The Aesthetics of Etiquette

In the world of sadō (the tea ceremony), within the simple act of making and drinking tea, every movement and sensation has meaning. The goal of sadō is to find enlightenment and realization, things that would be impossible to find if one was merely drinking tea. That sort of metropolitan etiquette exists, but in Japan, you can also find the etiquette of disciplined training (shugyō). Mountains in Japan are thought to be places where the gods reside, and there are temples or shrines built at the peaks of many of Japan’s famed mountains. When making a pilgrimage to Sanbutsuji Temple, located near the peak of Mt. Mitoku, climbing with special waraji (straw sandals) can be considered one type of etiquette. Simply climbing in hiking shoes that you are used to wearing is fine, but approaching the act of climbing a mountain while wearing simple sandals made by artisans specializing in waraji is a way to experience the roots of the unique sense of etiquette found throughout Japanese culture.

What is Japanese Etiquette Anyway?

Throughout the world, you can find a variety of examples of what people consider to be courtesy, in how people talk, how they eat, and how they interact with each other. Also, there are rules of etiquette in how the actions considered to be courteous are supposed to be carried out. Naturally, here in Japan, there is a similar relationship between courtesy and etiquette. However, there is also an independent concept of etiquette. You could say it is the state of mind one should be in when carrying out a variety of actions. By sustaining that state of mind, people can share sensations with people other than oneself, nature, even the gods. Let’s look at sadō. Although when translated into English, the word “ceremony” is used, it is not a simple ceremony at all. Water is brought to a boil, and then used to make powdered tea, which the guests then drink. This simple act is broken down into small segments, and each act is given meaning. The attitude one should have, and the sensations one should perceive, have all been determined.

Maintaining this is what we call this Japanese sense of etiquette, called sahō. Within haiku and kabuki, within judo and sumo, it is not merely the result that is being evaluated. The state of mind one has throughout the process of achieving the result, be it a work of writing, a performance, or a victory, that etiquette is held in high importance. There are also many types of etiquette to be found at religious facilities such as shrines and temples. There are detailed rules when praying, including the way one should purify their hands or the way one should bow. The more you learn about those rules, the more finely detailed you realize those rules are, and if you have interest in Japanese culture, this can be a very fascinating facet of it. Shrine priests and Buddhist priests in training have many rules of etiquette that they follow in their daily lives of in their training. You can experience these types of etiquette through zazen meditation or Buddhist vegetarian meals.

The Etiquette of Climbing a Mountain in Straw Sandals

When climbing Mt. Mitoku, you really should try the climb with waraji. This mountain is a training area for esoteric Buddhist priests, and the entire mountain is the object of worship. It is a god. The goal of training here is rokkon seijō, purification of the six roots of perception: eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind. In the West, mountains are things to be feared, and you climb them to conquer that fear. However, in Japan the highest mountains are objects of faith and worship, and you climb them to gain acceptance from the gods. When climbing Mt. Mitoku, instead of using your everyday shoes, climbing while wearing waraji made by artisans specifically for the purpose of climbing Mt. Mitoku, you can fulfill this goal of rokkon seijō.

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