Man who knows the path to heaven

A Week In The Life Of Yoshiro Asai, Shinto Priest
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The Independent Online
JAPAN HAS been in the grips of football mania for more than a week and the 1,050-year-old Kitano Tenmangu Shinto shrine has not been spared.

Yoshiro Asai, the chief priest, has met many types of worshippers in his 53 years at the shrine and admits quite a few have been asking the gods to intervene on the Japanese football team's behalf.

At 75, he is still spry and clearly devoted to his job at one of Kyoto's most famous shrines. "My daily life is dedicated to serving the gods with a true heart," he said. With a certain pride he recounts that the shrine holds 120 festivals annually and last year had 2,600,000 visitors.

Sitting in the shrine office, surrounded by ancient relics, photographs of visiting Japanese royalty and sipping endless cups of green tea, he jokes about his working hours: "Usually nine to five, like a typical Japanese salary man". It is hard to imagine Mr Asai, dressed in a white silk kimono shirt and hakama (divided skirt), ever belonging to the world of suits and commuters. Shinto, "the way of the gods", is the ancient polytheistic religion of Japan. Mr Asai defines Shinto as "the way of showing devotion to one's parents. The gods are our ancestors and we must pray to them with respect and sincerity".

He trained as a Shinto priest before the Second World War, when Shinto was a state religion and Emperor Hirohito was revered as a living god.

This weekend culminates in an important date on the shrine's festival calendar; the Gotanshinsai, or birthday festival of Michizane Sugawara, the 10th-century scholar who is enshrined at Kitano.

He is the reason why the shrine is visited by droves of students. Mr Asai spends a lot of his time guiding studentsaround the shrine and explaining how to pray.

The lead-up to the festival is keeping him busy. He must oversee the preparations, and is worried the rainy season will interfere with an expected crowd of 100,000 worshippers.

A week before the festival, Mr Asai meets the publisher of his book on the history of the shrine. He has spent the past 20 years writing the book, which is to be released at the festival.

LAST WEEKEND the shrine was mostly deserted. A violent storm turned the temple grounds to mud. Most of the shrine priests had gone to collect chigaya (reeds) from a mountainside. They are to be twisted into a giant wreath, called a chinowa, for the festival. Thousands of people will pass through it as they enter the shrine, expecting their bodies to be purified and leaving them free from sickness.

AN 81-YEAR-OLD woman visits the shrine with her numerous children and grandchildren, to be purified by Mr Asai. She is a regular worshipper and comes every year on her birthday to ask the gods for long life and good health.

This year she says she feels unwell and is adamant that Mr Asai perform a ceremony. He is in great demand to perform ceremonies, which involve exorcising health problems and bad luck and purifying new buildings. "As I walk around the shrine people often stop me and ask for my advice on a matter. I don't usually offer spiritual advice, just common sense".

Saturday is Mr Asai's day off. He attends a Rotary club lunch, then he goes on to his annual junior high school year reunion. Later Mr Asai sits down at home to watch Japan's World Cup match against Croatia, with his 68-year-old wife Kazuko.

Shinto priests are permitted to marry. In fact, Mr Asai points out that it is the duty of Shinto followers to produce offspring.

SUNDAY IS the shrine's busiest day. But it is raining again and there are only a few pupils in uniform, wandering around under umbrellas.

Later Mr Asai meets six important shrine parishioners. Most of them run weaving companies in Nishijin, the traditional kimono manufacturing area of Kyoto. They meet occasionally to discuss shrine affairs and festivals but today's conversation centres on the economic recession and how it is affecting the shrine. "The Nishijin companies used to give us large donations," Mr Asai says. "Now it's half the amount." The government will only subsidise half the cost of repairs at Kitano. The rest of the money has to come from donations and other sources.

MR ASAI begins the day as usual, waking at 6am and spending about an hour before breakfast praying at the two altars in his house, to the Gods and to his ancestors. He makes offerings of steamed rice, salt and water. After lighting candles at the altars he recites ritual prayers. He repeats the ritual in the evening, usually before dinner.

After breakfast Mr Asai watches the news and his favourite television drama Ten Urara (Beautiful Heaven), the story of a comedian. Mr Asai reaches the shrine at 9.30 and strolls around the grounds, stopping on the way to pray at each of the 50 smaller shrines.

Ten priests under Mr Asai's supervision begin to twist thereeds into the giant wreath. Mr Asai begins his self-purification in preparation for the festival. He must stay within the shrine grounds until after the festival and only eat food cooked at the shrine. He also prepares the offering he will make to Michizane Sugawara for the festival.

More schoolchildren visit the shrine. They want good luck in their exams. Mr Asai chats to them as they watch the reeds being twisted. But talk soon turns from exams to football and the rainy season.

THE DAY dawns clear and the festival begins. The whole area around the shrine is busy, as people bustle around the antique and food stalls. The shrine staff are kept busy, too, selling lucky charms and talismans to ward off epidemics and bad luck.