It was 2019 when we last went to Japan. My wife, three boys and I were visiting my wife’s family – her parents and older sister – a trip we have tried to make more often but once every two or three years is about as regularly as we can manage. They live in a city called Kashima (鹿嶋市) which is in Ibaraki Prefecture (茨城県) on the Pacific coast, around a 45 minute drive from Narita International Airport. I spent a couple of years there teaching English at the end of the 1990s, through something called the JET Programme. This was when and where my wife and I met.
Kashima in many ways is a fairly typical mid-sized city situated in the Japanese countryside but at its heart, both geographically and spiritually, is a Shinto shrine called Kashima Jingu (鹿島神宮). Now I am not a religious person, at least not in the practising sense, but each time we go back to Japan I make a point of Kashima Jingu being one of the first places we visit. The forest around the shrine is immense – around 24 hectares or 30 football pitches. It is mainly Japanese cedar including some absolute gigantic trees around 50-60 metres tall and hundreds of years old. In Japan, and around Shinto shrines in particular, the trees themselves are considered to contain their own spirit and have ceremonial ropes hung around their trunks from which hang pieces of paper folded into lightning shapes, very much like the tail of the Pokemon character called Pikachu. As you stand at the base of any of these trees you cannot help but feel a spiritual power contained within them. Indeed, rather like a mobile phone in need of electricity, I swear I can feel my spiritual battery taking a rapid charge whenever I am in their presence.
For obvious reasons, it has been another three years since our last visit and it looks like we might be able to travel as planned this summer. Entry restrictions into Japan are still tight. Much has been made of the opening up of borders in recent weeks, although if you want to go as a tourist at the moment your only option is as part of an official tour group. Fortunately, as we are visiting relatives, I am able to get a visa for that purpose and my kids and wife will be travelling on their Japanese passports.
The trip this year is, unfortunately, tinged with sadness as we won’t be able to see all the usual family members and enjoy what is ordinarily a happy time of reunion. Tragically, my father-in-law passed away suddenly towards the end of last year. It was at the height of the Omicron variant wave of COVID-19 and although my wife was able to get back home, the journey for the rest of us was nigh on impossible with all the travel restrictions and quarantine requirements in place at the time. I don’t think that I have yet fully accepted his death and know that there are going to be some moments of sadness as the realisation that we will not be able to see him again, at least in the normal sense, sinks in. What I would give to enjoy one last visit to the local pub with him for a few drinks. However, there is a very special time of the year in Japan, a festival called Obon, when the spirits of the departed are said to visit the household alters. I am hopeful that us being in Japan around the time of Obon, especially this first one since he departed, will allow us to feel close to him as the gateways between the spirit world and our world open up for a brief moment of convergence.
I plan to write more about my experience in Japan. A meagre two years living there means that I am far from an expert but my time in Kashima has given me a insight into life in Japan quite different from that of those who have only experienced Tokyo or another of the major cities.
Until then, I hope that you enjoy the photos accompanying this blog post and that a little bit of the spiritual calmness rubs off on you.