Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Buddhist Wedding Ceremony

Oh, where to begin?

In Okuizumo is a building known as the Shimane School of Design . It's basically a little art school where students can get an Associate's Degree in Art. Nozomi, my friend from the TV station, graduated from said school, and we visited last last Autumn to film an episode of Attack English! We were invited back for a one day pottery seminar. The teacher of that seminar is named Kaori, and last month she invited me to go to her wedding, which just happened to be a completely rare and lavish Buddhist Wedding Ceremony as she is marrying a Buddhist monk named Ippo, which is now my new favorite male name.
Got it? Good.

"Why is a Buddhist Wedding Ceremony so rare?" you might ask. "Aren't you in Japan- land of Buddhism?" Well you are right. There are a lot of Buddhists in Japan. In fact, Japan's two main religions are Buddhism and Shintoism, and the two live harmoniously together in this strange land. Shinto 神道 or "The Path of the Gods" is Japan's native religion and focuses on nature worship and cleansing rituals. Buddhism 仏教 was brought over to Japan from China via Korea during the Nara Period. An interesting fact is that many Japanese people observe both Shinto and Buddhist holidays, but normally funerals are observed using Buddhist rituals and weddings are celebrated with Shinto rituals.

"Oh, I got it." you respond. "So most Japanese weddings are Shinto." Wrong again. In recent years Western style weddings have become popluar, so most Japanese weddings are held in a Chapel with the big poofy dress and funny looking priests and the whole shabang. This is how people like my friend James from Canada can make a living in Japan by being white and playing the part of a priest... errr. "Celebrant" for wedding ceremonies. Basically, few Japanese people have seen a Shinto wedding ceremony, and almost none have seen a Buddhist ceremony. So I'm one lucky gaijin.

The actual ceremony was held at Ippo's temple in Shinji, a town about an hour from me. On a side note, Buddhist places of worship are temples 寺 (tera) and Shinto buildings are shrines 神社 (jinja). When I first arrived at the temple I felt awkard with many elderly kimono-clad Japanese people who obviously belonged there. Luckily soon some of Kaori's friends showed up and adopted me, so although I stood out like a sore thumb at least I belonged there. It was really a beautiful ceremony. It encomassed all the senses- incense was lit, bells were rung and prayers chanted, there were beautiful robes and decorations, and the guests indulged in some delicious Sake
I couldn't tell you most of the things that went on during the ceremony, mostly because I didn't understand them. But it was beautiful.

Above is a picture of the wedding party which includes Kaori and Ippo's family.

Although most of the attendants wore black (which is a no-no both in Chapel and Shinto ceremonies, it's apparently OK in Buddhist ceremonies) I was dressed in my nicest bright blue dress. Just one more way to stick out without meaning to. Kaori actually was granted permission to borrow two hundred-year-old kimono for this occasion. She also rented the headdress, hairpieces, silverware, and traditional house. Her first kimono was a lovely silk white-on-white design, decorated with cranes and pine trees. Underneath the headdress is a wig with a traditional wedding hairstyle which she reported hurt her head. Ippo wore his finest monk's robes, which looked exactly like the robes all the other monks were wearing. After the actual wedding vows were exchanged we enjoyed a tea ceremony in the temple gardens.

For part two of the wedding festivities we moved to a giant traditional old house in Izumo built over 150 years ago. At this point the wedding was bombarded with news crews and bystanders all eager to see this unique and ancient ceremony. In fact, we made the nine o'clock news that night and the Sunday papers next morning. The wedding party marched to the house and was serenaded with ancient songs.

Next came the feast. Kaori chose many traditional Japanese dishes, and Ippo and the mothers-in-law took care of the cooking. Kaori's friend told me in shock that the fish all the guests ate were caught that morning by Ippo himself, and he also prepared the soba noodles that the guests enjoyed. I asked Kaori's friends if the groom usually made such efforts and the girls laughed. No, certainly not. This was a singular ceremony indeed.
Some of the dishes you see above include: kameboko (fish cakes), clear soup, tofu, chawan-mushi (an egg dish) soba noodles (made by the groom), nishime (boiled vegetables with sugar), sashimi (featuring fresh fish caught by the groom), pickled vegetables, fresh fruit, tempura, plum wine, sake, and tea.

During the feast Kaori changed from her white kimono to her black kimono and removed her headress. The head monk, the families, and the bride and groom also gave speeches. I chatted with some of the other bystanders who were also amazed at such an extravagent and traditional ceremony. Kaori made each guest beautiful porcelain cups with a celedon glaze, and elegant chopstick holders which we were allowed to take home with us. From here on she will start holding pottery demonstrations at the temple to become more active in Buddhism. Although the actual wedding ceremony only took about an hour, this feasting, congratulating, and drinking took about four hours.

The third part of the wedding ceremony was only for us younguns'- the partying. I am pleased to say I spent the rest of the night partying with some Buddhist Monks. Outside of their Buddhist robes they are normal men. One loved rap and tried to talk to me about underground rap and hip hop artists, although I am more than slightly emberassed to say he knew wayyyyyyyyyyy more about it than I did. Another was a basketball fanatic and happily chatted to me about the Big Ten Tournament in the states, how he loved Larry Bird, was scared of Bobby Knight, and saddened by the IU Ladybird's recent performance drop. Another monk adopted Obama's "Yes We Can!" motto and cheered everyone on all night.

What can I say? This day blew away all my expectations and pre-conceived notions. I was welcomed into a traditional yet rare ceremony, made some new friends, and partied with some Buddhist monks. Top that.


  1. I was hoping you'd tell us more about this after I saw the beautiful pictures on Facebook! One question for you now, though: so when Westerners use the word "monk," we're pretty much thinking about vows of celibacy and isolation from the world. And yet you just went to a monk's wedding. Are the rules that much different in Buddhism?

  2. Cassie
    Yes, they are. Monks get to have all the fun!
    Well, I should specify. In most sects of Buddhism, monks have to live a life of celibacy and isolation. But in the kind of Buddhism they practice in Japan apparently it's a lot more relaxed.