Each summer, our family visits a waterfall in remembrance of my mother who loved to celebrate Our Lady of Mont Carmelle. This Christian spirit is honored in Haiti along with Èzili, the Haitian patron Spirit of Love and Prosperity. Every year, countless people make the pilgrimage to Ville Bohneur in Haiti to seek the blessing and protection of these maternal spirits celebrated on July 16th at Fèt Sodo.
Our annual pilgrimage has taken us to Wailua Falls, Niagara Falls, Yosemite, and to various lesser known waterfalls throughout North America. This year, our pilgrimage took us across the Pacific to faraway Japan, where we came upon shrines for the Japanese Spirit of Love and Prosperity, Benzaiten, who is celebrated with the same passion as Haitians celebrate their patron Spirit of Love. This helped to open our eyes to see the many cultural and religious similarities between Japan and Haiti.
Japan is a land of mountains. Like Haiti, it gets frequent earthquakes and hurricanes, called typhoons in the Pacific. Japan's four major islands are Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu. On the island of Honshu, we visited the current capital Tokyo, as well as its former capitals Kyoto and Nara. Various historical events caused the capital to move just like in Haiti where the capital moved from Cape-Haitian to Port-au-Prince, to Leogane, and back to Port-au-Prince.
Arriving in Tokyo at nighttime was a feast for the eyes. The brilliant lights of this city of 13 million illuminated the sky like fireflies. Imagine the entire population of Haiti and its Diaspora in one city with room for guests!
Each year, more than 30 million people from around the world visit Japan. Many come to see the country’s magnificent shrines, temples, and gardens. It is estimated that Japan has more than 100,000 shrines, so that almost every place has its sacred history. It is reminiscent of the Lakous of Haiti, each with its own unique history, sacred trees, and personal ogatwa altars.
Visitors enter shrines through a gate called a Torii. Our first walk through a Torii occured when we visited a shrine for Emperor Meiji who was the 122nd Emperor of Japan and ruler of the nation from 1867 until his death on July 30th 1912. Emperor Meiji led the effort to modernize Japan and to give it a more active role in global trade. Today, Japan is a world power with the third largest economy and a population of 127 million people.
Once through the Torii, we had to wash our hands at a water fountain built for this purpose alone. This ritual demonstrates respect for the spirit by approaching them in a state of cleanliness. Haitians also do this symbolically by pouring libation and wearing white at traditional religious gatherings. The Japanese call their Spirits Kami. Like Lwa in Haiti, the Kami may represent the spirit of deceased family members, distinguished Ancestors, and national leaders. They express their influence over various aspects of human life like love and war and they manifest themselves in various elements of nature like rivers, stones, and mountains.
Visitors to the shrines have various ways to make their wishes known to the Kami. Some choose to write their wishes on a special piece of wood called an Ema. One visitor from the United States, made a wish to be accepted to the college of her choice. One couple came to the shrine for their wedding ceremony. Another couple came to introduce their newborn child to the spirits. Numerous young men and women visit shrines to seek luck in searching for a partner.
Visitors ring bells to wake the spirits. They make offerings of Japanese yen. They clap their hands and bow their heads to make a request or prayer when interacting with the Kami. They do in Japanese style what people throughout Haiti do Haitian style. Haitians clap in sets of three claps and they ring the ason (sonnen ason) to attract the attention of their spirits. Everywhere our gaze touched, the similarities with Haiti were apparent and made visiting their country all the more exhilarating.
At Emperor Meiji’s Shrine, the Ema were placed beneath the canopy of a sacred tree. It was wonderful to see that just like in Haiti, there are trees that are considered sacred. This sacred tree was large but nowhere near as large as Haitian sacred Mapou trees. In this regard, size does not really matter so much. What really matters is a people valuing their culture.
In contrast with Haiti, where people speak boisterously in the streets and where young man and women gather alongside the roads to share laughter, in Japan things are done differently. Everywhere in Japan, one finds noiseless tranquility. We learned quickly that Japan is a very quiet place. There is minimal talking in public places. With my normal Haitian tone of voice, I often forgot to whisper and had to be reminded repeatedly by my husband and children to shh with their index fingers placed upon their lips.
While the Japanese people have kept faith with their Ancestors, they have also kept their eyes fixed firmly on the future. Science and innovation are evident everywhere as hallmarks of their society. Technological progress is particularly evident in their transportation system, where bullet trains known as shinkansen transport people across the country at speeds that rival airplane flight.
We were able to travel the 288 miles between Tokyo and Kyoto aboard a shinkansen in as little as 2 and a half hours. Kyoto is Japan’s cultural capital. The city is to Japan what Jacmel is to Haiti. Kyoto is filled with architectural wonders from the Golden Pavillion to the Kiyomizu-dera Temple, a famed Buddhist Temple which overlooks the city. This temple, which was built in the 17th century is a Unesco World Heritage Site like Haiti’s Citadel. Indian Buddhism arrived in Japan through Korea and China in the early 6th century. Today, many Japanese follow Buddhist teachings, along with the philosophy of Confucius, as well as their traditional Shinto religion of reverence for the Kami. They have learned the value of religious tolerance yet to be learned by Haiti’s evangelist community.
One of the most memorable moments of our stay in Kyoto was bike riding through the city. Kyoto is a city of bikers. Everyone from young school children to elderly residents seems to enjoy bike riding. It was a thrill to visit many of the tourist sites on bike. We rode for many miles along the Kamo River visiting the city’s parks, markets, and the grounds of the Palace of Japan’s former Emperors. Like Jacmel Haiti, their crime rate is low, allowing the elderly and the physically challenged to navigate the streets at all hours.
Another memorable moment was visiting the city of Nara where hundreds of deer greeted visitors who had come to see the Great Buddha at Todaiji Temple. Long ago, deer were considered to be divine and sacred angels or messengers from the spiritual world. Harming or killing them was a capital offense. Today, the deer live on the ground of the temple and are protected by Japanese law as part of the country’s National Treasures.
In contrast to ancient cities like Nara, Japan also has many contemporary cities like Osaka which is Japan’s third largest city. On top of one of Osaka’s many skyscrapers, one could get a bird’s eye view of the modern and old Japan. Everywhere in Japan, the traditional and the modern co-exist in seamless harmony.
The highlight of our visit to Japan was a stay at a Ryokan in the mountains of the rural town of Ohara in Kyoto. A Ryokan is a Japanese style inn which immerses guests in traditional Japanese culture. Our guest room at the Ryokan had traditional style Japanese floor mats and furniture and traditional futons for sleeping. Our breakfast and dinner consisted of an elaborately presented traditional multi course Japanese meal eaten on a low set table and ground level sitting. Their low set chairs sit even lower than the Haitian ti chèz ba!
We were impressed with the way the hostess at the Ryokan payed close attention to details. Although we enjoyed the Japanese dinner that was served, our hostess catered to the foreign taste of our teenage children and served them hot dogs and French fries along with the traditional Japanese meal. My son considered the fancy meal to be the Japanese equivalent of eating escargots and caviar!
While in Ohara, we took time to enjoy the lush greenery of the mountains. The sound of waterfalls could be heard from everywhere. The lush mountains fed the Kamo River which irrigated the ubiquitous fields of rice blanketing the landscape. My thoughts turned to Haiti as Japan’s mountainous countryside gave me a glimpse of what the Haitian mountains must have looked like in the past. I was reminded of the urgent need to restore to Haiti’s mountains such lushness, balance, and beauty.
Sanzenin Temple was adjacent to the Ryokan. It was in their garden that we got to see the water flower of Japan, the hydrangea, in full bloom. Finally, we realized that the Japanese hydrangea gets its name from all the water that it requires. It is the hydro-plant which explains why I could never grow it in my less than water rich garden back home.
As we walked along the garden paths of the shrine, we came upon a small statue of Benzaiten, the Japanese Patron Spirit of Love and Prosperity. Another path led us to a huge waterfall cascading down the mountain making me think once again of the people at Sodo in Haiti experiencing the same in Haitian style….