ph_009_01.jpgSuwa Shrine in Izumi-cho, Iwaki City, Fukushima Prefecture, is a Shinto shrine originated from the Heian period (8-12C). In the Tenmon era (16C), the shrine was destroyed by tsunami, and its shintai (sacred object in which a deity resides) was relocated to the top of the mountain. In the middle of the Edo era (18-19C), the re-built Suwa shrine was named as an official shrine of the Izumi Domain and relocated to the site where the mansion of Iwaki Hangan Masauji was built. During that time, the Lord Masauji was an official of Iwaki Province and was believed to be the grandfather of Anju and Zushio. The existing main sanctuary of Izumi Suwa Shrine was surrounded by a great variety of beautiful sacred trees, and built by Honda Tadakazu, a feudal lord of Izumi Domain, in Kan'ei 8 (1631). He studied practical ethics called Shingaku ("Heart Learning"), and it is also the reason the pond in the shrine shaped like a Chinese character Shin, which is meaning of "heart". In the precincts, small shrines, including Suwa Atomiya, Wakaki Shrine, Akiba Shrine, Hangan Shrine, Kotohira Shrine and Ashio Shrine are also enshrined. Since ancient times, a dragon, which is believed to be a divine messenger of Izumi Suwa Shrine, has protected the local area. Nowadays, two sisters, after succeeding their father as Shinto priest, protect this shrine.

The older sister, Naomi, was qualified as a Shinto priest twelve years ago and after seven years, she started serving at Suwa Shrine, helping her father the main priest. She learned a lot from her father. Naomi becomes a full-fledged priest now after a few years of learning. She can perform various ceremonies and host festivals including a Shinto purification ceremony, omiyamairi (newborn baby's first visit to a Shinto shrine), a land purification festival, a mitama (departed soul) festival and an imperial memorial ceremony. She is also in charge of conducting a ritual to guide a departed soul to the heaven in a Shinto mythology. Naomi said, "In the mitama festival, I could not help crying with the bereaved family. I felt that I made a mistake, because it's hard for me to conduct the ritual as usual after crying." Her words show her warm personality. Motivated by Naomi's experience, her younger sister has started studying to attain a Shinto priest qualification as well.

When the March 2011 earthquake hit Japan, Naomi and her family were at the main house near the Suwa Shrine. They felt the house shaking badly, and heard the earth rumbling. The ground shook not only up and down but also back and forth. Even though holding the pillar, they could not stand up because of the violent shake. All tableware in the cupboard fell out, and broken pieces were scattered on the floor. "Run outside, it's dangerous here!" Naomi yelled and followed by all family members to run outside. When she went outside and looked up at the roof, she found that roof tiles were on the verge of falling. Then next quake happened, the entire roof tiles fell down to the ground. She could not understand what was going on.

At that moment, Naomi was worried about the main sanctuary of Suwa Shrine. "I'm going to check the shrine!" she said and she ran to the shrine across the precinct. She was so scared as she was running along the pond. Then she found that a pair of stone-carved guardian lions stood on the plinths as usual. Behind the lions, the main sanctuary stood solemnly as if nothing had happened, guarded by the lions. She felt relieved and walked back to the main house. On the way back to the main house, she found that the Torii gate and stone lanterns collapsed. Viewing from the Torii gate, she witnessed the terrible situation of Izumi City, where all city concrete block walls collapsed and cloud of dust suspended in the air.

As Naomi and her family went to the shrine buildings around the town, many ancient structures in the town collapsed. Some shrines that were not completely destroyed had to be torn down because of their fragility. "What a tragedy it is that many things we have protected for hundreds of years were destroyed." Naomi's heart was filled with sorrow. In this unfortunate situation, the shintai has to be moved. However, even with this extreme situation, it is prohibited for her to perform a ritual for moving the shintai. "Please forgive me, God," she apologized to God within her mind, wrapped the shintai with a cloth wrapper and took it with her to the house.

Although water supply was cut off, her house was safe enough for her family to live in. There was a water station near their house, and they did not have to worry about food, because they had enough food in the storehouse. They decided to live every day's life as usual and helped their father of a Shinto priest to work peacefully. They were also ready to accept people who came to seek refuge in the shrine. Just as they were ready to go out to help people in need, the news of nuclear accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant came. They faced with a dilemma now that they could not go out. They became more and more worried about the outside world. "What is going on with our city, people and stores?" said Naomi as she decided to go around the city by bicycle, while she was trying at best protecting herself from radiation exposure.

Naomi went to a community hall that had been designated as an evacuation center. "Does anybody need anything here? I come here because I think I should help you in some ways," said Naomi. "I need some seasoning," said an evacuee. Naomi went back to her home and filled a backpack with a bottle of soy sauce, some miso (bean paste) and salt, then delivered them to the center by a hand truck. Naomi received the relief supplies from Shinto shrines in Tokyo. So, she distributed the supplies to local group leaders and neighbors who could not manage to go to evacuation center and stayed at their home. They hesitated to receive the relief supplies, which include two cup noodles, masks and sacred water of Iwashimizu Hachimangu Shrine, because they feel they do not deserve to receive the relief supplies and those refugees who are in evacuation center deserve more. "Please receive these as love gifts that you are also being cared." Naomi said as she gave the supplies to them. As a matter of fact, most of the quake victims who stay at home are elderly people. Having it difficult to go out to an evacuation center to get relief supplies, most of the elderly were forced to live with very little food they had at home. What is more, some of them collapsed from overwork that they thought they had to clean up their houses and town damaged in the earthquake by themselves.

Naomi drove to a coastal area after she managed to get some gasoline. She was shocked when she saw what lay before her very eyes. Boats and cars had crashed into houses, and everything had been overturned and vertically stuck into the beach. The coastal area, in which it has a fishing port, is well known to be the place that many spiritually faithful people live. Every time they go fishing, they committed themselves to pray to God. It was such an outrage to know that these people who know the grandeur of the nature became victims of the earthquake disaster. "I can't trust anymore in God or hotoke (like Buddha)," mumbled people who lost their family or houses.

Naomi said, "Well, I still believe that God protects us. I hope people still put their faith in God or hotoke, and I'd like to give people a feeling of peace as a Shinto priest."

Naomi also said, "I hope that people will feel relieved and comforted by visiting a shrine to make a wish or give thanks to God. I believe that I should be able to provide people with a feeling of peace by reviving old Japanese religious beliefs that God dwells at home."
She received a lot of miyagata (small shrine for household altar) that were sent to people who had lost their kamidana (household altar) from the Grand Shrine of Ise, in Mie Prefecture, western Japan. Although she wanted to deliver the small shrines to people in the neighborhood, she did not know how to start it. A Shinto priest, like Naomi, has no experience nor has been ordained to have a home visit as a priest, and she was struggling even to deliver small shrines to the people. At last, she decided to start with whatever she could do and began helping people to remove the rubble.

Meanwhile, it is becoming clear that other people who serve in the shrines also face a lot of problems. Some Shinto priests were forced to leave the land they had protected because of the nuclear accident. Leaving their shrines is a difficult choice to them with regard to how to live hereafter.

A Shinto priest in Futaba-Cho, who also works for a fire company, was forced to evacuate while he was patrolling. The urgent evacuation instructions did not allow him to go back to his home to check the condition of the shrine and take valuables items with him. He could not stop thinking about the shrine in Futaba-Cho. "As soon as I am allowed to return to my hometown, I'll rush back to my home," he said. Now, he is finding a temporary job in the city where he takes shelter.

Another Shinto priest who lives in the town that designated as an emergency evacuation preparation zone is reluctant to leave his home. Almost all of the residence has left the town. Nobody visits him and all the stores are closed. He is anxious about how to survive from now on. Under such an extreme environment, he prepares to stay in his hometown with God who protects the town until he becomes the very last person staying in the town.

A Shinto priest of Iidate village, Fukushima, has refused to evacuate, saying, "No one can drag me out of my home. Whatever you say, I stay here at any cost." Even after he was involuntarily evacuated from his hometown, he still goes back to check on his shrine every day from the evacuation center. He also goes back to his hometown to perform a ritual for house purification or demolition. If he has to move further away from his hometown, he knows that he will not be able to go back to his shrine frequently. There is an unforeseeable future and also a problem concerning removal of shintai. "I believe God protects not only our hometown but also shrine parishioners. It's not easy to make decision to move shintai to a distant place."

Naomi said that she wanted to help people with the same belief like other Shinto priests. She also hopes to stay and protect her hometown.

She continued, "Some people say that they can feel relieved when they visit a shrine. At any time when people want to visit our shrine, we want to give them a proper welcome. Therefore, my younger sister is studying to get qualified as a Shinto priest. Even if one priest is out of a shrine to serve outside, the other stays at the shrine and to welcome worshippers. When people recognize that a priest always serves at a shrine, they will feel easier to visit a shrine."

At Izumi Suwa Shrine, there is a moment when people can perceive the existence of God and the
divine messenger; it is when people feel wind gently blown from their back, when they are standing in front of the Torii gate, when people feel like they are softly pushed by wind, when it starts raining soon after arriving at the shrine, and when a blue sky suddenly turns to be cloudy. At that time, people become happy. "God's messenger, a dragon, has come to us with clouds and rain."

ph_009_02.jpgNaomi also feels the existence of God while she is serving at the shrine every morning and night. She said she felt God was there. Although she cannot see or listen to God, she can certainly feel God.

"I become positive to take another step forward, feeling refreshed and invigorated," said Naomi with a gentle smile.

Thirteen years later from now, Izumi Suwa Shrine will mark its 350th anniversary of foundation of the existing main shrine. To celebrate the anniversary, Naomi is planning to host a festival in which both local residents of Izumi City and visitors will enjoy together. In the past, a shrine festival was packed full of entertainment and excitement for children. Both sides of the entrance to the shrine were lined with open-air stalls, and a portable shrine was carried through the entrance. Even at night, the precinct of the shrine was crowded with people who are enjoying the festival in the glow of the lights of stalls, forgetting summer heat for a while. Naomi hopes that children today also experience the fun of a shrine festival. She is going to hold a participatory festival in which local people can give a concert or showcase bonsai plants or anything else.

Naomi hopes that, until the year of 350th anniversary, the port and the town will have been restored and regained the energy, and people live in peace. She also hopes the future in which sons or daughters of children today will excitedly gather for a shrine festival, and adults and children will enjoy the festival together all through the night. Hoping such a future will come true, she went to the main sanctuary to see the ceiling painting of a dragon. Sacred trees protecting the shrine were growing vigorously to the sky, and the gentle wind was rustling the leaves.

(Translated by Makiko Tanabe)