Incanting a blessing, the Shinto priest all decked out in white stands squarely facing the shiny car grill. Alongside, a young Japanese couple stand solemnly with heads bowed, receiving good luck and safety for their new car. The ceremony is the Japanese equivalent of carrying St Christopher in a vehicle. Welcome to Mishima Taisha – carpark.
Unassuming Mishima town lies on a plain between Tokyo and Shizuoka. Mishima is nestled between the imposing frame of Mt Fuji to the west, and Izu Peninsula to the east. Due south is the sprawling blue Pacific Ocean.
Foreigners who are a little familiar with Japan will know there are two main types of places of worship. Firstly, temples (otera) for Budhist prayers, and secondly, shrines (jinja) for Shinto – Japan’s indigenous religion. Most Japanese people are comfortable praying at both. Unlike Christianity and Islam, eastern philosophies have no limitation of the one, true God. A taisha is a large and important jinja.
It is said that the Mishima Taisha deity was originally worshipped at a shrine way down on the Izu southern coast, near modern-day Shimoda. Towards the end of the first millennium AD things were moved to their current inland location. Perhaps the worshippers had a bad experience with a tsunami?
Japan’s first Shogun, Minamoto Yoritomo was a regular worshipper at Mishima in the 12th century. Mishima is handy to Izu no Kuni, where young Yoritomo was banished to from Kyoto. The Mishima Taisha deity must be powerful. Yoritomo’s prayers were answered and his clan overthrew the ruling Kyoto-based Hekei clan, ending centuries of the Heian Period. A small museum on the Taisha grounds contains some scrolls written by Yoritomo himself – his signature clearly legible.
The museum also contains paintings of the shrine building that Yoritomo, and other prominent Japanese up to the end of the Edo Period, worshipped at. Almost as if by premonition, that building was destroyed in an earthquake almost concurrent with the mid-19th century toppling of the Edo Shogunate and the end of Shogun rule. The current impressive structure was erected in the early years of the subsequent Meiji Period.
Surviving the earthquake though is a 1,200 year-old kinmokusei tree. Kinmokusei through-out Japan are appreciated as a mark of fall having arrived with their sweetly aromatic golden flowers. The ancient specimen at Mishima Taisha is not a tall tree, but venerable and clearly much loved with each descending branch supported by poles and trellis.
Being an important shrine, the calendar is filled with events at Mishima Taisha. You can enjoy demonstrations of the medieval art of hitting a target using a bow and arrow whilst galloping on horseback. In early spring, a special ceremony takes place to bless the planting of rice paddies. And almost anytime, you can see family groups receiving a blessing for a sick member, or looking for good luck in some upcoming challenge like an examination.