Shrine is a ten minute walk from Washinomiya Station on the Tobu Line.

To learn more about Washinomiya Shrine and its Kagura dances be sure to visit the shrine museum located on the second floor of the town library located across from Town Hall.
Here's a video showing all the Lucky Star "ema" boards. These boards are bought for 1,000 yen ($10) and are traditionally used for writing prayers on. The boards are left at the shrine keeping one's prayers close the gods. In the case of Lucky Star fans, many of them use them to draw their favorite characters. See, real or fictional, everything has spirit.

1 comment:

  1. I'm glad to see you finally put this up, though it's a shame no one ever bothered picking it up. It was a very engaging piece, and I could really feel all the work you put into it. Maybe with it actually out on the web, it'll get some attention, and your dreams of getting published will finally be realized. If not, then at least you got ME to comment, ha!