The morning sunlight entered the shrine by the same route as any patron would, beginning with the ablution pavilion. Beneath the small wooden canopy sat the stone trough of clear, clean water, gently waving beneath the row of bamboo dippers which rested on the trough's opposite rims. With a golden glint along the water's surface, the sunlight continued up the steps to the tori gate at the top. Its simplicity might have caused one to mistake it for two trees flanking the top of the stairs: a pair of large wooden posts connected near the tops by a plaited rope nearly as thick as the posts themselves, hung with tassels and pieces of braided white paper that slowly danced in the wind.
Illuminating the pathway and the shrubs along it, the sunlight spread over the first building on the right: the shrine office. As with all the buildings on the sacred grounds, it was made all of rustic, unfinished wood that had darkened with age. Its gabled roof was plain and simple compared to that of the next building that followed to the left: the hearth. Boards laid across the peak of the roof all along the ridge, and each corner of the building bore a carving of an elephant-like baku under the eave. But even more ornate was the building that sat at the end of the brown flagstone path: the hall of worship. The roof had all that the hearth had, including two crossbars jutting out at each end of the roof's peak, their flat ends faced upward like palms held up in prayer, and the baku were replaced with carvings of dragons, whose long bodies fringed the soffits, their tails crossing at the peak above the door. Granting further protection were two stone lion-dog shishi guardians on either side of the veranda steps, the one to the left with its mouth open to dispel bad fortune, the one to the right with its mouth closed to retain good fortune.
It didn't take long for the morning rays to flood the entirety of the small forest grove, with the most magnificent sight being the five-story-tall juniper tree thriving behind the hall of worship, the yellow sunlight gilding the evergreen boughs, its warmth enhancing the fresh fragrance more potently than any of the shrine's incense.
The young priestess slowly blinked her eyes open as the sunlight reached the top of the juniper. She often wondered how it was that she never woke until the sun hit the Sacred Tree, when it first hit the shrine office, where her living quarters were situated. Nonetheless, she was awake. She stretched every muscle she could while lying down, trying to stall until the inevitable moment when she would have to rise from the warm comfort of her bed. The one thing that always brought her out of bed was knowing that minutes later, she would be sitting in a soothing, warm bath—a ritual cleansing that was not only mandatory for a shrine priestess, but was the most relaxing way to transition from the luxury of sleep to the necessary labor of the day.
Once awake enough to willingly pull herself out of the bathtub, she donned her white sashinuki trousers, white kariginu hunting robe, and then drew her long black hair into a ponytail before placing on her black eboshi hat. Sliding on her sandals with the final yawn of the morning, she walked down the hall to the kitchen to prepare her usual breakfast of porridge and tea. Assembling the dishes onto a tray, she carried her food farther down the hall and past the beaded curtain that separated her home from the office. At the very front of the building beside the front door was a small room where the front wall was half counter and half curtain—the amulet window. She set down her breakfast tray and pulled back the red curtain, getting her first breath of the fresh forest air, still a little cool with the transformation of winter to spring.
As she waited for her porridge to cool, she set out the displays of amulets and other wares the shrine had to offer: omomori amulets for protection and special fortunes, the ema plaques for wishes and prayers, magatama talismans for good fortune, incense packets for at-home worship, and the omikuji canister for fortunetelling. She noticed that there were very few omomori amulets left for successful studies, meaning that students had been scraping them up for end-of-the-year exams. For a minute, she just stared at them, shocked that she hadn't noticed before. Had circumstances been different, she would soon be graduating high school and looking toward advanced education. She thrust the omomori amulets into their display holder with a fleeting mental note to herself to make more soon. With everything set up, she was free to eat breakfast.
After cleaning the breakfast dishes, she pocketed a small pouch of salt and found a bucket in the hall closet. She filled the bucket from the garden hose and walked down the stairs to pour the water into the ablution trough, determining by the level of the water afterward that one bucket should be enough.
A man approached, and seeing the priestess, put his palms on his thighs and bowed. "I hope I am not too early."
The priestess bowed in reply. "A little. We don't open until eight. But I was just about to open everything up. You can just follow me."
"Thank you." As was tradition for any patron entering the shrine, he stepped into the ablution pavilion and used the bamboo dipper to wash his left hand, letting the water fall onto the ground beside the trough, then to wash his right hand, then poured water from the dipper into his left hand in order to slurp it up. After rinsing his mouth, he spit the water onto the ground, washed his right hand again, then let the water drip down the handle of the dipper before replacing it across the trough.
Seeing that he was finished cleansing himself, the priestess held the empty bucket in the crook of her arm as she took out the pouch and sprinkled salt onto the stone path to purify it as she walked from one end to the other. The man followed, pausing only for a moment at the gate to bow. Along the way, she would stop at each building to slide open its door and prop it with a stone engraved with the kanji writing for "good spirits", and the man patiently waited in place until she continued down the path again.
The hall of worship was the final building. The man waited at the bottom of the steps while the priestess propped open the door. Across the room at the center of the wall was a large, crystal-clear glass sliding door through which the verdant view of the Sacred Tree was visible. The priestess rejoined the man at the bottom of the steps and asked, "Would you like me to perform the full ceremony for you?"
"No, thank you," the man replied. "I'd just like to have some private prayer."
"You may proceed, then. I'll be at the shrine office if you need me."
"Thank you." Climbing the stairs, he paused at the top to toss a coin into the offertory box on the railing to his right, then reached to his left where a red and white braid of rope hung from the eave, and swung the rope to ring the bell attached.
The priestess watched as he stepped inside to stand in the middle of the room, facing the Sacred Tree. He bowed twice, clapped his hands twice, then held his palms together in front of his chest with his head bowed in prayer. The priestess turned away with a scoff and a shake of her head, taking the bucket and the pouch of salt back to where they belonged in the shrine office. When she stood at the amulet window and peered out, she saw the man walking out of the hall of worship and to the counter.
As he scrounged through his jacket pocket, coins jingling, he said, "I would like an ema plaque."
"Two hundred yen, please," the priestess said as she opened a drawer and took out a fine-point black marker.
After giving the money, the man chose a plaque with a brand of an encircled juniper burned onto it, and on the blank side, used the marker to write out a prayer. While the priestess put the marker back in the drawer, she smiled and said, "Thank you. The votive rack is across the way, between the hearth and the hall of worship." She thought he probably knew where to find it, but she knew it was courteous to guide him anyway.
She watched idly as the man crossed to the votive rack where a hundred or so ema plaques already hung, thinking of what was next in her list of chores she would continue once the man left. As he walked the path toward the gate to leave, he bowed in parting.
"Thank you," he said with a kind smile. "Have a nice day."
She bowed back with a smile and said, "You too. And thank you for visiting Emidori Mori." When he was out of sight, she heaved a sigh and left the amulet window to fetch her dust rag and broom.
She spent the remainder of the morning sweeping the floors and dusting the furniture of each of the buildings. For an hour, there was nothing but the faint shish-shish of the dusting rag and the rough shoosh-shoosh of the broom until it finally seemed too quiet. She began with humming until the words of a chant she often used came absent-mindedly out:
Peace and sweet tranquility
Nature's healing purity
Flowing through the Sacred Tree
She repeated it several times before she realized what she was saying. With a grimace, she pressed her lips together tightly as she tried to think of an alternative. The only other song that came to mind was one of idol Dash Takahashi's songs, but it had been so long since she heard it, that she couldn't remember the words. She hummed what she could, determined to drive it into a habit, but without her realizing, the melody gradually changed once again to the more familiar chant.
After completing her dusting and sweeping, she decided it was a good time to take a break for lunch. She prepared her usual bowl of soba noodles with scallions and once again ate her meal at the amulet window to make herself known in case any patrons came by. Just as she was about to leave to wash her lunch dishes, she saw three people approaching from the gate—it appeared to be a mother and her two daughters. At first, she thought it was strange that the two teenagers would be out at a shrine in the middle of a school day, then remembered that it was actually Sunday. With the greeting bows, the mother started opening her purse.
"They would both like their fortune told," she said.
"That's two hundred yen total," the priestess said, taking the omikuji canister and shaking it with a loud rattle.
The mother put the money on the counter, and each girl took the canister and shook it until a stick slid out of the small hole in the top. One girl held out hers to the priestess, declaring, "Mine is number forty-two!"
The priestess stood back and pulled out a large drawer from beneath the counter where hundreds of small slips of white paper were organized into numbered compartments. She took one from forty-two and handed it to the girl.
The girl read aloud, "A great curse…For health. Ick!" She wasted no time in tying the paper fortune to the branch of the nearest shrub. "How'd you do?" she asked her sister.
The other girl handed over her stick, the priestess took a fortune from the compartment labeled with the number eighteen, and handed it over. The girl read, "A future blessing…For learning. Ooh! I think I'll keep this in my pocket during exams!"
With a chuckle at her daughters' excitement over their fortunes, their mother addressed the priestess: "We've never visited this shrine before. What kami is housed here?"
The priestess was silent for a moment, but she summoned her hospitality to reply, "Emidori. She is housed in the juniper."
"Oh, lovely!" the mother breathed as she gazed up at the towering evergreen. "What do you think, girls?"
Both her daughters voiced their awe and joy at seeing the grand juniper tree which contained a kami.
"You see," their mother began, "both my daughters would like to become shrine maidens too, to help out after school and during festivals. May I speak with the priestess concerning this?"
The priestess clenched her fists together beneath the counter. Maintaining control in her tone, she said, "I am the priestess."
"Oh. Oh, please forgive me, I apologize. You're so young, or you look so young, that I thought you were a shrine maiden."
The clothes should have informed her otherwise. "It's alright. But I'm sorry, I am not admitting new shrine maidens at this time."
The mother, confused, scanned the area a moment and saw no other shrine workers around. "I see…Well, if you ever do, I'd like to give you our phone number so that you can call us when the time comes."
Without a word, the priestess took out a paper pen with a pencil, on which the mother wrote down her name and phone number. With that, she told her girls to follow her to the hall of worship to pay their respects before they left. As they entered the hall, the priestess stood rigid with the phone number in her hand, waiting. Finally, as the three patrons left the hall and departed through the front gate, the priestess tore up the paper and threw it into the trash bucket.
The afternoon passed with more chores—gardening, laundry, balancing accounts—and at the end of them, as the shrine came to a close at seven in the evening, she hosed off all the walkways, collected the money from the offertory box, and closed up all the buildings. With everything finished, she could relax the remainder of the night, beginning with supper—hot miso soup.
All nights were uneventful, and often short. She would either spend her time crafting items to sell at the amulet window, or would simply take her bath and go to bed early. On this night, she convinced herself to make at least ten omomori amulets to fill her low supply. She wrote out prayer cards with a calligraphy pen, then cut the appropriate size of brocade silk to fold around the card, using fabric glue to hold it all together. It was one of the few tasks around the shrine that she took pride in anymore, as she had always enjoyed arts and crafts.
After she finished the omomori amulets, she took the scrap silk to her room. On the wall opposite her bed was a single knick-knack shelf on which sat her favorite possessions: a porcelain lucky cat with one paw curled up, a photograph in a painted cypress frame, a kokeshi doll, and a book with a ribbon marker halfway through it. She had painted the kokeshi doll herself when she was ten, and ever since, she would glue leftover silk scraps to it into one grand, colorful dress. She always hated wasting the pretty fabric, and over the years, the shallow covering had evolved into a flowing gown. Taking the kokeshi doll off the shelf, she glued the latest scraps to its dress, making sure not to put the same color beside itself. When she finished and placed it back on the shelf, she chuckled with disbelief at just how long the doll's dress had become, wondering if it would ever sweep the ground.
Slipping under the covers of her bed, she laid down and stared out her window at the darkness outside—once again, she was in bed before the moon had risen high enough to pass the treetops. Nonetheless, she closed her eyes and ended her day the same way it had begun: in silence.