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Japanese Shinto Shrines

In Japan some groves of trees, rocks and mountains, bodies of water, and beautiful gardens are considered sacred spaces. Beautiful natural places and human-made gardens are spaces that differ from the everyday world. Tall trees seem to reach up to the heavens and connect the sky to the earth. Nature constantly regenerates itself, and restoring powers are passed on to humans too, because we are also part of nature. People in Japan enter natural environments to feel peace, tranquility and be close to nature. Among nature, people can also think about forces and powers that are larger than themselves. These experiences make people feel unified with the creative powers of the universe. Such thoughts and feelings are the heart of Shinto philosophy. In Japan today, Shinto is reflected in the way people behave and what they value.


The sacred space at a Shinto shrine in Kyoto consists of a large tree and special rock. This holy spot is protected by two guardian dogs or foxes. photo and © V.Z. Rivers


Shinto is an ancient Japanese religion dating to at least 500 BC. When Buddhism arrived in Japan around 800 AD, it was accepted along with Shinto. The name Shinto came from the Chinese language for "the way of the gods", because in Shinto all gods and religions are honored. Shinto is about living in harmony with nature and all things, because nature, humans, and all living creatures are sacred. It is believed that all creations are descended from the Shinto gods or deities called kami. Therefore, ancestors are deeply respected as kami, too.

Kami is the Shinto name for a spirit, deity or mysterious power. The primary kami of the Shinto religion is the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu. She showed people how to make food, clothing and shelter. Other kami include the spirits of natural objects like rocks, streams, rivers, mountains; guardian figures of villages and families; and elements of nature such as sunlight, dark, light and rain. Ancient kami were connected with agriculture and harvests.

People of Shinto faith worship at shrines, but not all shrines are built. Some are natural places. Whether built by humans or created by nature, the Shinto "shrine" is a god house. Whether in roadside shrines, family shrines, or large public shrines, kami are there to protect and nurture. Each Shinto shrine is dedicated to a specific kami, and each kami has its own character.


At the Kamigamu Shrine in Kyoto, monks create perfect cones of white sand each day to purify the sacred grounds. photo and © V.Z. Rivers


Before entering a Shinto shrine, a person walks through a special gateway called a torii. The torii is a gateway to the gods or kami. It separates the ordinary space outside from the sacred space inside. Near the gate are usually found a pair of guardian animals, like foxes or dogs. In Shinto, animals are believed to be messengers of the gods. Once inside, the sacred areas are marked with white sand or gravel. Worshippers wash their hands and rinse out their mouths before worshipping, because cleanliness shows respect for the kami. This cleansing is called misogi. Cleanliness is very important. Tranquility, purity and sincerity are also favored by the kami.


A torii gate at Kyomizudua shrine, Kyoto. photo and © V.Z. Rivers



This sacred space of a Shinto altar is marked by the shimenawaor sacred straw rope and shide,or folded paper strips. photo and © V.Z. Rivers


A Shinto shrine is made of special wood. The architectural features that support the building also are its decoration. Shinto shrines are kept very clean and are periodically rebuilt, to keep them pure. The altar is separated by a sacred rope made of twisted fresh straw. It is called the shimenawa.It marks the presence of god or the boundary of a sacred area. The shimenawais tied with strips of folded paper, called shide.The folded paper shidemeans "paper of the spirits". (1) Bunches of rice are also hung from the rope. People approach the altar and clap their hands to let the kami know they are there. They say their prayers and are purified by having approached the shrine and kami.

Sometimes, people write their prayers on a slip of paper and tie them to a tree or tree form. People can also purchase small wooden boards upon which to write their wishes. When people get married or apply for admission into a university, these are times people might leave such a prayer. The paper or wood board prayers are left outside, so the wind carries the wishes out into the world.


Prayer boards at the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, photo and © V.Z. Rivers



Paper prayers tied on a bush form, Kyoto, photo and © V.Z. Rivers


The most sacred Shinto shrine is the Great Ise Shrine, located just off the coast of eastern Japan. It is two rocks tied with a shimenawa and hug with shide. The shrine is dedicated to Amaterasu, the sun goddess. You can see pictures of many Shinto shrines by visiting http://www.kiku.com/electric_samurai/cyber_shrine/index.html


A shrine for children at Ueno park in Tokyo, photo and © V.Z. Rivers



Inside the Kyomizu-dera Shrine, Kyoto with ancestral tablets to the left and main altar to the right. photo and © V.Z. Rivers


For the definition of Shinto terms and excellent photos:

For an explanation of Shinto:
www.trincoll.edu/Zines/tj/tjy.4.96/articles/cover.html (This site is also available through Yahoo.com, click on Society and Culture, then click on Religion and Spirituality, then Faiths and Practices, then click on Shinto.)

The Jinja Shinto:

A Shinto shrine and other historic construction:
http://www.shudo-u.ac.jp/miyajima/en/eshrine.html (is a subfolder of this Web site: Hiroshima Shudo University)

A site for children called the Yashiro Shinto shrine (no photo):
http://www.ino.org/english/yasiro/yasiro.html and includes a link to the Museum of Paper at:
http://www.hiroshima -cdas.or.jp/miyajima/english/jinja/noshock.htm

Peter Metevelis, "Shinto Shrines or Shinto Temples?", Asian Folklore, v. 53, n 2 (Oct, 1994) : 337 (9 pages).

End Notes:
1. http://www.religioustolerance.org/search.htm