Thursday, July 14, 2011

In Search of Spirituality : Shintoism

When we moved to Japan last year, one common question which most people would ask us was “Do you follow any religion? ”. That triggered a question in my mind, what religion do the Japanese follow?

I discussed this with a few of my Japanese friends and the answer was unanimous. I am not religious”. It came as a surprise to me when they added, “I sometimes go to a shrine or a temple on special occasions” or “My parents believe in Buddhism and Shintoism”.This led to a detailed discussion on the religious beliefs of Japanese. Here is what my friends had to say. While most Japanese people do not follow a single religion, it is common to see the Japanese follow customs which have their roots in Buddhism or Shintoism. In fact this has led to the emergence of a complex religious system which incorporates the essence of both Buddhism and Shintoism. Even though people do not call themselves followers of a particular religion, it is common to see them observe rituals associated with festivals such as visiting a particular shrine, celebrating special ceremonies etc. One interesting fact that I have learned is that events related to a person’s life are usually marked by visiting a Shinto shrine while those after a person’s death are usually performed in the Buddhist way.  For instance, a new born baby is taken to a Shinto shrine when it is a month old. Similarly weddings are solemnized by Shinto priest (and followed up with a western style party “white wedding” in the evening). Also people visit a shrine around New Year’s Day or when children turn 3-5-7 years old ( My earlier post on Shichi Go San has more details)  and other special occasions. However funerals are usually performed in the Buddhist way and death anniversaries are also marked by Buddhist rituals. Interesting isn’t it?

I was aware that Buddhism had once been a widely followed religion in Japan. Since Buddhism has its roots in India, this was a religion about which I knew few things. I had heard about a unique religion called Shintoism which was followed in Japan. But I had no idea what were the customs, practices or rules of this unique religion. Being in Japan gave me the opportunity to learn more about this religion, see the religious places, understand the customs and beliefs and connect with yet another religion.

Shinto is Japan’s indigenuous religion with very few followers outside of Japan. It is also referred to as “the religion of Japan” since Japan’s customs and culture are inseparable from Shinto customs. The name Shinto means “the way of the Gods” and is believed to have originated in the prehistoric times. This is why perhaps the nature and its various forms are objects of worship.

Shinto religion does not have a sacred text like Christianity’s Bible. Shinto beliefs are listed down in various books, chronicles and folklore.

The essence of the Shinto faith is “Kami”. Though a direct explanation of what comprises Kami is difficult, it can be said to be “spiritual essence”. There is no single spirit or Kami. It is a collective term and each and everything is assumed to have a kami or spirit. Places are designated for worshipping the Kami. The Shinto place of worship is referred to as a Shrine (Buddhist place of worship is referred to as a Temple). Shrines are regarded as the dwelling place of the Sun Goddess. Though each shrine has a specific kami, at times the shrines are dedicated to Emperors and Empresses. For instance, the Heian Jingu Shrine at Kyoto is dedicated to Emperors Kanmu and Komei.

Similarly the Osaki Hachimangu shrine near Sendai is dedicated to Emperor Ojin, Emperor Chuai and Empress Jingu.

Similarly one of Tokyo’s most visited shrines, Meiji Shrine is dedicated to Emperor Meiji. The Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo is dedicated to the Japan’s soldiers who died in war.

 Shrines are usually located near mountains, trees, rocks, rivers etc true to the association with nature. Most often, huge trees marked with special ropes called “Shimenawa” and strips of paper called “Gohei” can be seen near Shrine.

 In old days, even some rocks and trees marked in this manner were considered as places of praying in the absence of a shrine.

Animals are generally regarded as messengers of various Kami. For instance the Deer is regarded as a heavenly messengers sent to protect the heritage city of Nara and the freely roaming deer of Nara are supposed to be under the patronage of the Kasuga Taisha Shrine in the city.

Shinto shrines usually have a big Torii, traditionally wooden but nowadays concrete or stone, gates marking the entrance.

Most often these Torii are red in colour.

 In some shrines like the Fushimi Inari shrine near Kyoto, entire hill is covered with Torii.

Worshippers also dedicate smaller wooden replicas of Torii at shrines in gratitude , like at the Inari shrine at Fushimi.


At the beginning of the shrine grounds is a small structure called “Chozuya” where worshippers come to cleanse themselves.

 Worshippers use Bamboo ladles to collect some of the flowing water to rinse their mouth and hands before proceeding to the main hall to play.

The style of the Chozuya also varies from shrine to shrine.

 Sometimes the Chozuya is shaped like a dragon, sometimes like a mazework of bamboo and so on.

Shrine buildings are mostly wooden structures and usually strictly adhere to old architecture. Shrines usually have thatched roofs. Most often the shrines are referred to as “Jinja”. Shrine designs vary from place to place as can be seen in the pictures below. 








At the entrance to Shinto shrine precincts are usually some guardian animal images in stone. At Inari shrines, usually the animal is a fox known in Japanese as “Kitsune” who is considered as a messenger of the Inari god and are said to symbolize fertility.

These animal guardians are usually found in pairs one male (with its mouth open) while the other female (with its mouth shut). At times these are adorned with a red bib like cloth around their neck.


The inner prayer hall is the main hall known as “Honden”. This is the innermost of the precinct and usually only the priests can enter it. Worshippers may be allowed to enter it only on rare special occasions. The Honden houses the symbol of the enshrined Kami and there are no idols or images. Enshrined in the innermost sanctuary are usually a bronze mirror, a sword and a jewel which are usually not visible to the layman. 


Other halls in the shrine include “Haiden” – a public worship hall which is usually located at the rear of the ground. An additional hall called “Heiden” is also present and is known as hall of offerings.

A rope with a bell called “Suzu” is hung on the front porch. This is rung by worshippers to attract the attention of the Kami towards their prayers. This is similar to the Hindu tradition of ringing bells when they enter a temple to pray!


Near the porch a collection box called “Saisen-bako” is placed so that worshippers can throw money as offering. Again this is similar to the Hindu tradition of putting money in a collection box called “Hundi”.  

At some places like the Izumo Taisha shrines, huge ropes called “Shimenawa” made of rice straw are hung at the entrance to the main temples.

These ropes are said to weigh upto 6 tons! Coins thrown to determine one’s fortune can be seen sticking out of the bottom of the “Shimenawa” at some shrines. Small versions are seen at other Shinto shrines. At some places paper folded to look like thunderbolt can also be seen. It would be interesting to note that the Japanese word for paper is also “Kami”, though the Kanji character for “Kami” as in spirit  and as in paper are different.


It is common to see stone lanterns on the shrine grounds.



These lanterns are usually donated by worshippers. The Kasuga Taisha shrine at Nara has a pathway lined by stone lanterns.

This shrine is famous for the various kinds of lanterns that are donated by worshippers and these can be seen in the shrine complex.



Some shrines are visited for specific reasons like success in Business, safe delivery, safe voyage etc. Shrines are also places where wedding rituals are performed. I am not touching the subject of Japanese weddings now as I will write about it in a separate post .

Shinto rituals are performed by priests whose main duty is to perform purification rituals and blessing rituals. Priests wear traditional robes, mostly made of silk.

 Special ceremonies require the priests to wear elaborate ceremonial robes. They carry “Haraigushi”- pom poms made of sacred “sakaki” wood and paper or silk, which they shake as a part of the purification ritual.

 In Japan, it is common to have purification ceremonies before the starting of a new business, construction of a new building, purchase of a new car etc. 

These rituals are also performed by Shinto priests.

Shinto priests are assisted in their duties by female shrine attendants called “Miko-san”. These attendants are usually virgins and similar to “Nuns”. 

They usually dress in a white and orange robe and at some shrines they can be seen wearing hair ornaments. 

They clean the shrine, make offerings, manage the shrine office and souvenir store and also perform ceremonial dances.

At wedding ceremonies also “miko-san”can be seen assisting the priest with various rituals.


Each Shinto shrine has a festival referred to as the Shrine’s “Matsuri”. These festivals are held to honour, entertain and thank the Kami usually for a good harvest. The timings when the festivals are held vary from shrine to shrine. One such famous Matsuri is Kyoto’s Gion Matsuri which is held at the Yasaka Jinja Shrine in Kyoto's Gion district.


Many a times as part of the “Matsuri”, portable shrines called “Mikoshi” are carried by a group of worshippers in a procession.

This is also very similar to the "palanquin festivals" which are held in India's hindu temples. Many times, the shrines are located on hill tops and the Mikoshi is carried downhill to a nearby sea or river.




The following pictures shows old ceremonial Mikoshi’s kept on display at Kamakura’s Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine.

At some shrines like the Osaki Hachimangu shrine in Sendai, there are ceremonial bonfires during New Year celebrations. Worshippers dance around the bonfire in the belief that dancing close to the fire purifies their mind and body and they will be blessed with good health in the year ahead.

Shinto shrines also have a designated place on the shrine grounds for hanging small wooden plaques or charms called “Ema”.


A typical Ema has a picture on one side and the other side is left blank for people to write their wishes. 


These Ema are tied at the shrine in the hope that the desires are fulfilled. The picture on the Ema differs according to the shrine and sometimes also according to the desire.For instance picture of arrows indicate request for passing in examination, while a couple indicates praying for a happy married life or love.
 At Fushimi Inari shrine, the Ema also resemble the shape of a Kitsune's face.


 Previous years Charms are tossed in a ceremonial fire during New Year purification ceremonies.

There is also a place designated for tying the “ Omikuji” – a piece of paper on which fortune is written.

 This paper is selected from a box by shaking a bamboo stick and it reveals a fortune reading for the year ahead. Fortunes are classified as “Dai-kichi”- Great Good fortune, “Kichi”- good fortune, “Sho-kichi”- moderate good fortune and “Kyo” -bad fortune.

People usually tie a bad fortune slip at the shrine, while keeping a good fortune with themselves.   

In some places there is an additional structure where lanterns are hung.


Wooden pedestals for stacking offerings from worshippers can be seen on most shrine grounds.

Offerings are usually related to Japan’s staple crop rice.

 A common offering that can be seen at most shrines is containers and crates of “Sake ”- Japanese rice wine.

It is interesting to observe the way in which worshippers pray at a Shinto Shrine.
  1. People rinse their hands using the bamboo ladle at the “Chozuya”. Then they pour water into a cupped hand and rinse their mouth.
  1. Stopping in front of the shrine, worshippers usually toss a coin into the donation box.
  1. They then ring a bell to announce their arrival to the kami, bow deeply twice, clap loudly twice, bow again and then hold their head down and pray silently. Then they bow again and take a step behind before leaving.
An interesting thing about a Shrine visit is that traditionally the entire family visits the shrine together. Seldom will you see a person visiting a shrine alone. Maybe this is the reason why people visit a Shrine only on special occasions or to pray for a particular favour.   

People sometimes also place a small wooden shrine at home.

These are called “Kamidana” and serve as a place to pray in daily life. They are also regarded as protectors against evil spirits and natural disasters. Some people also place pictures of their deceased family members near these shrines. Sake bottles also find a place in the Kamidana. 


Today's write up is the result of the various things I learnt about Shinto from our travels in Japan. Each time we visited a shrine or attended some cultural event, I had lot of questions in mind. While few things would remind me of similar customs in other religions in India or elsewhere, few others would be a first time experience. There are many more interesting customs, some of which I have barely touched upon in this post. I definitely intend to follow up with more posts on Japanese customs and culture in the days to come.  


Till then Mata Ne !

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