Late in the day on April 8th Nancy and I sat in a sanctuary of the Shimogamo jinja Shinto Shrine ( a world heritage site) immersed in a ritual that might be older than Christianity. The marriage rite was led by a Shinto priest, an associate, two shrine maidens, and three musicians. The music was dissonant to my western ears but it sounded ancient. This shrine room was rather small seating only 30 people – unlike the spacious outdoor areas visitors and tourists are familiar with.
Our son Joe and his bride Maki led us in a procession from a reception room where we had met Maki’s family members and Joe’s close friends. In the reception room we had sat at tables and been served a special tea – blue in color, salty in taste, and at the bottom of the cups had been flakes of gold. Along with the tea we were served a white confection with the symbol of the shrine in gold color on the top.
We could not have been made to feel more welcomed by Maki’s family members. In smiles, gestures, and by the mustering all of their English language skills, we were greeted, honored, and engaged in language limited conversation as we waited for others attending and for Joe and Maki to arrive.
Nancy, my beloved linguist, had spent a year working with CD’s to learn some basic travel Japanese. My own lack of language skills (first made obvious in high school French) has become worse and I was only able to master one phrase for “Thank you very much!” And these gracious people were speaking my language to help us feel at home.
Sitting in this religious ceremony with unknown words and phrases washing over me was a unique liturgical experience. I had been asked before I left for Japan if I would be taking part in the ceremony. I has replied “no”. What I meant was that I was to have no official role in the rites as a priest. What I found was that despite the unfamiliar language, ceremony and ritual I was fully engaged and participating in the ceremony as a family member.
Relying on watching rather than reading words or hearing language I observed Maki garbed in a beautiful white kimono and headdress over her carefully styled traditional hairdo. Joe was clothed in traditional Japanese dress which had been lovingly created by his mother. This gift was Nancy’s way of acknowledging Joe’s interest in Japanese culture, and also honoring Maki’s cultural roots. After initial chants and prayers Joe read an ancient marriage vow and Maki responded.
Yakota San and I, as fathers, came forward to receive and to offer a leafy branch at the shrine altar. Bowing in reverence to the deity, then in clapping offering our intercession on behalf of this couple for whom we each have love and care, and then bowing once again.
Saki was then poured which Maki and Joe drank in a communion-like gesture. Then each father was in turn poured a cup of Saki. After my ceremonial sip the cup was taken to Maki for her to drink. After Yakota San “blessed ‘ his cup of Saki with his sip it was taken to Joe to drink. Wordlessly this action showed the uniting of families in this ancient communion. Each family member and friend then were offered a ceremonial drink of the Saki.
Following the ceremony came the universal world wide ritual of taking pictures before heading off to the festive celebratory dinner. At the dinner we were again welcomed as honored guests. By tradition Japanese families sit at table farther removed from the wedded couple than other guests. But we were given the honor of sitting nearest them. Yakota San said kind words. I gave a brief and all too inadequate toast. We celebrated having an international family brought together by these two delightful young people.
The next night was the party with extended family, friends and co-workers (what we would call the wedding reception) in Osaka.