Monday, November 5, 2012

A real white wedding


Finally, I had the opportunity to attend a Shinto wedding ceremony. If you've seen Lost in Translation, I'm sure you remember the lovely scene of a bride in shiromoku, being led up the stairs by her groom in hakama at Heian Jingu, Kyoto. However, a real Shinto wedding doesn't have the pretty, ambient soundtrack, and I ain't no Scarlett Johansson.

My friend got married at Hie Jinja in Akasaka. It's one of the major shinto shrines in Tokyo. I have a print of the shrine by Toshi Yoshida, so I was surprised that the shrine in real life looks different to the print. Then I found out, Yoshida made the print in the 1930's but the shrine was destroyed during the firebombing of Tokyo in WWII. It has been rebuilt, slightly differently.

Hie Jinja before the war

Hie Jinja rebuilt

Before the ceremony, I wandered around, trying to work out where I should "be". I was soon directed to the waiting room for friends and family of the bride. I had a chance to see her in her gorgeous gold kimono, decorated with cherry blossoms, before she was covered in the white silk "shiromoku" kimono, which covers the head as well. It had a delicate pattern of cranes, or tsuru, which are often used for weddings - not just for the usual meanings of longevity and fortune, but because they are believed to mate for life.

Final adjustments and instructions.

A lady in pink kimono was 'in charge' of my friend, helping her to sit down, arranging the kimono and practicing with her what to do at the ceremony. Since most people get married just once, we have no idea what to actually "do", but the staff quietly guide and instruct, and even help you walk.

At the appointed hour, the guests who weren't family, stood off to one side in the shrine grounds as the wedding party assembled. Technically, the ceremony only involves immediate family and possibly a couple who acted as their "go-between" or matchmaker, in the case of old-style omiai or arranged marriages.

The miko san come to meet the couple and their families.

Sake set up on an elaborate red lacquer table.

The whole set up with the table and cups is then carried over to the bride.

Our view from the folding chairs. The shrine smells amazing - it's all made of hinoki wood (Japanese cypress).

After the ceremony, the miko-san direct the bridal party out. Actually, while the priest does the prayers, the miko-san kind of run the show.

With a huge 'boom' sound, as someone struck a massive taiko drum inside the shrine, the ceremony began. Two shrine maidens or miko, dressed in Heian-style robes, walked down to meet the wedding party, then led them in a slow processession, into the shrine as drums and hichiriki played (that slightly harsh sound, a bit like a clarinet). The two families were quite separate. There were no tender couple moments like in Lost in Translation. The pink kimono lady was firmly in charge of the bride.

Family members all had to take off their shoes to enter the inner shrine; which was pretty difficult for some of the elder members. The friends were invited to sit on folding chairs inside the shrine, but outside the actual ceremony area.

After purification (the couple rinsed their hands and mouths), the priest announced the couple to the altar, prayers were said, then the shrine maidens and priest brought out the sake. They took the cups to the groom to sip, then the bride, a total of three times.

At this point, my recollection of the exact order of events gets hazy. Hie Jinja is a working shrine, which means people were still coming up to the entrance of the shrine to pray, throw coins and ring the temple bell just on the other side of a translucent curtain, as the ceremony went on. Just a little distracting!

The shrine maidens performed a ritual dance with branches of sakaki, an evergreen tree used in shinto rituals. Then, I think the mothers of the bride and groom presented sakaki branches to the altar (the mothers, because one father had died, and one was in a wheelchair - otherwise, perhaps all parents would go up to the altar), then the couple did the same. Or was it the other way around? Anyway, more words were said, rings were exchanged, then everyone in the wedding party drank sake to symbolise the joining of the two families.

And with that, it was off to the nearby Capital Hotel Tokyu, to wait while the bride and groom got changed out of their elaborate kimono and into western-style wedding clothes. This took a long time, as the bride wore a katsura - traditional wig - and had to have her hair completely redone.

At the hotel, the mix of Japanese and western traditions continued. We had elegant French-style dishes on plates decorated with Japanese-style cranes. It worked beautifully.

Silver cranes decorate plates, while the napkins are embroidered with gold cranes.

Very pretty French cuisine

It helps to read French - the menu was in French and Japanese, but there was a lot of katakana-ized French, which had the Japanese guests confused.

Ooh, that creme brulee was good!


  1. Being a miko for 4 months was pretty much the highlight of my university years :)

  2. Wow, that must have been really interesting! I didn't realise most Miko and other shrine workers were university students doing a part time job, till I saw the movie "Kamogawa Horumo" which is kind of bizarre and funny! It also made me look at Kyoto and Kyoto university in an entirely new way!