The cutest Shinto priest you’ll ever see is in Kanagawa.
A relatively unknown Shinto shrine in Kanagawa Prefecture has suddenly become faamous due to its “substitute Chief Priest” having the head of a panda.
Located in the Kanagawa city of Ebina Aruka Shrine (有鹿神社, aruka jinja) is a somewhat out-of-the-way shrine that despite being Kanagawa’s oldest shrine – records indicate it dates all the way back to at least Japan’s Asuka period (538-710) – was until not too long ago almost completely unknown to most people in Japan. However, recently this all changed when pictures of the shrine’s “panda priest” started spreading via Twitter.
— ボンバー@埼玉のレディース狩り (@bomberuneune) July 23, 2017
The online panda priest frenzy seems to have begun in earnest in late July when Twitter user @bomberuneune tweeted out the above set of pictures featuring an Aruka Shrine priest who aside from wearing the traditional attire of a Shinto priest is also wearing an adorable panda mask that covers the priest’s entire head. In a little over a week this tweet managed to get retweeted almost 100,000 times and of course, also got people talking. While many expressed their delight at seeing this cute priest, others wondered why the priest was wearing a panda mask and not a deer mask. This question is due to the name of the shrine having the kanji character for deer (鹿) as the second character in its name. In order to find this out the Japanese website NetLab did an interview with Miwako Kojima, a lower-ranked priest (negi) at Aruka Shrine who is not only the person wearing the mask in the pictures but also the daughter of the shrine’s chief priest.
— えくす@アニマルマスク同好会 (@husky_0633) July 25, 2017
According to Kojima, the panda priest was born in late June when a Kanagawa television channel noticed the shrine’s Twitter account (@arukajinja), which since about late May had been tweeting out cute pictures and videos featuring a panda puppet introducing different parts of the shrine as part of an effort to liven up the shrine’s somewhat serious and stiff Twitter feed. The channel expressed their desire to do a report on the shrine and so in preparation for the shoot a television crew and the staff of Aruka Shrine held a meeting. At this meeting the production staff realized that the panda in the pictures was not a real person in a panda costume but rather a small panda puppet. This revelation left the production team very disappointed, however, Kojima, who saw this as a great opportunity for more people to learn about Aruka Shrine, acted quickly and told the crew that she would acquire a panda mask by the day of the shoot. Kojima was true to her word and with that the “panda priest” was born.
Check out a video of the panda puppet showing off Aruka Shrine’s omikoshi (portable shrine used during festivals).
— 有鹿神社 @栃尾揚げ党 (@arukajinja) July 30, 2017
As for why they chose a panda and not a deer, Kojima explained that this had to do with her father, who is the chief priest of Aruka Shrine. According to Kojima, her father looks a lot like a panda and so because of this she gave him the nickname “Chief Priest Panda.” Using this as her inspiration she settled on a panda puppet since she thought the puppet’s cute appearance would be a great way of showing people that Aruka Shrine has a “caring and kind heart.”
— 七竜 (@Nanadragon4) July 31, 2017
The official backstory of the panda priest, called panda gūji in Japanese, is that it serves as the Chieft Priest when Kojima’s father is not at the shrine. Although all of this may seem a bit strange and perhaps even disrespectful, Kojima explains that it is not. To begin with, she does not wear the panda head during religious rituals. Furthermore, in Shinto there is a tradition of entertaining the gods through various events including ones where people put on mask s and dance to ancient Shinto music.
Check out the video below to see Chief Priest Panda dancing to some Shinto music.
— nolico (@TakatohN) July 29, 2017
Kojima also expressed her gratitude to all the kind people that have helped spread the word about Aruka Shrine. She noted that recently people have even started showing up at the shrine specifically asking for Chieft Priest Panda. Lastly, she mentioned that even though the panda priest may not always be at the shrine, visitors to Aruka Shrine should make sure to look for the hidden panda in one of the shrine’s lanterns.
— なおき (@naoki_goshuin) August 1, 2017