Shintoism is the native religion of Japan. It dates as far back as the culture. Central to Shinto beliefs are the kami, mystical forces that revel themselves in nature (mountains, trees, springs, etc). The kami can answer prayers and guide people in the right way to live. Unlike many other religions, Shinto has a positive view of human nature; the kami get along together and try to guide humans, who are not perfect but not sinful, more like children who just don’t know better.
Shino families keep an altar in the home for offerings and prayers. There is not a specific day of worship; many go to the temples once or twice a month plus special ceremonies. Followers wash themselves before entering a temple in a purification (harae) ritual. A baby is taken to the temple to be anointed and so the parents can pray for the baby’s health. Children visit shrines/temples at ages 3, 5, and 7 to pray for special protection.
A torii stands at the entrance of a temple as a gateway between the sacred space and the non-sacred. It is usually orange and sometimes includes a shimenawa. A shimenawa is a rope of twisted rice or wheat and paper lightning bolts. Shimenawa are believed to mark a sacred space and ward off evil spirits. While indigenous nature worship seems primitive, I can admire it. To see something sacred in so many parts of nature is something many of us have lost in our industrialized world. At the root of all religions, I think, is that we sense something sacred among and want to tap into it, and want to ask for guidance from a knowledge beyond our simple understanding.
There are up to four million followers of Shintoism, but not many Japanese practice it exclusively. Most now follow a combination of Buddhism and Shintoism. As one woman explained to me: “We are Shinto for happy occasions, Buddhist for sad.” A child’s birth or a wedding is often honored in the Shinto style, while funerals or personal difficulties are observed in Buddhist style. Even the torii that mark Shinto temples may have been imported with Buddhism. I found this combo-style religion interesting, as most people follow an all-or-nothing faith. But the Japanese seem to see no conflict using both al la carte.
[Picture is of torii with a shimenawa at the 5th station of Mt. Fuji, Japan taken in 2008. Mt. Fuji is considered sacred in Shinto beliefs.]
Next Friday: Norse religion