I am standing in a flowing black and grey robe struggling to read an oath in formal Japanese. Facing me is a priest in a large black peaked cap at an altar with two shrine priestesses holding sake cups. To my left is my wife, Shiori, wearing a white kimono and a giant white square-shaped hood (purportedly to hide her horns). And watching behind me is a group of family and friends. What I am recounting is not a bizarre anxiety dream, nor is it the result of my having ingested a large quantity of hallucinogenic drugs. Instead, this is a description of one of the pivotal moments of my wedding, which took place in Hikawa Shrine, Tokyo towards the end of last year.

Although I have lived for almost seven years in Tokyo, my experience of participating in Shinto shrines had previously been limited to wandering around them. I do not think I had so much as rung a bell in one of them before. However, this is not my first acquaintance with Japanese weddings. As I described in my first article for Wall Street International, I once even acted as a priest in a more flamboyant mock-Christian wedding in Tokyo. As I noted in that earlier piece, Japanese weddings are purely ceremonial and the legal union is conducted on a separate occasion at a government office. In fact, my wife and I completed this bureaucratic procedure over a year before our ceremony. Although this might seem odd to those accustomed to Western conventions, it did allow us time to plan the ceremony at our own pace. Instead of the slightly Hollywood Rom-Com-style ‘Christian’ weddings that have become increasingly commonplace in Japan recently, we opted for a smaller Shinto ceremony, with a Western-style reception afterwards.

Although this type of wedding might sound more traditional, in fact it is a surprisingly recent invention. According to the historian Takashi Fujitani, [1] the model is the marriage ceremony between Prince Yoshihito and Sadako Kujō, the future Emperor Taishō and Empress Teimei respectively, which took place on 10 May 1900. This lavish celebration included the same wedding chant and offering of the Japanese sakaki twig that featured in my own wedding. Interestingly, the royal celebration was a deliberate attempt to establish a distinctively native rite that paralleled the Christian ceremony, drawing on detailed research on wedding customs in the West and across Japan commissioned by the Emperor Meiji himself. Before this occasion, Japanese weddings were mostly conducted in the home, and followed local and familial conventions. Only after the Second World War, as an increasing number of people moved into cramped cities did the Shinto rite gain popularity. And this invented tradition has been embellished over time. While up to the 1980s it was customary to wear a mock-Western suit and bride-dress, my wife and I had to arrive early at the shrine to be dressed in ironically traditional outfits.

The event began early in the morning, when my wife and I arrived at a building adjacent to the shrine to be dressed and generally prepared for the wedding. In my case, this involved the relatively straightforward procedure of putting on large pleated trousers called hakama and then being wrapped in a hip-length jacket (a haori) tied together at the waist with a narrow sash (an obi). For Shiori, however, these preparations were far more complex and time-consuming. They required her a small sword (a kaikenfutokorogatana) and a small box (a hakoseko) with a hand mirror or comb in it placed at her bosom and then for her to be folded inside the various layers of white cloth that comprise a kimono. Next came her elaborate make-up and hair-styling, after which a white orchid was stuck into her hair, and an elaborate square-shaped hood called a watabohshi placed delicately on her head. As we were being prepared by various assistants, friends and family began to arrive and enter the nearby waiting-rooms.

Once we had been fully wrapped up and pruned in our clothing, we went to be photographed outside the shrine, before being led to a small room. Here a young male officiate patiently explained to us in Japanese the details of the ceremony, with Shiori translating and explaining details to me. Such a session is necessary because even Japanese people themselves are unlikely to be unfamiliar with the details of the wedding—due in part to its recent origins. Although I had practiced my oath many times over the past few weeks, I found this a little unnerving, because I was expecting a full rehearsal inside the Shrine itself. In particular, I was unnerved by the precision by which I was expected to perform the movements of the ritual. I needed to receive the sake cup with the correct hand, turn it in the approved manner and drink the optimum amount (too much would appear greedy; but too little might ungrateful or unenthusiastic) before passing the cup to one of the two priestesses. Before I had time to become too anxious we had to depart, to join the procession to the shrine led by the priest, accompanied by the beat of a drum and the hypnotic wail of a Japanese flute.

In the ceremony itself, however, the greatest challenge was not following the ritual but entering the venue itself. The traditional sandals made from lacquered wood (zouri) I was wearing proved surprisingly slippery on the narrow wooden steps leading into the shrine. During the ceremony itself, I followed subtle cues from Shiori as to when to take my cup, when to drink and so on. According to Women in Japanese Religions, Barbara Amrbos has criticized the Shinto ceremony for forcing brides to enact “the feminine ideal of the demure and obedient wife” (140-1). [2] In our case, this was subtly subverted, as Shiori was clearly taking the lead. After we had been completed our sections, our fathers came to the front to place a sakaki (Japanese evergreen) twig on the altar. Then we led the crowd, departing via the small bridge to the right of the temple for our reception.

Reflecting on the experience now several months afterwards, the main surprise to me was the extent to which the event as a whole was dominated by photography. Arguably, given the Japanese wedding’s twentieth-century origins, this should be no surprise. The six hours of the ceremony and ensuing reception felt very much like being on one of those indoor theme park rides in which you are strapped into a vehicle and travel through specially-lit displays. In our case, each of those displays being a new photo opportunity: from our poses in our Shinto outfits outside Hikawa shrine early in the morning, to similar shots outside the Kabukiza theatre in Ginza in late afternoon. Although I am sure my future self will be grateful for the lovely images, my increasingly hungry self at the time was more than a little concerned about finding a few minutes to wolf down something to eat. Yet, in spite of being in some ways an exhibition object for the crowd, the shrine wedding did give me a feeling of being a little more connected with Japan and its culture—notwithstanding the Shinto ceremony’s relatively recent vintage. When Shiori and I returned to Hikawa shrine on New Year’s Eve during a relaxing walk around the area, I rang the bell.

[1] Barbara R. Amnos, Women in Japanese Religions (New York and London: New York University Press, 2015) p. 140-1.