About 40,000 years ago, groups of mainland Asians set out to explore and colonize the Japanese archipelago. They brought with them the animistic beliefs of the East, which included a deep reverence for natural forms and forces. The shamans of the original settlers sensed the spirits of the land, proclaiming there to be eight million different “kami”. Thus, they became the very first Shinto priests. Although it didn’t become known as “Shinto” until Buddhist missionaries came and needed to refer to the local theology as something. The kami were originally worshiped as things themselves like the rocks and trees and wind. However, over time these would become primitive gods and goddesses. Don’t get me wrong though, this was the most technologically advanced civilization in the world back then, and it probably still is today. You see, the Neolithic actually began around 30,000 years ago in Japan, while it only started about 10,000 years ago for much of the rest of the world. So, those sophisticated Stone Age priests eventually came to the conclusion that the kami needed to have homes. These are not temples, as in the case of the Hindu and Buddhist religious buildings. Instead, these are the places where deities are enshrined. So, although there are some animistic shrines still remaining, most of the Shinto shrines are more modern polytheistic shrines devoted to a pantheon. There are now about 80,000 Shinto shrines, housing nearly as many deities. Thus, “jinja” (神社) is derived from the archaic “shinsha”, meaning “place of the god(s)”. These places are so extraordinary that even the gates to the shrines are magnificent. Look at the gate for a water-based elemental spirit in the picture below.
The ancients believed that the kami rode down from the north on the backs of deer. As such, these animals are considered sacred, so they are allowed to move freely among the grounds of the shrines. The thing is that while some shrines are able to be entered, many of these buildings are exclusively reserved for the spirits alone. Granted there are priests who do go into the shrines, but they are often not meant for people. Just as one example, every year six million visitors come to pay tribute to the goddess Amaterasu Omikami. Her home is the Shinto shrine Ise Jingu, and worshipers are not permitted to actually enter the inner sanctum, where she is enshrined. Instead, prayers are offered from a distance. This inaccessibility further enhances the mystical effect of the site itself. Plus, as part of that temple complex, there are 125 subsidiary shrines for the worship of other kami within her sacred space. Pilgrims visit these holy places for a number of different reasons. For instance, they come to pray for good fortune, celebrate rites of passage like becoming an adult or getting married, and of course honoring the gods and goddesses themselves. This has been and continues to be a significant part of life in Japan for millions of people. As a specific example of what I mean, a high school student might visit a shrine to pray for better grades, then they may also write down the name of the college that they wish to attend. This would be written in ink on a small wooden plaque, known as an “ema” which would then be left hanging up at the shrine.
It’s really quite fascinating how it all comes together. Whereas some gods became people, some people became gods. So, there are both avatars and enlightened masters. For instance, the Shinto shrine Kitano Tenmangu was built for Sugawara no Michizane after he was deified in the 10th century. He was very influential as a Kanshi poet of the Heian Period, who ascended to the status of a divine being named Tenjin. Sugawara was a legendary scholar in life who became the god of learning in death, and his sacred site in Kyoto is the preferred destination of students in search of supernatural support for school. The point is that one kami might be the quintessential aspect of a specific mountain, while another might be a famous politician from history. The kami have also changed a great deal from antiquity to modernity, but the spirit of it all remains the same. In spite of the fact that Buddhist missionaries came to convert believers from their indigenous faith centuries ago, the old ways still live on. So, although many of the kami were syncretized with Buddhist saints and deities, they have also retained their original identity in the process. At one point, Shinto and Buddhist teachings even became supplemental to one another, but they didn’t really stay that way for long. Still, the Japanese synthesis was beautiful while it lasted. Regardless, the point is that there are still places where shrines and temples can be found together to this very day. Just look at the stunning Senjokaku Buddhist pagoda tower as it rises next to an elegant Shinto shrine. The sublime aesthetics of that sacred space is just breathtakingly beautiful.
Although Japanese shrines first arose out of nature worship as temporary altars, the sites eventually became home to permanent shrines. These were most often based on elevated architectural designs, but after the 6th-century conversion to Buddhism, Japan’s shrines became more like temples in their construction. This led to a symbiotic fusion of faiths. However, in the 19th century, there was a movement to separate the two religions. Nonetheless, in the 21st century, there’s now a great revival of Shinto underway. The man responsible for this is a Shinto priest named Yoshihiro Egawa. He has totally revitalized the Akasaka Hikawa Jinja. To do this, the priest came in as an ecclesiastical kind of entrepreneur, refusing to rent out or sell off any part of the sacred site. Thanks to his father, and those who came before him, the land has been perfectly preserved for generations. To make it all happen, he first got local businesses involved. To secure the funds necessary to keep the shrine operating he focused on weddings. He then began working with restaurants who catered these events. This brilliant move works like a charm and the shrine went from doing only a few weddings a year to more than two hundred. So, following that success, he decided to try and revive something else. Yoshihiro Egawa successfully restored the traditional procession of sacred shrine floats. Until about a century ago this parade had gone on every autumn, and now the festival has finally returned. He even had all the old floats that he could find fully restored to help bring the faith of Japan back to life. The man is a national treasure who basically single-handedly brought back a sense of community in his country. As such, Yoshihiro Egawa may be the greatest Shinto shrine priest in history. Simply put, he understands that when people won’t go to the shrines, you have to bring the shrines to them.
Just as a final note I would like to leave you with the proper protocol for visiting a shrine. If and when you ever approach a shrine gate (“torii”), then you need to acknowledge that you are about to enter a sacred space. As a sign of respect, it is customary to bow ever-so-slightly at the entrance. From there, a path and possibly steps will lead from the gate to the shrine. In line with this, visitors should always stay to the side of any walkway to keep out of the way of the kami who also use the same approach to get to and from each other’s houses. In other words, the middle of the stairs is reserved for gods and goddesses. Then, having entered the complex make your way to the purification basin which will have a fountain where you will need to wash away the impurities of your ordinary mundane life and prepare to engage with the divine. Take the ladle in your right hand and let it fill with water. Then pour the liquid over your left hand, and grab the ladle with your clean hand and rinse off the other. Then take the ladle into your right hand and pour water into your left hand and bring it to your mouth and rinse a little but don’t spit. After that, hold the ladle upright to rinse the handle and then place it back down where you got it from. Then, go to the worship hall where you will offer your prayers. First, you should put some money into the offering box. Next, you want to ring the bell at the front. The sound of this will simultaneously summon the deity and dispel evil. Now, bow twice, and then clap twice. Then and only then should you offer thanks and begin to pray. Finally, when you’re done remember to bow one last time. Thanks for reading, and praise be to the kami.