Meet The Male Host-Turned-Shinto Priest On A Mission To Spread Japanese Culture

Akihiko Tamaki talks spirituality, travel, and his unexpected past career.

By Joan Chung

14 November 2019

“I never thought I’d be in Hokkaido interviewing a priest,” says Journy co-founder Leiti Hsu. And yet, she recently found herself, along with the team at @todining, in the company of Akihiko Tamaki, a 43-year old Shinto priest residing in Niseko. A town on Japan’s northern Hokkaido Island, Niseko is nestled near the dormant volcano of Mt. Yotei, and also serves as a popular winter sports destination (in fact, Tamaki even designed a ‘good luck’ sticker, doubling as both safety prayer and souvenir, for Niseko’s skiers and snowboarders). With the help of translators, Hsu was able to get Tamaki’s thoughts on spirituality, travel, and his desire to spread Japanese culture far and wide.

Growing up, Tamaki never thought about becoming a priest. He actually— paradoxically—wanted to be a scientist, because he was “curious about everything,” and science was “the research about things unknown.” His penchant for curiosity initially led him into a job as a professional male host at nightclubs in Tokyo. He was in high school, and his peers influenced him with the promise of an easy job and good money.

“Normally,” Tamaki says, “you invite a girl to date, and you have to pay, but this job promised the opposite. The girls invite you, and you just have to talk, and they pay for you. It’s almost like—how is this a job?” He started with a mentality of, “Oh, let me see what it is about,” and then found himself working almost every day, from 6pm to the early hours of the morning. “Always drinking, drinking, drinking, drinking, six times, seven times a week,” he says.

It was a popular custom for hosts to look as dark as possible, and so he often went to a salon to get an artificial tan. However, one day after work, he stepped out after a tanning session to a sunny day around him and thought, “What the fuck am I doing? If I can have a normal life, like the normal sunshine, why am I going to this salon?” And so, he quit his job as a male host, compiled his savings, and set off to travel the world.

After visiting more than 40 countries, Tamaki realized he didn't really know anything about Japanese culture. Traveling and experiencing other cultures made him more curious about his own, and so he decided to be a kannushi when he came back to Japan. Widely regarded as an embodiment of Japanese culture, a kannushi is a person responsible for the maintenance of a Shinto shrine and for leading worship. He realized that, through this work, he could start to answer his own question: “What can we do to better translate Japanese culture to both foreigners and visitors, and also maybe even locals and Japanese people who don’t know about their own culture?”

As a kannushi, Tamaki clears the snow (Hokkaido is known for having the best powder snow in the world), manages the shrine’s festivals, blesses land before construction, and overall, makes the atmosphere as open and welcoming as possible. His take on hospitality is rooted in his desire to reflect the god in the atmosphere to the shrine’s visitors.

Akihiko Tamaki

“God is there, and so it’s my job to make this atmosphere...we have god in everything, right? In the air, in the water. In everything...you’re living for the community, for everybody,” he says.

Tamaki actively leads initiatives and projects to get more people interested in and involved with the shrine. He grows organic mushrooms and vegetables so that people can come and “enjoy the bounties of nature the farmers bring from the earth.” The shrine also put on a showcase that involved 3-D sounds at the MUTEK festival in Tokyo, an international organization dedicated to the promotion of electronic music and the digital arts. The shrine is also working on a cafe idea, through which people can take a pause on “the world’s biggest snowy road, sit down, and ask questions like, ‘What are the kami (spirits) in Japan? What are the gods? What do they mean?’”

Because other cafes might not be such an inviting space to hold these kinds of conversations, Tamaki wants to open a place for people to visit, worship, rest, and communicate with one another. While Shinto shrines traditionally are very ritualistic and conservative, Tamaki believes that the shrine’s distinctive efforts, based on an understanding of the secular world, will effectively reach many people.

His atypical path towards the Shinto shrine has curved through unique careers and many far-flung countries, and travel is something that is still important to him. The next destination on his list? Cuba—and he would like to continue to explore countries in Africa, too (the last time he visited Tanzania, he climbed to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, and then with a little grinder, made himself Kilimanjaro coffee and enjoyed the view). When asked what his favorite country is, he says, “So, there are so many good things about each country, but they’re all different. For myself, I like sushi, I like tempura, and I also like steak, and if you ask me what my favorite food is, it’s going to be the one I’m thinking of and want to have right now. I think the same way about countries and places to visit.”

When looking forward into the future, Tamaki wants to make sure that he is “someone who’s doing things the right way, making the right choices.” He quotes Abraham Lincoln, saying, “Once you’re over 40, you’re responsible for your own face. All the experiences you’ve had, all the decisions you’ve made, it all catches up with you eventually. If one’s making bad choices, doing things the wrong way, you’ll be able to see that within people.” A firm believer in the law of attraction, Tamaki adds, “If you’re being super-negative and giving negative energy out, that’s what’s going to come into your life and be attracted to you. If you’re being positive, then positive things are going to happen to you.”

If you find yourself in Niseko, be sure to pop by Tamaki’s recommendations: Hanayoshi for the best sushi, Toshiro’s Bar for a cocktail, and Acorn for modern Japanese cuisine. However, you will not find him at the popular spot Tsubara Tsubara, because in his words—“fuck soup curry.”

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Akihiko Tamaki