It was all laid out before me: clean, fresh water and a bamboo ladle. It doesn’t get much more simple than that.

There was even a panel with instructions carefully drawn, guiding you through the steps of the process: first, you wash your left hand, then your right one; then you rinse your mouth (with water cupped in your left hand), and finally, the ladle handle.

The actions were easy… and yet, I faltered.

Standing near the crowded water ablution pavilion (chōzuya) in one of the main Shintō shrines in Kyoto, I could tell myself it was because there were just too many people… but it was the same in a remote temple outside the tourist route in Hiraizumi. The chōzuya was there, waiting. I could’ve easily followed the instructions to perform a Shintō ablution, a purification of hands and mouth before approaching the kami enshrined in the temple.

From the outside, it’s just a particular way of washing your hands, something we’ve all done tens of thousands of times. And yet, as I stood poised on the edge of this ritual, I wavered. Again and again.

This was a door guarding a boundary I knew not whether I could, or should, cross. A bamboo ladle in an empty temple drew a line between me and the people accustomed to this ritual, a community of perhaps not like-minded, but like-acted people, who are tied together by sparkling threads of water as they wash their hands in a chōzuya with a sincere heart. A simple act, yet pregnant with layers of meaning and intention that can be difficult to ignore for those who, like me, are very attuned to boundaries, both visible and invisible. Certain rituals are ancient doors so steeped in history and tradition, that I hesitate to cross them uninvited, without explicit permission from someone who can welcome me in.

For something that is so inextricably tied with edges and boundaries, I find it notoriously difficult to define the limits of ritual itself.

Clear enough, it cannot be about complexity or size, given the existence of the many tiny rituals that we carry in our pockets—like pebbles polished smooth after prolonged handling. Japan itself offers examples of practices that have been elevated to ritual status—such as drinking a cup of tea:


“Know that chanoyu is simply this: boil the water, make the tea and drink.”
— From the Rikyū Dōka (collection of waka poems attributed to Sen no Rikyū)

The foundations of Tea (as in sadō, the way of Tea) were developed during a particularly fraught period in Japanese history, which saw calamities—both natural and human-made—occur in quick succession, culminating in a ten-year war that ravaged the imperial capital during the second half of the 15th century and left Kyoto in shambles.

Amidst chaos, the seeds of order are nurtured.

Tea bushes (Camellia sinensis) don’t grow naturally in Japan. They had been brought twice from China in the satchels of Buddhist monks, and, although purely secular tea ceremonies were certainly adapted, developed and enjoyed, the link between Buddhism and Tea remained strong. All the great Tea figures that defined the discipline between the 14th and the 16th centuries were, in some way or another, connected to Zen institutions, such as the temple complex of Daitoku-ji, in Kyoto.

For the casual visitor to Japan, Tea is both easy and remarkably difficult to find. You may stumble across tearooms in many temples, but the ceremony itself is not dangled before you as an attraction, something easily ordered over the counter, one-tea-ceremony-for-three-thank-you-very-much. Tea is taken seriously, and although you might have a perfectly lovely cup of frothy green tea (matcha) in a garden pavilion with a traditional sweet alongside it, drinking tea doth not Tea make.

One may devote many years, perhaps a lifetime, to the study of Tea, a discipline where every gesture has been thought out, imbued with meaning and handed down through generations in an unbroken chain of transmission that harks back to the 16th century’s great Tea master, Sen no Rikyū. This may seem like a rather passive endeavour (“here, take this and keep it as is until the time comes to pass it down to your successors”), yet it’s anything but. Rituals are more than a mere set of formal instructions. In order to survive and thrive, they must be meaningful to those who enact them. The guardians of tradition must actively engage with their environment if they are to preserve rituals from fading into irrelevance.

Staying relevant is the only way to survive in the evolutionary journey our cultures are engaged in, and Tea has stayed vibrantly relevant—if not necessarily mainstream—for over five centuries. Its purpose, which I’ve seen described as “to realise tranquillity of mind in communion with one’s fellow men within our world”, still matters. And although Tea may be practised without any religious intent, it is undeniably imbued with centuries of Zen practice and belief, which lends depth and richness to something as simple as brewing and drinking a cup of tea in good company.

Although not all rituals are intrinsically nature-bound, it would seem as if in certain places humankind latched onto environmental cycles as guiding lights to structure entire cultures. Amongst the inherent unpredictability of natural events —earthquakes, lightning, a child’s birth, one’s death—civilisation draws lines and dreams up calendars full of auspicious and inauspicious days that organise life into some semblance of order.

Rituals, of course, have deep connections with natural cycles. They are, after all, structured patterns of action that are performed repeatedly, and the frequency of such repetition is often intertwined with the rhythms of nature.

This is even more pronounced in historically agricultural societies whose lives are entirely dependent on their crops. Although modern thinking has stripped the land of numinous power, bringing it under human control and turning agriculture into a matter of technology and ingenuity, for millennia we believed that the successful growth of plant crops required the collaboration between us and forces that were beyond us—and Japan was no different. The power of the imperial lineage (divinely descended from the Sun goddess herself, Amaterasu-Ōmikami) rested in no small measure on ritual, and from an early age the most important ones, officiated by the head of the imperial house, were connected to the rice harvest.

While visiting the crowded Kyoto shrine where I did not approach the purificatory water basin, we ambled close to a section of the temple grounds that was deserted: a sacred rice paddy, bright green and heavy with grain. I would later find out that every year the shrine celebrates two rice festivals (matsuri)—probably the oldest ones in its ritual calendar, going back all the way to the 8th century. The first one unfolds around the end of spring, wherein rice seedlings (previously grown in seedbeds) are planted in the paddies within the temple grounds and watered with prayers so that the kami may grant humans a bountiful crop. Nearly five months later, a thanksgiving festival is held in gratitude for the autumn harvest that’ll help people survive the hardships of winter… or would’ve done so, in a world before international trade and surplus food production. In a predominantly affluent society, the spectre of famine has faded away—and along with it the weight and importance once attached to agricultural rituals.

Other rituals may have evolved, shed their old clothes and morphed into something else entirely. Such happens to be the case with the Gosekku, five sacred festivals that were imported and adapted from China and celebrated at the imperial court since the 8th century. Some of these (like Tanabata, the Star Festival) have survived and thrived well into the 21st century, whereas others (such as the Chrysanthemum Festival, Kiku no sekku) have steadily dwindled in importance. In fact, even the dates are off, no longer in agreement with the old lunisolar calendar that saw these celebrations emerge into existence.

While in Japan we didn’t see anyone toasting with chrysanthemum wine, but we did come across several kiku exhibitions in different temples, gardens and even castle grounds, something that stems, I suspect, from the same sensibility that gave rise to the spring tradition of hanami (“flower-viewing”—it is implicitly understood that the flowers are Japanese cherry blossoms, sakura). This profound interest and delight in seasonal change finds expression in a myriad of exquisite ways, of which flower-viewing is perhaps the most famous outside of Japan.

As someone who grew up on an island covered with almond trees that burst into bloom in wondrous shades of rosy-white, rather like sakura, I am perfectly aware that it takes a special kind of sensibility to turn a natural phenomenon into a cultural event. Spectacular flowering doesn’t always equate with hanami.

However, I hesitate to place the label of “ritual” on the practice of hanami; I would certainly take part in it without a second thought, just as I basked in the warm autumn glow of maple leaves during our Japanese travels. But why?

Despite having read many papers and books that touch on the subject, the boundaries between practice and ritual are still hazy in my mind. Nonetheless, I stumble upon a metaphor that I feel contains a nugget of truth: ritual is to practice what poetry is to language.

Not free verse, untethered from rhyme or meter or pattern, but the highly structured and formal kinds of poetry, where sonnets and classic Japanese waka belong. Poetry in its role of sacred utterance that is sung or performed, whether shared with the wider community and experienced collectively or kept secret in the deepest chambers of the temple, where gods breathe in darkness. A heightened state that is tightly regulated and strictly bound by rules that must not be broken.

I am, alas, notoriously bad at following strict rules, which may explain why I’m dreadful both at ritual and at formal poetry. Perhaps that’s also why I feel so attracted to them, a fascination born out of my own inability to spin order out of chaos.

Perhaps that’s why I long to return to the land of the rising sun, stand once again on the edge of ritual, and dip my hands into the water.


The shrine mentioned in the article, with its crowded water basin and sacred rice paddy, is Fushimi Inari Taisha.

Although the word kami is often translated as “god” or “spirit”, the connotations of these terms don’t overlap neatly, thus my decision to leave it mostly in Japanese.