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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

What you need to know when visiting a Shinto Temple

Shinto is one of the major religions of Japan (the other one is Buddhism).   Shinto is about living in harmony with nature and all things. 

We visited 3 Shinto temples during our recent trip to Japan:  the Heian Shrine in Kyoto, and the Asakusa Kannon Temple and the Meiji Shrine which are both in Tokyo.

When entering a Shinto shrine, you’ll notice a special gateway made up of wooden or concrete pillars - this is called a torii. The torii is believed to be the gateway to the gods (kami). It separates the ordinary space outside from the sacred space inside so you have to pass through the pillars.

Torii of the Meiji Shrine
Torii of the Asakusa Kannon Temple
Sometimes hanging on the torii, you’ll notice ornaments.  Our tour guide said that the tassels represent rain and the trimmings with sharp edges represent lightning.

Torii of the Asakusa Kannon Temple
The grounds of a Shinto Temple is usually covered with white sand or gravel.  Walking on gravel produces a sound which is considered part of your cleansing before entering a temple.

Here's the pathway to the Meiji Shrine.   It's a long walk - maybe 1 km long from the entrance - and the entire pathway is covered with gravel.  The sound you produce while walking makes you very aware of the nature around you.

Long walk to the Meiji Shrine
The Meiji Shrine is located in Shibuya, Tokyo's main shopping district.  It's so hard to imagine that in the midst of tall buildings and modern architecture, there's a forest that houses a shrine.  According to Wikipedia, the forest is about 700,000 sqm or 175 acres, and there are about 120,000 trees. Wow.

At the entrance of Shinto temples, you'll also sometimes see stacks of sake drums which are offerings to the deities.

Before entering the temple, there is also a section where you can wash your hands and rinse your mouth – again this is part of cleansing before worshipping the gods. 

Here are some photos of the Asakusa Kannon Temple grounds.  Photography is usually banned inside the temple.

Asakusa Kannon Temple Gate

Asakusa Kannon Temple

Asakusa Kannon Temple grounds
At the Meiji Shrine, we chanced upon a ceremony.  I think they had this special ceremony for newly-ordained priests.  We were only allowed to take photos during the processional.

Shinto priests

In Shinto temples, people write their prayers on a slip of paper and tie them to a tree. People can also purchase small wooden boards called ema where they write their wishes or prayer petitions. The paper or wood board prayers are left outside in the belief that the wind carries the wishes out into the world.
Ema or prayer petitions
In Shinto temples (as well as Buddhist temples), you’ll notice a section where there’s a set of drawers (like the photo below) which contains strips of paper inside.  These strips of paper are called O-mikuji which bears a fortune reading.  To get an o-mikuji, you usually make a small offering, then pick a stick from a wooden box.  The stick has a number and whatever number you pick, look for its corresponding drawer and get your fortune reading from there. 
O-mikuji section at the Asakusa Temple
The fortune could be a big or small blessing and it could be a curse too.  When the prediction is bad, you could fold up the strip of paper and attach it to a tree or wall of wires.  It is believed that bad luck will wait by the tree rather than attach itself to the bearer.  If the fortune is good, the bearer can keep the strip of paper for luck or he/she can also tie it to the tree or wall of wires.

O-mikuji tied to a wall of wires
BTW, if you're visiting the Asakusa Kannon Temple, don't forget to quickly breeze through the Nakamise Shopping street - it's a long strip of stores selling souvenirs and delicacies.

Nakamise Shopping Street
Kabuki masks
Sumo wrestler dolls

Monday, April 21, 2014

Cherry blossoms in Tokyo

We were in Tokyo from April 8 to 12 and the cherry blossoms season was almost over in that area. But I was still able to spot some sakura in various shades of pink (and also white) in temples, parks, in the city and around neighborhoods.

According to our tour guide, there are about 200 sakura varieties! Wow.   Here are some of the photos of cherry blossoms I took in Tokyo. They look more varied than the ones I saw in in Osaka and Kyoto during the first week of April.

If you still want to catch cherry blossoms in Japan this year, you still can.  The last sakura bloom happens in the first half of May in the Sapporo (Hokkaido) area.   To view the complete cherry blossom forecast for 2014, you can check out

Friday, April 18, 2014

Holy Week reflection: Who are we before God?

One of the most powerful images that moved people's hearts across races and religions (not just last year but maybe in our lifetime) was Pope Francis kissing a leper in November 2013.  It still moves me every time I see or even recall the image.  

Such compassion, love and humility makes me cringe out of embarrassment on how we sometimes react even on the most trivial matters in life.

During last year's Maundy Thursday ritual, Pope Francis washed and kissed the feet of women and Muslim inmates at a juvenile detention center.  In yesterday's annual Washing of the Feet, he washed and kissed the feet of elderly in a centre for disabled people.   Reports say that some had grossly swollen and disfigured feet.  

Pope Francis has been doing this even before he became Pope.  Even when he was still Archbishop and Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, he was already defying the traditional ritual of washing feet of men only (representing the apostles).  He has been washing and kissing the feet of non-Catholics and women.  
For this Holy Week, Pope Francis asked us to reflect on who we are in relation to the various characters in the story of Jesus' passion and death.
Here are some of the questions he posed to ask ourselves and reflect this Holy Week:

  • Am I like one of the pharisees, leaders and priests who wanted to kill Jesus?
  • Am I like Judas, who pretends to love and kiss the master to hand him over, to betray him?
  • Am I like the disciples who did not understand what it was to betray Jesus? ...they fell asleep while the Lord suffered.  Is my life asleep?
  • Am I like Pontius Pilate, who, when he saw that the situation was difficult, decided to wash his hands refusing to assume responsibility?
  • Am I like Simon of Cyrene who was returning from work, tired, but had the good will to to help the Lord carry the cross?
  • Am I like the courageous women, and Mary, the mother of Jesus, who were there, suffering in silence?
And the ultimate question - Who are we before God?

I know.  Tough questions to answer.  

Anyway, have a blessed week! :)

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Sanrio Puroland - The home of Sanrio characters

“Kawaii” is the Japanese word for “cute” or “adorable”.  And kawaii is the perfect description for Sanrio Puroland – the home of our favorite childhood Sanrio characters.

My childhood girly heroes were Little Twin Stars, My Melody and Hello Kitty - in that order.  (On the other end of the spectrum, I had non-Sanrio childhood male superheroes too! Haha...)  

Anyway, during my childhood days, Sanrio items were ultra expensive (ok, they are still expensive even today!).  I could count the Sanrio possessions I had with my fingers - which were mostly gifts and pasalubong because we couldn’t afford them.  Haha… 

On Sundays after mass at the Cathedral of San Fernando, I would visit two stores called Sandy’s and Ben-har across the church and drool over Sanrio merchandise.   There was a time when I saved up my school allowance and all I could afford was a Sanrio tissue holder. Haha…

At Sanrio Puroland, my 3 favorite characters still rule even if Sanrio has more than 40+ characters already.

Our first activity was the Hello Kitty boat ride and here are some of the exhibits we saw during the ride.  It was a fun ride and I couldn’t help but shriek with delight when I saw familiar characters. But I couldn’t recognize a lot of characters too so I tried googling them for my own learning. :)

Little Twin Stars
My Melody and her enemy, Kuromi
Pompom Purin

Hello Kitty
Sanrio Puroland is a compact indoor theme park which you can explore within a few hours.  

Everything is just cute.  Check out the toilet. Cutest restroom I’ve ever seen.

A Sanrio car -

Hello Kitty’s car – a pink Mitsubishi Mirage.

A cute Hello Kitty bus - 

A grandfather's clock featuring Sanrio characters called Sugarbunnies.

And here’s the overly pink cafeteria -

With kawaii trash cans -

Even the food is also kawaii!

I got a Little Twin Stars burger meal. The burger is stamped with Kiki and Lala’s faces and you get to bring home a Little Twin Stars souvenir plate (of course, the cost of the plate is factored into the meal price but one gets carried away. Haha…).  You can also order a My Melody or Hello Kitty burger meal.

Check out more kawaii Sanrio food meals.  

Our tour guide shared with us stories about kids ordering Sanrio meals but who couldn't eat their food because they don't have the heart to eat their favorite characters.  Haha...   

There are also shows throughout the day at Sanrio Puroland. It was fun watching kids dance with the characters. But everything was in Japanese so we couldn't understand anything. Good thing laughter is universal.  Haha...

To cap my Sanrio Puroland visit, I got to see the Little Twin Stars – Lala and Kiki! 

 And I did buy Sanrio souvenirs too.  Not a tissue holder this time. Haha... :)