By Betty Gordon
© 2018 text and photos. All rights reserved.
This is the third in a series of posts about my March 2018 trip to Okinawa and Tokyo, Japan, and Guam. See my April 8 post about Okinawan food specialties, and visits to a market and area known for its pottery; and April 15 about the sinking of the Tsushima Mara and the deaths hundreds of schoolchildren during World War II.
I had another of those turn-the-corner “wow” moments that seem to happen in Japan as I walked smack into a wedding party posing for post-ceremony pictures at a Shinto shrine in Okinawa.
To the Japanese, a Shinto wedding may be commonplace, but to an American tourist, just this scene provided a glimpse into the very heart of an ancient culture.
The bride was dressed in a snow white kimono, known as shiromuku, the most formal of Japanese wedding attire. Nearly every other person standing in three horizontal rows on gray concrete steps was in a dark suit or dress (with a few splashes of white), including her new husband in a traditional kimono.
Further contrast was provided by the bright red triangular roof at the shrine’s outer hall (haiden), the dangling white paper lanterns and the cloudless blue sky.
Most of the bride’s hair and part of her face were shaded by an arched, balloon-like hood, known as wataboshi, which serves the same purpose as a Western veil: To reveal her fully only to her groom. (Wataboshi also come in different shapes and some expose more of the bride’s face.)
She was, in fact, head to toe in white, down to her leather sandals (zori) and split-toed socks (tabi).
The Sunday morning sun was so bright that it made the opaque silk seem like shimmering, freshly fallen snow. I knew a garment of this expense and quality would have some sort of elegant design embedded in the fabric.
Zooming in with my telephoto, I could see traditional cranes, their long necks extended, beaks closed and wings fully spread, with spindly legs trailing as if taking flight. Cranes are a symbol of peace, longevity and hope in Japan, all sentiments appropriate for a wedding.
Interspersed around the cranes, particularly at the bride’s shoulder, neck and flowing sleeves, were repeating spirals and floral motifs, including chrysanthemums, a flower long associated with the Japanese imperial family. The flower is also a symbol of longevity.
The groom’s black outer coat (haori) over his kimono displayed his round, white embroidered family crest (mon) near each shoulder, once below the elbow on each sleeve and between his shoulder blades on his back. This, too, seemed to have a plant or floral motif.
A man’s kimono is far shorter than a woman’s, and loose striped trousers (hakama) conceal the garment’s hem.
Two braided cords (himo) held his kimono in place, secured at the waist with knots, the shape of which reminded me of a cross between an old-fashioned shaving brush and a blooming flower.
His sandals (setta) and socks were also white.
Both bride and groom were holding closed fans, another traditional accessory.
Shinto, “the way of the gods,” is the oldest religion in Japan and has no written doctrine. Its kami (deities) inhabit all forms of nature, from mountains to animals to earthquakes. Many of the ritual, prayers and offerings are intended to ward off evil.
Families may also have an altar-shrine at home for offerings and worship.
A wedding ceremony, officiated by a Shinto priest, is attended by only the close family of the bride and groom. It may take only 20 minutes.
The couple is purified, sake is ritually consumed, and the groom reads the marriage oath. Rings may be exchanged, and the ceremony generally ends with an offering, such as sacred tree branches, to the kami. (Obviously, I didn’t get to see any of this.)
For the reception, usually held at a hotel and running an exact amount of time, the bride would definitely don another outfit, possible a kimono, and the groom might change also.
If the newlyweds were hosting a post-reception small party just for their close friends, another change of clothing would be likely.
I was not the only one engrossed with the formal attire, as other shrine visitors also snapping photos. A few even asked to pose with the bride and groom once they had completed the more formal images.
As their official photographer continued working, I went off to have a closer look at the grounds at the front of Naminoue Shrine, the most important shrine in Okinawa prefecture.
Its name translates to “Above the Waves,” appropriate in that is located on a bluff overlooking the ocean and Naminoue Beach, the only seaside sandy strip in the city of Naha.
(While I was briefly at the beach, en route to the Tsushima Maru museum, I looked up to see the roof finials and realized how close I was to the shrine. I knew it would be an interesting detour — but I didn’t know just how interesting.)
With the shrine’s proximity to the sea, it’s where fishermen in ancient times would pray for an abundant catch, where sailors would appeal to the deities for a safe voyage and farmers would ask for a plentiful harvest.
Like so much else in Okinawa, the original shrine, which dated to Ryukyu dynastic days in the 15th century before the islands became part of Japan in the 19th century, was destroyed during World War II.
Only the torii, the two-railed gate designating the separation of sacred property from the everyday world, is original. At many shrines, the torii is painted a bright vermillion, but that was not the case here, where it was grayish and possible made from concrete.
Near the torii is a statue of the Emperor Meiji (1852-1912) in full military dress.
At all Shinto shrines, believers (and souvenir seekers) can buy a variety of inexpensive good-luck charms (onamori) and votive tablets (ema). The charms are usually tiny pieces of wood or paper, upon which wishes for good health, fertility, safe driving and other sentiments are printed. They are tucked into a decorative cloth pouch, which can be worn or secured in a special place. Above all, the charms are not to be opened to reveal the content.
Ema, made from very lightweight wood (perhaps balsa), vary in illustration and size from shrine to shrine, but most are small. The one I bought at Naminoue was about 61/4 by 4 1/4 inches and 1/4-inch thick.
Messages are written on the tablets, making similar requests as the charms, and posted on large boards to hang together at the shrine.
When I finished looking around, I returned to the area where the photos were being taken to find that the bride’s wataboshi had been removed, revealing her elaborate hairstyle.
The swept-up style, definitely something reserved for formal occasions, brought to mind the lavish look worn by geisha and maiko (geisha-in-training), who live mostly in Kyoto and Tokyo, not Okinawa.
Bows, combs, golden flowers and other ornaments were tied, dangling and clipped into the bride’s heavily lacquered coif. Even after examining my pictures, I was uncertain if this was her hair or a wig, but I think it’s her hair.
I did pose the question to my Japanese friends in Tokyo, and the older daughter, Hatsumi, told me that this hairdo was achievable in about an hour, using copious amounts of hairspray.
My friends also let me know that the bride’s white kimono was almost certainly rented.
“What use would she have for it again?” Hatsumi said.
Quick reference: Naminoue Shrine, 1-25-11 Wakasa, Naha, Okinawa. 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. daily. Free admission. http://naminouegu.jp