Taoiseach out on his feet for sake of nation after a long flight

A five-hour delay did not stop Taoiseach Enda Kenny seeing the spiritual side of Japan

The Taoiseach accepts a ceremonial drink of sake during his visit to the Meiji shrine in Tokyo. Photograph: Marai

The Taoiseach accepts a ceremonial drink of sake during his visit to the Meiji shrine in Tokyo. Photograph: Marai


With the guiding hand of an old emperor making sure not a drop was spilled, the Shinto priest poured sake for the Taoiseach. Nothing like a swig of sake to counteract the jetlag . . .

It was the least Enda could expect – some divine intervention at the start of his trip to Japan.

His overnight flight had been delayed for five hours in Amsterdam, so he and his bleary-eyed entourage had to go straight from the airport to the Meiji shrine in central Tokyo. There wasn’t even time for a shower – never mind a change of clothes. It’s a long flight.

We dreaded the moment they would enter the Hall of Sacred Music and Dance and have to take off their shoes.

But with the help of the deities and the benefit of a business class passage, Ireland’s blushes were spared.

The Taoiseach does rumpled dignity well.

Enlightened Rule
He refused the option to cancel his visit to the shrine, which is dedicated to the divine soul of Emperor Meiji, a reforming emperor who at the turn of the 19th century encouraged the old insular Japan to open up to the world. It was the reign of Enlightened Rule.

Was this the reason Enda chose to visit? Not quite, even if his Tánaiste was singing from the Enlightened Rule hymn sheet all weekend in Killarney.

The five-day schedule is packed with meetings, all designed with an eye to drumming up as much business as possible between Japan and Ireland. Yesterday’s stop at the shrine was the only bit of culture he’s going to get.

That’s unless he ends up in a sing-song tonight with US vice-president Joe Biden who is beginning an official visit here today and is booked into same hotel. Joe goes misty-eyed at the mere mention of his Irish roots. They have no official plans to meet, but we wouldn’t bet against a blasht of Moonlight in Mayo ringing around the rarefied confines of the Okura Hotel this evening.

And what with Northern Ireland’s Chuckle Brothers also in the city on a trade mission – Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness are on a similar scouting mission with Invest NI – it will be like St Patrick’s Day on Capitol Hill, but without the corned beef and cabbage.

Speaking of which, Enda travelled along Omotesando Avenue – The Path to the Shrine – on his way to Meiji Jinju. This is the most fashionable and expensive shopping street in Tokyo and it’s closed for a day every year for the St Patrick’s Day parade, with Irish flags flying all the way down the avenue.

Curious worshippers
Maybe that’s why the curious Japanese worshippers who whipped out their camera phones to take Enda’s photograph seemed genuinely delighted when told he was the Prime Minister of Ireland.

The shrine is set in the centre of a large forest – the last thing you would expect to find slap bang in the middle of one of the world’s most populous cities. It has more than 100,000 trees and they look like they have been there forever, though the oldest are only 93 years old. They were planted individually by people from all over Japan in tribute to Emperor Meiji after his death.

A few minutes’ drive from the noise and you step into a tranquil world of birdsong and contemplation, the scent of pine needles filling the air.

It’s a favourite place for weddings. Officials clear a special path for couples and their guests as they make their way to the ceremonies.

It was harvest festival yesterday. Children carried sheaves of rice stalks wrapped in paper.

In the large courtyard in front of the shrine people attach handwritten prayer requests on little wooden boards to a special stand.

The most sacred area is railed off. Inside is a huge ceremonial drum, like a large barrel on its side. There are doors with enormous, ornate hinges. Steps, with copper detailing on each riser, lead we knew not where.

But the spirits reside in the stillness of that space. People look through the rail and bow twice, clap their hands twice and bow twice again.

Enda was greeted by the deputy chief priest, Miyazaki Shigehiro. In the gathering twilight, he was guided in a procession around and inside the shrine, taking part in a “purification” ceremony in which a priest poured water over his hands. Then, to loud drumming, the Taoiseach was given a branch from the sacred tamagushi tree. He placed it on a wooden table. The drum sounded again.

“This forest was created by the heart of the people of Japan,” said Shigehiro.

“Thank you for visiting our shrine. I think you must be very tired. We are honoured to receive you here today . . . the spirits and the emperor will be watching over you when you’re here and protecting you and Ireland.”

After taking off their shoes, the delegation watched a short performance of traditional Shinto dance and music.

Rice wine
Enda was presented with a flask of sake. But not before he had been given a taste. The priest poured with pride: the emperor himself was fond of a drop and he would have served his rice wine from such a flask.

The Taoiseach raised the little dish to his lips and drank.

The priest looked on, anxiously.

Enda took a generous swig.

And he laughed: “More!”

But he didn’t. Just as well.

He looked absolutely out on his feet. Another snifter and he would have keeled over.

“Strength of the gods,” said the priest.

“A bit like sloe wine,” said Enda afterwards. He’ll probably bring some home with him.

But the question is: who will the Taoiseach give the sake to?

He refused to be drawn on his impending reshuffle.

Will he give the sake to Ruairi Quinn? Or will Pat Rabbitte get it?

By the way, the Taoiseach may have had a gruelling trip, but the hacks in steerage fared even worse.

Their luggage is in Shanghai.