The purifying waters

Water purification fountains are a feature of Japanese shrines and Alfie has a bit of a thing about them.

Japan has a multitude of shrines; big ones, small ones, ones for good luck in love, ones for good luck in business. They are also everywhere, in key city locations such as the Meiji Jingu Shrine in Harajuku, to little neighbourhood shrines tucked up some backstreet between a ramen shop and some houses. One thing you will always find at each and every one – regardless of its size or importance – is a water purification fountain or ‘okiome’.

At all Shinto shrines, worshippers and casual visitors are asked to purify themselves (Harai) of impurity before praying to the Shinto deities. The act of cleansing is called Misogi, and the actual washing of hands and mouth with water is called Temizu. An associated term is Imi, meaning “abstention from defilement.”

The protocol is thus: at the purification fountain near the shrine’s entrance, take one of the ladles provided, fill it with fresh water and rinse both hands. Then transfer some water into your cupped hand, rinse your mouth and spit the water beside the fountain. You are not supposed to transfer the water directly from the ladle into your mouth or swallow the water. You will notice that quite a few visitors skip the mouth rinsing part or the purification ritual altogether. Behave calmly and respectfully. You are not supposed to visit a shrine if you are sick, have an open wound or are mourning because these are considered causes of impurity.

Even if I am there taking photos, I always try and go through the ritual. It sets up some good karma and helps me get into the zone.

A great spot for a lesson on composition and lighting

The okiome are a superb spot for a relaxed but concentrated photography lesson and I try to take each of my students – especially the beginners – to the one at Meiji Shrine, for an hour of zen-like contemplation and snapping. Why? The light at different times of the day is beautiful, for one thing and is usually quite directional. This gives students a chance to explore how to create mood with different kinds of exposure and to see how the light can really change the mood of an object when viewed from each different angle. Plus, it’s good just to concentrate upon one subject for something like an hour. It focuses the mind on all the possible angles, points of view and possible connotations of expressing the feel of the subject through viewpoint, exposure and different compositions.

Arlon Roese, one of our photography students, commented about his experience of shooting at Meiji Jingu:

“After a few lessons with Alfie I was eager to do another, and our next location was to be Meiji jingu. I’d seen some photos he’d taken there previously with his students so had some idea of what subject I would be shooting.

Sure enough, after meeting at Harajuku station and then walking past the large torii into the grounds surrounding the shrine, it wasn’t long before we reached the ‘chouzuya’ or purification fountain.

I spent the next hour getting to know my subject intimately, seeing the textures of the water, the hishaku, stone suiban and seeing how different angles and light create a different mood and feel. As Alfie explained, being able to take the time to really get to know your subject and view it at all possible angles without feeling rushed or pressured and just focus on the photography,is a real luxury. I couldn’t agree more.

As with our other lessons, Alfie has advised me to come back to the same location and take some more shots, something I haven’t yet got around to but should do sometime soon…”

If you have an enquiry about our photography lessons, click here for more details.

A gallery of okiome shots by Alfie Goodrich

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At the purification fountain near the shrine’s entrance, take one of the ladles provided, fill it with fresh water and rinse both hands. Then transfer some water into your cupped hand, rinse your mouth and spit the water beside the fountain. You are not supposed to transfer the water directly from the ladle into your mouth or swallow the water. You will notice that quite a few visitors skip the mouth rinsing part or the purification ritual altogether.

About Japanorama

Japanorama is run by British professional photographer, Alfie Goodrich, and provides practical photography teaching in Tokyo. Weekly workshops, group and one-to-one lessons bring together photographers of all ages and abilities.

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