You think you have it down as you pass beneath the torii at the end of the small alleyway. Left hand first, then the right, then scoop some into your cupped, now-pristine sinistral hand and rinse out your mouth. But wait, is this a full rinsing, or like a one-swirl, merely symbolic kind of swish? And where do I spit this out once I’m clean?? I’m just gonna have to wing it and hope for the best...
Conveniently, my first shrine was equipped with a foreigner-friendly pictorial guide to the “proper” Shinto purification procedure. Thus it came to pass that I held and used my first hishaku.
Ubiquitous in the sacred spaces across Japan are hishaku - dippers, or ladles, with long handles, sitting near sources of flowing water, waiting to purify faithful temple and shrine-goers. Depending on the size and popularity of the shrine, one can expect to find a solitary traditional bamboo ladle idling on a small basin of overflowing water or dozens of metallic hishaku stirring about, trying to access the freshest water coming out of a fountain spout. The enormous sink into which the water flows, called the temizuya, can always be located at the entrance of a shrine or temple to allow for purification prior to accessing the most sacred structures or spaces on the grounds. Older shrines tend to be located next to streams or other bodies of water so that visitors can cleanse their whole bodies of impurities by bathing in its pure waters (A Shrine Visit). Since ladles carry the water used in this ritual act of cleansing, it is easy to see how the hishaku can be tied in to the Japanese religious experience.
“It was traditionally thought that divine spirits dwell in places that are dented, or caved in, thus the hishaku was treated as a holy container.” -Nippon-Kichi
A common element in a traditional Japanese tea garden is the hishaku. Accompanying the ladle is, of course, the tsukubai, the small water basin from which one would wash their hands before commencing the tea ceremony, which isn’t exactly like visiting a sacred place, but isn’t that far removed either. In both cases, the hishaku is employed in the process of purifying the user.
Due to this association with purification, hishaku are found in several situations and celebrations. Those people partaking in nukemairi can be seen carrying with them a hishaku, being both a symbol of their pilgrimage and as a way of receiving alms. A hishaku without a bottom is used as hōnō, an object dedicated to the worship of the gods when beseeching deities for easy childbirth as well as in the celebration of Ohitsuosame shinji, a ritual that takes place on the Autumn equinox in Shizuoka Prefecture, where people ‘scoop’ water as an offering to the dragon kami residing in the pond at Ikemiya-jinja. Hishaku are also employed as torimono, a prop held during the performance of kagura, a ritual dance used to call down the power of the kami.
For New Year’s celebrations, new ladles are fashioned for the collection of water from a well or spring which can be spilt as an offering, used for cleansing of the mouth, and for making ozoni, a kind of vegetable and rice cake soup.
So it looks like hishaku, with their affiliation with water-based purification, are brought into various traditions and observances in Japanese religious life. I’ll ponder upon what sort of implications this might have for everyday Japanese life the next time I am handed a bowl of steaming hot ramen.
~ guest blogger, Adam Cappuccino