One of the really refreshing aspects of living in Japan is the omnipresence of Shinto shrines. Often they're small green spaces and vessels for community history, as well as religious places. It's not unusual to see business people taking a break at a nearby shrine during lunch, texting on cell phones all the while. During the day, people come and go often.
Shinto is often translated as "the way of the gods," but it's less ambiguous to translate it as "the way of the kami," and then explain kami.
Kami are difficult to explain. The word "kami" embodies a set of concepts that aren't often discussed or reverenced in Western thought. "Kami" can be loosely translated as "gods" or "spirits," but those words carry meanings that "kami" doesn't necessarily contain. The western, Juedeo-Christian concept of god implies omnipotent, omnipresent and benevolent. Kami are far from being omnipotent or omnipresent, and they're not necessarily benevolent. It's important to understand that kami are considered to inhabit this world; there's no distinct realm reserved for kami. Thus, on some level, every aspect of this world has a "kami nature;" some things simply manifest it more than others. For instance, enormous trees, the sea, and large mountains were the first things to be recognized as being kami. Basically, anything that inspired human awe came to be regarded as kami. Other natural forces, such as thunder, earthquakes, and typhoons can also be considered kami.
"Kami" are conceptually similar to "gods," but they have things in common with "spirits," as well. Because of the historical origins of Shinto, kami are also the ancestor spirits of individual clans. Also, people who achieved distinction in life can become kami upon their deaths. While in Christianity, man is regarded to be above the rest of the things of this world, Shinto makes no such distinction. People are simply another part of creation, no better or worse than everything else. Since kami inhabit this world along side human beings, they can effect human affairs.
Originally, what we now refer to as Shinto came from the animistic beliefs of the first people who inhabited Japan. One of the most important aspects of early Shinto was that it was closely intertwined with clan structure. The head of the clan, the Uji, was responsible for providing religious as well as political guidance. Shinto is renowned for being accepting of other beliefs, which spurs from these prehistoric times. When one tribe conquered another in a dispute, instead of forcing the victor's beliefs on the loser, the loser's beliefs were subsumed into the victor's.
The introduction of Buddhism to Japan had several significant effects on Shinto. Buddhism brought with it the Chinese writing system, which the Japanese quickly adapted to notate their own spoken language. This granted the opportunity for Japanese scholars to record the oral histories and myths passed down in Shinto. The Kojiki and the Nihon-gi (collectively called the Shinten), the first significant texts dealing with Shinto, were written in the 8th century. They are a mix of history, myth and Shinto beliefs, but they only loosely codified Shinto; it continued to have many of the attributes of a folk belief. As is often the case, the creation of this record served a political purpose as well; it firmly established the emperor as the direct descendant of Amaterasu, the sun goddess.
Since Shinto has a tenancy to accept other beliefs, Buddhism and Shinto became incredibly intertwined. Bodhisattva were worshiped as kami and vice versa.
The Meiji era (1868-1912) brought significant changes to in social and political spheres, but it also signaled major changes for the country in terms of religion. Shinto was retooled into a state religion that provided theological justification for the new role of the Emperor. It's worth nothing that for years, the Emperor was a symbol which validated the rule of a succession of Shogunates; he had no real power. It's a well known fact that Shinto has played a major role in modern nationalism, both before and after World War One of Shinto's precepts is that the Japanese people are the children of the gods and are therefore superior to the other peoples of the earth. This lends itself to nationalism easily.
During the Allied occupation of Japan after World War II, the emperor was forced to publicly renounce his divinity. The separation of the religious and the secular was stipulated in the American written constitution. Thus Shinto lost a lot of its former strength and importance.
What is the structure of a Shrine? >>Find Shrines
The main part of the shrine, where the kami is actually enshrined, is called the Honden. Only Shinto priests are allowed to enter the Honden. The Haiden is where ordinary people worship. In front of the Haiden, there's usually a saisenbako, the large box where you through money before praying. The sound of money being thrown into the saisenbako is thought to attract the attention of the kami.
Most likely, the first part of the Shrine that you'll see is the Torii gate. They have two supporting columns and two cross bars. Though they're called gates, torii don't actually have doors. Thus, the shrine is always open for worshipers to pray. They serve an important purpose; they're the boarder between the impure world outside the shrine and the pure world within. Torii gates came into use during the Meiji era when the Meiji government was trying to disambiguate the differences between Shinto and Buddhism. They're a very obvious visual clue that the religious building is a shrine instead of a Buddhist temple. <> Shimenawa: You're likely to see a shimenawa as soon bras you walk into a shrine. These thick twists of rope are also important in denoting the boundaries between sacred and secular; pure and poluted. More often than not, they have little streamers of paper called “shide” hanging from them. Komainu: Also very characteristics of shrines, there's usually a pair of komainu guarding the Haiden. Komainu are carved in different styles that vary greatly from shrine to shrine. Some have ferocious expressions while others look extremely benevolent. If you're interested in art or sculpture, they're definitely worth a look.
The Japanese word for fox is kitsune. Shrines that have kitsune statues instead of Komainu, are dedicated to Inari, the kami of good harvests and rice. Kitsune are thought to be his messengers. There's a long and interesting history of kitsune lore in Japanese history. If you decide to pray at one of these shrines, you'll want to get in good with Inari's messenger, right? Kitsune are supposed to like Abura-age, or fried tofu, so you'll often see it left as an offering at Inari shrines. This, by the way, is how kitsune udon and kitsune soba got their names.
If you want to try praying at a shrine, here's the basic formula.
First, before you leave your house, take a bath. Cleanliness is an important facet of Shinto.
When you arrive at the shrine, bow briefly at the outer torii gate.
Then, you'll need to purify yourself at the chozusha. This is one of the most important parts of praying in Shinto. Chozusha are easy to recognize. They're usually just a large basin of water. You'll find several ladles, called hishaku, at the chozusha. Take one of the ladles, and fill it with water. First pour water over your left hand, then over your right hand. Then, cup your left hand and fill it with water. Use the water in your hand to rinse your mouth. After that, just put the ladle back where you found it.
When you've finished purifying yourself, head to the haiden to pray. If there's a rope, pull on it a few times to ring the bell. This lets the kami know that you're there.
After you ring the bell, bow deeply to the kami; it's another form of greeting as well as a sign of respect.
Directly in front of the the shrine, you'll see a large wooden box with slats covering the top (Saisen Bako). Toss a few coins into it. This is a money offering to the kami. Putting money in the box also makes another loud noise and works to further attract the attention of the kami. Bow twice, and clap twice. Then, you can pray to the kami. Bow again before you leave.
Different kami have different strengths. One may be able to help you with financial matters while another one might be better with marital problems. There are also kami of safe childbirth, success in examinations, good health, business, and so on. Therefore, because each kami is good at something different, make sure to pray for something relevant at the shrine you visit.
At larger shrines, you'll see a small kiosk selling omamori, ema, omikuji and other things. Omamori are small envelope shaped amulets that help you with certain problems. There are Omamori for help in romantic matters, help in school, help with health, and so on. They usually cost about 500 yen, though some can cost more. Some people carry them in their wallets or handbags, but you can also put them in a safe place at home.
Ema are small flat pieces of wood on which you can write your prayers. Some have pictures of animals printed on them. There's usually a wall with pegs where you can leave your ema.
After praying at the haiden, many people buy omikuji, which are small fortune telling slips. They have succinct fortunes written on them. (refer to the chart). After you examine your fortune, you'll see a place where lots of the little papers have been tied. Sometimes it's a wooden frame with verticle wires inside, but sometimes the papers are tied to the branches of trees. If your omikuji brought good news, tyeing it there will help it come true. If however, the fates don't seem to be on your side, tying your fortune will help keep it from coming true.
Most Japanese visit a shrine on New Year's Day to pray for good fortune in the coming year. There are a few shrines that are famous for the crowds they attract on New Year's Day. They include Meiji Jingu (Shibuya, Tokyo), Kawasaki Daishi (Kawasaki, Kanagawa) and Tsuruoka-Hachimangu (Kamakura, Kanagawa). Note that if you visit one of these shrines on January 1st, 2nd, or 3rd, you'll find them incredibly crowded. During the New Year's season, there are many mobile food stalls where you can have okonomiyaki, yakisoba, takoyaki, sake and other fair foods.
Each shrine has an annual celebration, called Reisai (例祭), which is the most important festival at that shrine. The day of the festival is usually either the birthday of the kami in the shrine or the anniversary of the kami's death. During the Reisai festival, all the people associated with the shrine dress in formal clothing and worship solemnly. At the same time, the shrine is decorated with lanterns, there are dances and small mobile food stalls. The juxtaposition of lively atmosphere with solemn worship is famous, and mystifies most foreigners.
Japan takes a very unique view of religion, or at least, religion manifests itself uniquely in Japan. It's a view that most outsiders call apathetic. Most younger Japanese celebrate Christmas, go to a temple to year the year-crossing bell on New Year's Eve, and visit a shrine on New Year's Day. Most have their wedding ceremony in a church, while their funerals are held at temples. Part of this owes to the history of the interaction between Shinto and Buddhism.
Since Buddhism was transmitted to Japan in the fifth century, Japanese have worshiped both Buddha and kami. This phenomenon has been called the synchronization of Shinto and Buddhism (Shinbutu syugo "神仏習合"). Monks who came to Japan taught that Buddha and kami were very similar. As a result, Buddhism and Sinto were fused together. In 1868, the Meiji government enacted a policy called Shinbutsu bunri, which demanded the separation of Shinto and Buddhism. It was impossible to truly separate them, though. So to this day, some shrines and temples still have the other's religious facility as well. Although non-Japanese might not be able to understand the subtle nature of Japanese religious thought, this is also a part of Japanese traditional culture.