Filled with an aura of the sacred, Shinto shrines act as resting places and spiritual homes for the local gods (kami). Shrines need not be buildings, but can manifest in stones, trees, or mountains. There are more than 100,000 Shinto Shrines in Japan, and nearly every neighbourhood has their one; community members will often go to the shrine to pay their respects and pray for a good harvest.
A jolly, albeit mossy, statuette breaks open in a wide smile as the passerby puffs heavily up the many steps to the shrine’s (jinja’s) top. A small offering is laid at his simply adorned feet.
One doesn’t need a special occasion to visit the local shrine, it could be a festival day or any other day, when one wishes to pray to the local kami for good test results, a raise, fertility, or simply desires a stroll in the forest.
Shinto shrines create a heterotopic environment which unites the separation between heaven and earth, man and nature. Jean Herbert beautifully describes the feeling which overwhelms the visitor once he wanders deeper into the sacred space,
“A feeling of almost palpable peace and security falls upon the visitor as he proceeds further into the holy enclosure, and to those unready for it, it comes as a shock.”
Jean Herbert, Shinto, At the Fountain-Head of Japan, 1967
The shrine’s bell which is rung 27 times in a row during New Year’s. The ringing reaches far into the adjacent countryside, letting all people know that the New Year has begun.
One or more torii gates mark the approach and entrance to a shrine. They come in various colors and are made of various materials. Most torii, however are made of wood, and many are painted orange and black. Torii symbolise the boundary between the secular everyday world and the infinite world of the kami.
The many steep steps leading from the bottom to the top symbolise the arduous journey the pious must undertake to pay their respects at the summit.
An offering of incense to the gods for only ¥100.
Before approaching the house of the kami, you must first wash away your impurities at a temizuya or chōzuya (a place for purification with a water trough and ladles for washing hands and face), near the entrance. You must be sure to discard the dirty water outside of the trough, and clean the ladle from the dragon’s mouth after the ritual.
Absolutely stunning, don’t you agree?
The main enclosure. Prayers can be made here, at the house of the kami.
A small bridge passing over a murky koi pond. My grandmother in Nagasaki has a koi pond outside of her front door. I have fond memories of feeding the koi large fish pellets and rolled up pieces of bread. We would sometimes take a net with a long handle and clean the pond scum from the water’s surface.
I’m nearly as red as this darling Daruma doll. This talisman of good luck is modelled after Bodhidharma, the founder of the Zen sect of Buddhism. It’s bright red color probably originates from monks’ red robes (Naruto, anyone?) but I’m just red because I huffed and puffed and almost blew myself down, walking up all those steps on the mountainside.
In Japanese culture, foxes are sacred animals that keep evil forces at bay and are sometimes treated as deities. In folklore, foxes are intelligent and magical tricksters that can shape-shift into women. In the superstitious Edo period, foxes were goblins who could not be trusted. Popular opinion seems to vary. What do YOU think?