Building bridges at Meiji Shrine
I felt like Tom Cruise in a scene from “The Last Samurai,” looking across at two rows of the bride’s family and friends in a Meiji Shrine ceremonial wedding hall. Then again, it felt even more remarkable than that. This was real multiculturalism, a connection between two vastly different cultures. The Japanese bride sat humbly, front and center, next to her Australian husband-to-be – who sat quietly, anxious not to make a wrong move.
“It was like a floating dream back in ancient Japan,” says Vaughan Allison, the Australian groom. “Yes, I was anxious. I didn’t really want to make any mistakes or do anything to offend anyone. But there was an awful amount of adrenaline as well. Everyone who was important in my life was in this one room.”
The shrine maidens, miko, traditionally virgins, glided up and down the altar stairs in rhythm to the sound of the soothing Japanese harp, koto. The Shinto priest began to recite prayers in ancient traditional Japanese, the serenity only slightly splintered by the interjection of foreign sounding words such as “Bo-n” (Vaughan), “Arison” (Allison) and “O-sutoraria” (Australia).
Japanese rice wine was then dispensed from an elaborate pourer that resembled some kind of sailing ship into the groom’s sake bowl. Allison takes two sips… or was it supposed to be three? The shrine maiden gestures to Allison, “Three sips.” The Shinto priest asks all guests to be standing. The bride’s side of the room stands promptly. The groom’s side, almost all Australians, look bewildered at each other, and then commit to standing themselves after a couple of hand gestures and whispering voices from those in the know. The guests’ bowls are filled with sake and the call goes out to drink. The left side of the room picks up their bowls to drink. The right side, the “gaikokujin,” follow suit.
Allison is called up to read an ancient Japanese prayer, norito, written vertically on a scroll. He knew it was coming but did not have time to rehearse. “The kanji had hiragana readings beside them so reading it wasn’t a problem,” says Allison. “I had little idea what it meant though. My wife had given me a rough outline of what it was saying but I wasn’t absolutely sure about how to read it out aloud in the right tone, rhyme and expression. I wanted to sound strong and confident to send a message to my wife that I’m deadly serious about marrying her.”
After the wedding ceremony, we all formed a procession of two lines – one behind the bride, one behind the groom. We walked through the shrine grounds – the crowds that gathered to watch our procession with expressions of amusement. Was this because it was their first Meiji Shrine wedding sighting or the fact that one line of the procession was mirrored by foreign faces?
Our guide brought us all to a stand of bleachers. Photography directors dressed in black suits promptly organized the bride, groom and their one-year old son, Tao, on their lap, with guests standing behind. But in order to get the perfect photo, the directors had to entice Tao to look directly at the camera – and to do this, they had to break from formalities.
Anpanman to the rescue
One of the directors pulls an Anpanman doll, a children’s Japanese animation character, from his pocket, squeaked it close to Tao to get his attention, and then raced 10 meters - while continuing to squeak - toward the camera. Undoubtedly this was not the first time Anpanman has been called upon for duty at a Meiji Shrine wedding ceremony. In fact, there are several weddings every day at the shrine. I later found out that four other grooms accompanied Allison in the pre-ceremonial dressing room.
But despite the popularity of the location for couples tying the knot – some may even say commercialization of the shrine - the wedding was a triumph. It was beautiful, meaningful, methodical and moving. It was not unique in the sense of taking place at Meiji Shrine, but it was unique in the bonding of two foreign cultures – Japan and Australia.
I was privileged to be a part of that bond.