Tag Archives: Shinto

Shinto – Deities, Shrines and Symbols

The Sun goddess, Amaterasu Omikami emerges from a cave, bringing sunlight back to the world. This print by Utagawa Kunisada is in the public domain.

Ian Ropke writes,

Shinto is Japan’s original religion and today it maintains a strong position next to the country’s other main religion: Buddhism. It is interesting to note that nearly all Japanese do not even know what the word Shinto means. The word Shinto comes from the Chinese characters: god and path. Elegantly translated Shinto means The Way of the Gods. Today, if you want to get onto the subject of Shinto you more or less have to begin talking to people about the world of the jinja or shrine.

Shinto for the average Japanese of today is a world of superstitious beliefs and practices that most people do. Few understand very much about the religion and this is understandable as there are basically no holy texts. Shinto has no real founder, no religious laws and only a very loosely organized hierarchy of priests. It is a religion of the wild world of nature, of which humans are just one tiny part.

Izanami and Izanagi, a public domain painting by Kobayashi Eitaku

Shinto is an ancient Japanese religion. Evidence indicates that its main beliefs came into existence before 500 BC. These beliefs are a combination of many things: nature worship, shamanism, fertility cults, and techniques for divining the future. Until the end of WWII, the Emperor of Japan was regarded as one of the many gods or kami in the Shinto pantheon. He descended to earth from heaven as the kami that would live among men.

The divine couple, Izanagi-no-mikoto and Izanami-no-mikoto, gave birth to the islands of Japan and their other children became the deities of Japan’s many clans or tribes. Their daughter, Amaterasu Omikami (the Sun Goddess) is the mother of the Imperial family. Her shrine at Ise is one of the largest in Japan and the emperor journeys there every year to pay his respects. Indeed, much of the emperor’s yearly life revolves around the many rituals and ceremonies that he, as a god, has been performing throughout the year for over 1,500 years. Continue reading

Karasu Sumo at Kamigamo Shrine on September 9

John Dougill writes,

Priests hopping and cawing like crows.  Seven year old kids doing sumo.  What’s that all got to do with Shinto, you may wonder?

Kamigamo Jinja is Kyoto’s greenest shrine and probably the oldest.  It was established by the Kamo clan long before Kammu founded the capital in 794.  One of the clan, according to legend, helped guide Emperor Jimmu across Kii Hanto and was known as yatagarasu (the three-legged crow).  Personally, I take this to mean he was a shaman of the Crow People, who settled in Kyoto after immigrating from Korea.  Their descendants still live in the area around Kamigamo.

Bowing to the sacred mounds

At the festival the priests sit in front of two mounds of earth, which represent the sacred hill onto which the shrine’s kami, Kamo Wake-ikazuchi, first descended.  The hill, known as Koyama, lies north of the shrine and every year there is a secret ceremony there to reenact the shamanic rites of old.

But why are there two mounds?  Interestingly, this recreates the two mounds that stand permanently inside the middle torii.  Priests at the shrine say that they represent yin and yang, but they could well signify the theme of renewal in Shinto.  At Ise, for instance, a new shrine is built adjacent to the old shrine for the kami to move into.  Perhaps the two mounds here act in similar symbolic manner.

Parade of the (mini) sumo wrestlers

The day’s rituals start with the offering of chrysanthemum flowers at 10.00, following which participants proceed from the worship hall to the arena.  A colourfully costumed young girl representing the historical saio (imperial princess) presides over events.  The initial rites include the shooting of arrows to dispel evil spirits, after which two of the priests do their crow performance.

Facing off...

The climax is the children’s sumo, put on for the entertainment of the kami.  There are two teams, and each boy gets to wrestle two times.  The atmosphere can become quite heated, and the crowd usually gets behind the little toddler struggling against a bigger opponent.  Cameras flash from all directions.  By the end you may feel just as happy as the kami that this ancient tradition has been preserved so long.

Gambatte!

Text and images by John Dougill. John Dougill is the author of Kyoto: A Cultural History. His current project, In Search of Amaterasu’s Mirror, is a study of Shinto. You can read his previous articles for Deep Kyoto here, and his blog Green Shinto at http://greenshinto.com/.

(For a video of the priests crowing, see http://chrenee.blogspot.com/2007/09/karasu-sumo-festival.html)

John Dougill’s Green Shinto

Our friend, the historian/poet John Dougill, has launched his own website, Green Shinto, and it looks like a cracker! I know personally that strolling round a shinto shrine with John at your side amiably explaining what everything means, is a very educational experience. Now his expert knowledge of Shinto belief and tradition is available to a far wider audience:

Green Shinto is a blog by John Dougill operating out of Kyoto, Japan, which is dedicated to the promotion of an open, international and environmental Shinto.   It seeks to celebrate the rich heritage of the tradition, from sacred rocks and shamanistic roots to bawdy myths and fertility festivals.  It believes Shinto to be essentially diverse, localised and community oriented.  It looks to a Shinto free of borders, liberated from its past to meet the demands of a new age.   It looks in short to a Shinto that is green in deed as well as in word. LINK

John has already written a LOT of fascinating postings. Here are some tasty snippets that should encourage you to visit:

Continue reading

Ted Talks

Academic Beers with Ted Taylor

When you describe Kyoto, you couldn’t skip them; pure water, old wooden house in a row, and food culture. This is beer whose mother is the honorable tradition in Kyoto, and whose father is beer boasted of by Germany. A new historical chapter is recorded in our culture.
From the KANBAIKAN craft beer label.

A few months ago there was a big conference in England where all kinds of impressive people got together, and talked about impressive and inspiring things. If you go to the website TED TALKS you can take a look at some videos from the conference. They really are very impressive, but oddly there doesn’t seem to be anyone there whose name is actually Ted. Here on Deep Kyoto we can go one better, with our very own (and impressive) Ted Taylor. As I knew he was leaving at the end of summer (today actually), I decided to interview him before he left. So, one afternoon in July we took the JR line from Karasuma/Shijo up to Imadegawa, got out at exit 2 and there we were at Doshisha University’s Kanbaikan building.IMG_0966We’d been talking about coming here for some time because on the 7th floor of the Kanbaikan, there is a French restaurant called Second House Will that serves Doshisha’s very own craft beer; also called Kanbaikan. The Kanbaikan (寒梅館 which means Cold Plum Inn I guess) is an impressive red brick building with gorgeous views over the city and we enjoyed its namesake beer, also reddish brown in color, along with some crunchy French bread and a plate of tasty hors d’oeuvres. It was a very pleasant way to spend a summer afternoon and you can find a map here if you want to try it for yourself. However, as I knew Ted was leaving at the end of summer, I figured this was a good opportunity to chat with him about not just beer, but about zen, and hiking and writing and about his life in Japan and so on. You know; all things Ted. Continue reading