Japan and Shinto Shrines

The sacred, other-worldly residence of kami’s

In front of the giant torii, the entrance to Japanese Shinto shrines, most visitors are overwhelmed with awe. These enigmatic places of worship seem to conceal the utmost secrets in their interiors.

Shintō is the indigenous religious beliefs and practices of Japan. The word Shintō, which literally means “the way of kami” (generally sacred or divine power, specifically the various gods or deities), came into use to distinguish indigenous Japanese beliefs from Buddhism, which had been introduced into Japan in the 6th century CE. Shintō has no founder, no official sacred scriptures in the strict sense, and no fixed dogmas, but it has preserved its guiding beliefs throughout the ages. Shinto is so much part of the life of a Japanese that many do not even realize that they have a religion.

Its deities (kami)? The wind, the lightning, the sky. They range from Mount Fuji to the big sugi trees. in the land of the 8 million gods (yaoyorozu in Japanese), they come in all kinds of shapes and forms.

A shrine (jinja) is a sacred place where kami live, and it shows the power and nature of the kami. Shrines are made of natural materials (cypress wood is very common) and are designed to provide a home for the particular kami to whom they are dedicated. (A shrine is not restricted to a single kami.) it is very rare for shrines to contain statues of kami. Shrines do often include statues of animals such as foxes or horses — these are not statues of the kami but of animals that serve the kami in various ways.

The entrances to shrines are marked by torii gates, made of wood and painted orange or black. The gates are arches with two uprights and two crossbars and symbolize the boundary between the secular everyday world and the infinite world of the kami. Because there are no actual gates within the torii arch a shrine is always open.

There is often no wall or fence associated with the gates. The most spectacular torii are at the Fushimi-Inari shrine where the 2 ½ mile path behind the shrine is lined with more than 10,000 red torii gates.

Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine

Many Shinto shrines are places of intense calm with beautiful gardens. They possess a deeply spiritual atmosphere. When entering it, one inevitably becomes more or less conscious of that blood-relation, and the realization of it throws into the background all feelings of anxiety, antagonism, loneliness, discouragement, as when a child comes to rest on its mother’s lap. 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.

Reflecting the understanding that kami resides in nature, Shinto shrines were traditionally near unusual “concentrations” of nature such as waterfalls, caves, rock formations, mountain tops, or forest glens. Rituals were held outdoors, among natural surroundings, with no particular structure for them.

A shrine is managed by a head priest ( guji ) and priests ( kannushi ), or in the case of smaller shrines, by a member of the shrine elders committee, the sodai. The local community supports the shrine financially. Finally, private households may have an ancestor shrine or kamidana , which contains the names of the family members who have passed away and honors the ancestral kami.

The most important Shinto shrine is the Ise Grand Shrine dedicated to Amaterasu with a secondary shrine to the harvest goddess Toyouke. Beginning in the 8th century CE, a tradition arose of rebuilding exactly the shrine of Amaterasu at Ise every 20 years to preserve its vitality. The broken-down material of the old temple is carefully stored and transported to other shrines where it is incorporated into their walls.

The second most important shrine is that of Okuninushi at Izumo-taisha. These two are the oldest Shinto shrines in Japan.

Ise Grand Shrine

There are currently 80,000 Shinto shrines in total, that is one for every 1,500 inhabitants of Japan. That is expected to decline due to the demographic downtrend, as shrines will be merged with the neighboring ones. But they will not be put to secular use, unlike deconsecrated churches in the West. If the legal registration of the sanctuary expires, they will be abandoned and no one will dare to touch them; they remain as sacred places as Kami’s eternal abode.

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