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.
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.
The gods or deities of Shinto are very unlike the gods of other religions. They do not get angry and they do not try to influence people with the ideas of sin and guilt. Many of the Shinto gods do not have a human form, for example, mountains, rocks, trees, rivers, which are usually considered to be guardian deities of a particular area and clan.
Shinto and Japanese Buddhism are also quite accepting of each other. The Buddha is just another kami or deity. And the many kami of Shinto were viewed as nothing more than manifestations of different Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. In traditional Japanese homes it is quite common to find two altars: one for Buddhism (called a Butsudan) and another for Shinto (called a Kami-dana or Shelf of Gods).
In the shrine people do many things. When entering the sacred zone of a shrine people wash their hands and rinse their mouth in a practice known as temizu. Then they shake the rope to call the deity and pray, finishing with two claps of the hand. All shrine ceremonies and rituals, including sacred Shinto dance (kagura) and music (gagaku), and sumo (in ancient times), are directed to the deity.
Ema Prayers: at many shrines, especially bigger ones, you will see small pieces of wood, all hanging together in one place, on which are written prayers to the deity of that shrine; many of these boards have colorful paintings of symbols (animals, etc) of the shrine on them.
Guardian Animals: At the entrance to the central grounds of any shrine, you will find a pair of animals; they guard the shrine from evil; common guardian animals include Chinese dogs, Korean lions, foxes (inari), cows, even rats or monkeys.
Omamori Goodluck Charms: every shrine sells charms or omamori—small, finely made bags with an amulet in them—that protect against evil, bad fortune, poor health, and many other things; people hang them in their cars and homes.
Omikuji Goodluck Slips: tied to trees in the shrine precinct you will see many white slips of folded paper; these are fortune bearing pieces of paper that predict a bad fortune and thus they are left behind, just in case something the deity can reduce or change what is predicted.
Shimenawa: in many shrines you will notice thick pieces of rice straw, always woven of an odd number of strands for good luck wrapped around a tree or stone; this rope indicates that the thing encircled is sacred.
Zigzag Paper: called shide this paper marks the boundary of beginning of a sacred space.
Text by Ian Ropke. Shrine photographs by Michael Lambe. Ian Ropke is the author of the Historical Dictionary of Osaka and Kyoto, assistant editor of Kyoto Visitors Guide, and director of Your Japan Private Tours. You can read his previous articles for Deep Kyoto here.
For a more in-depth look at Shinto traditions, see also John Dougill’s Green Shinto