In praise of trees

Getting in touch with the power of trees at Ise Jingu


It’s rare to find a Shinto shrine without a sacred tree.  Indeed, the origins of shrines may well have started with trees, and their symbolic nature may permeate the human consciousness…  Deeply rooted below the earth and rising up to the skies, they span the three worlds of shamanism and there’s a very real reason why The Tree of Life came to dominate spiritual thought in ancient times.

‘Why is it that when we behold the oldest living trees in the world, primeval awe runs down our spine? We are entwined with trees in an elemental embrace, both biological and symbolic, depending on them for the very air we breathe as well as for our deepest metaphors, millennia in the making. They permeate our mythology and our understanding of evolution. They enchant our greatest poets and rivet our greatest scientists. Even our language reflects that relationship – it’s an idea that has taken “root” in nearly every “branch” of knowledge.’ – Maria Popova, writing in Brain Pickings.


The piece below comes from the introduction to The Book of Trees by Manuel Lima:

“In a time when more than half of the world’s population live in cities, surrounded on a daily basis by asphalt, cement, iron, and glass, it’s hard to conceive of a time when trees were of immense and tangible significance to our existence. But for thousands and thousands of years, trees have provided us with not only shelter, protection, and food, but also seemingly limitless resources for medicine, fire, energy, weaponry, tool building, and construction. It’s only normal that human beings, observing their intricate branching schemas and the seasonal withering and revival of their foliage, would see trees as powerful images of growth, decay, and resurrection. In fact, trees have had such an immense significance to humans that there’s hardly any culture that hasn’t invested them with lofty symbolism and, in many cases, with celestial and religious power. The veneration of trees, known as dendrolatry, is tied to ideas of fertility, immortality, and rebirth and often is expressed by the axis mundi (world axis), world tree, or arbor vitae (tree of life). These motifs, common in mythology and folklore from around the globe, have held cultural and religious significance for social groups throughout history – and indeed still do.”


Here too is a wonderful passage by Herman Hesse (taken from Bäume: Betrachtungen und Gedichte [Trees: Reflections and Poems], originally published in 1984:

sacred rree festooned with shimenawa rope and shide paper strips

“For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone. They are like lonely persons. Not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche. In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree.

When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured. And every young farmboy knows that the hardest and noblest wood has the narrowest rings, that high on the mountains and in continuing danger the most indestructible, the strongest, the ideal trees grow.

Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.

A tree says: A kernel is hidden in me, a spark, a thought, I am life from eternal life. The attempt and the risk that the eternal mother took with me is unique, unique the form and veins of my skin, unique the smallest play of leaves in my branches and the smallest scar on my bark. I was made to form and reveal the eternal in my smallest special detail.

Korean shaman tree

A tree says: My strength is trust. I know nothing about my fathers, I know nothing about the thousand children that every year spring out of me. I live out the secret of my seed to the very end, and I care for nothing else. I trust that God is in me. I trust that my labor is holy. Out of this trust I live.

When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, then a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Be still! Look at me! Life is not easy, life is not difficult. Those are childish thoughts. . . . Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all.

A longing to wander tears my heart when I hear trees rustling in the wind at evening. If one listens to them silently for a long time, this longing reveals its kernel, its meaning. It is not so much a matter of escaping from one’s suffering, though it may seem to be so. It is a longing for home, for a memory of the mother, for new metaphors for life. It leads home. Every path leads homeward, every step is birth, every step is death, every grave is mother.

So the tree rustles in the evening, when we stand uneasy before our own childish thoughts: Trees have long thoughts, long-breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours. They are wiser than we are, as long as we do not listen to them. But when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness.”

Sacred tree at Fuji Sengen Jinja


Tree shrine, captivating in its simplicity


Fortune slips in a wrapped up tree


Sacred tree with rope and coin offerings for good luck

Posted in Animism, Shrine items | Leave a comment

Senja Fuda (shrine stickers)

Senjafuda placed improbably high on the central beam of a shrine building


When visiting shrines and temples, you’ll sometimes find stickers on the building, as in the picture above.  What are they, and what do they say?  From my experience they usually bear the name of a person or company, but to what end I wasn’t sure.  For an explanation I looked to two different sources on the subject: the first by Timothy Takemoto (Timothy runs the Shinto mailing list), the second from the authoritative website on Japanese religions run by Mark Schumacher (Onmark  My thanks to both of them.


For the full version of this extract by Timothy Takemoto, please see here: Senjafuda – One Thousand Shrine Labels.

Photo courtesy ebookworm on Flickr, who notes that in Edo times wealthy merchants competed with fancy designs such that the Shogunate tried to ban the practice.

If you visit shrines in Japan, you’ll find some that are covered in stickers.  It is traditional to print one thousand of them and then visit one thousand shrines and paste them to the roof of the entrance as a sort of “I was here” type marking. If one pastes one’s name on one thousand shrines (Senja) then a wish will come true, apparently.

The pasting of the labels is often done under the cover of darkness, or otherwise when priests are not looking, but some shrines and temples charge for the privilege of pasting one’s mark on their shrine gate. The practice of labelling shrines may be similar to the way in which Japanese travellers and other tourists visit famous spots (meisho) such as shrines, and associate with them and their previous visitors such as Basho, often in poetry in a travelogue, and to the practice of leaving small stones on the gates of Shinto shrines.


According to Mark Schumacher on the onmark website, Senja Fuda (which he spells senjya-fuda) are “Name stickers that pilgrims paste or stick on the temple gate or shrine gate to prove that they visited that location. In modern times, most pilgrimage sites no longer allow this, primarily as a means for protecting the aging temple/shrine structures. Instead, pilgrims now offer prayer slips.  In the old days, you needed a special long (telescope-like) pole to stick them really high up on the rafters and ceilings of the gates. The senjya-fuda tradition apparently became popular during the Edo Period (1603-1867), when many believed that good fortune would come to them while their sticker remained attached to the temple or shrine gate.”

Senja stickers stuck to a pillar of a shrine - proof to the kami that the pilgrim or pilgrim group was really here

Posted in Shrine items, Shrine visits | 1 Comment


Kumano Hayatama Taisha, one of the Big Three Shrines in the area


Kumano is one of Japan’s most appealing areas, a spiritual heartland and part of a World Heritage site.  It’s winning increasing attention from tourists, particularly for the opportunities for trekking and hot springs.  In the article below, from the Japan Times, Alon Adika highlights the religious and syncretic heritage of the region.


By ALON ADIKA (Japan Times, Jan 11, 2014)

An old tale from Kumano tells of a hunter who was out one day with his dogs when he spotted a large boar. Stretching his bow, he took aim and loosed an arrow deep into the body of the beast. With its last strength, the boar fled and led the hunter to a yew tree at Oyunohara, where it lay down and died. After gorging on its flesh, the hunter fell asleep under the tree, only to waken in the night to see that three moons — which revealed themselves to be manifestations of the three Kumano deities — had descended onto the tree.

Those gongen — native gods that merge indigenous beliefs with avatars of Buddhist deities — remain to this day as intrinsic to the verdant mountains of the Kumano region of the Kii Peninsula straddling parts of Mie, Wakayama and Nara prefectures as its rushing rivers, towering waterfalls and magnificent Pacific Ocean coasts.

The Buddhist pagoda overlooking the sacred Shinto waterfall of Nachi

Considered since time immemorial a mystical realm where the boundaries of the celestial and terrestrial worlds are blurred, Kumano — now a Unesco World Heritage Site — has for a millennia and more been crisscrossed by a network of pilgrimage routes. As well as linking with the ancient capital of Kyoto and other sacred sites in the Kansai region of Honshu, these routes also connect the Kumano Sanzan, the Three Grand Shrines of Kumano — Hongu-Taisha, Nachi-Taisha and Hayatama-Taisha.

But no matter how splendid the Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, in Kumano it’s nature that commands center stage.  When I left Osaka in the early morning, it was overcast and a little cool. By the time I reached Nachi Station, a light but steady rain was falling. I got off a local bus at Daimonzaka, from where it was just a short walk to Nachi Grand Shrine on a well- preserved portion of the pilgrimage route.

Two large trees flanked the stone path, like a natural gate into the forest. The rain had turned the forest into an enchanting place: the patter of raindrops hitting the dark-green leaves, the slick and shiny stone path and the old trees towering above me made me feel like I had been transported to a different time and space.

After visiting the shrine, I fixed my eyes on the mountain face across from me. I knew it was there; I had seen it in photographs numerous times. However, through the heavy mist, I could not see it. Then, as if someone had waved a magic wand, the mist dissipated and the powerful Nachi Falls were revealed, thundering down a 133-meter cliff and pounding the pool below.

Kumano eventually became an important training ground for holy men and followers of Shugendo, a syncretic faith that fused native Japanese animism, Buddhism and elements of Taoism. They practiced mountain asceticism to gain spiritual and supernatural power.

Legend has it that in the 11th century, the renowned and much-pictured monk Mongaku sat under Nachi Falls in the dead of winter and was saved from certain death only by divine intervention. In more recent times, Hayashi Jitsukaga, a Shugendo practitioner, flung himself over the lip of the waterfall after a session of zazen meditation in 1884. When his fellows found him in the pool below, it’s said his body was still in the zazen position.

Kamikura Shrine with the sacred Gotobiki rock onto which the Kumano kami descended

Thus fortified, late in the afternoon I made my way through the slick streets of Shingu to the Kumano Hayatama Grand Shrine. It was nearly 6 p.m. and the shrine was empty save for a few attendants getting ready to close it for the night. As I admired the shrine, a mother and daughter entered and paid their respects silently in front of the dripping roofs.

I was searching for a sacred boulder, the Gotobiki Iwa: another legendary landing spot of the Kumano deities, which was also the original site of the Hayatama Shrine. A young attendant gave me directions and a map. It didn’t look very far, but little did I know it was up a mountain.

Behind the Shinto gate, a stone stairway led up the hill, the steep and irregularly sized steps seemed never ending. The stones were slippery from the rain and the sun was already low in the sky. Nobody else was around. The combination of the rain, dense foliage and the waning light all made for an eerie atmosphere. Several times I stopped and pondered turning back, only to force myself onward. I later learned there are more than 500 steps up to Kamikura Shrine and the sacred rock.

At the top, a clearing opened up and I saw the great boulder in front of me. It seemed about the size of a small house and was roundish in shape. One explanation for the “gotobiki” in its name, meaning “toad” in the local dialect, is that it supposedly resembles one. I took out my camera and tried awkwardly to take some pictures while still holding up my flimsy umbrella. After a short while, I started making my way back down, not wanting to be on the mountain alone in the dark.

The roofline of Hongu Taisha in springtime, one of Kumano's Big Three Shrines

Relieved to be back in town, I walked through its nearly deserted shopping arcade in search of some dinner. It was only a little after 7 p.m., but most of the shops were already shuttered and the few still open were preparing to close. I ended up getting something from a bento (boxed-lunch) shop and returned to the small Japanese-style hotel I’d checked into earlier.

The next morning I headed off to Hongu, the third of the Kumano Grand Shrines that I’d just learned also have a dim and distant association with the early gods Izanami (Nachi) and Izanagi (Hayatama) who created the Japanese islands — while Hongu itself boasts a bond with Susanoo, the son of Izanagi and mischievous brother of Amaterasu, the sun goddess.

As I again wanted to approach the sacred site on foot via one of the old pilgrimage paths, I took a bus to Hoshinmon Oji, about 7 km distant from it. In contrast to the day before, the skies were deep blue and the sun was shining brightly.

Pilgrimage routes run through the thickly wooded Kumano hills

I first passed through a small mountain hamlet. The buzz of a lawn mower echoed through the valley. There were some unattended stalls, with local products for sale, by the sides of the street. Most had the salty and sour Wakayama umeboshi (pickled plums), which are supposed to be especially tasty.

The path next took me into the woods. Patches of sunlight created a dazzling chiaroscuro on the ground. After a while, the forest, with its scent of damp earth and wet wood, abruptly ended at a road that cut it in two. On the other side in front of a wooden shelter an elderly lady sat by her stall.

I approached and pointed to the succulent-looking cucumbers she had on ice. After choosing one for me, the woman peeled off some of the skin and sprinkled salt onto the fruit. I was just about to take a bite when she had me hold it out and drizzled some honey on top. It was so good that I devoured it in no time — and then had another.

I reentered the forest and took a small detour to a clearing from where I could view the giant torii gate at Oyunohara in the valley below: the place where, in the ancient legend, the Kumano gods revealed themselves to the hunter. Oyunohara is the original site of the Hongu Grand Shrine, which now stands nearby on higher ground after being damaged in a flood in 1889.

Arriving there was somewhat anticlimactic after walking through Kumano’s magical landscape. I had originally planned to walk much more on the old paths and I felt some regret I had not been able to do so. On the train back to Osaka, I studied the pamphlets and maps I had collected, and began planning a future visit I knew I would have to make.

A trip to Kumano requires planning. The following websites will help get you started:;;;


One of the largest torii in Japan, marking the original site of Hongu Taisha before it was washed away in floods

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Saidaiji Naked Festival

Picture courtesy of Asahi


There are many ‘naked festivals’, though what this generally refers to is men in fundoshi loin cloths who parade through the streets.  Some of the naked festivals centre around cold water, some around wooden floats, and some as the one at Saidaiji in Tokyo today are about fighting for lucky charms.  Anyone who has been to a festival of this kind will know how the normally polite and patient Japanese can become aggressive in getting hold of the lucky charms.  Call it faith, or superstition, or tradition, but the motivation and sincerity is impressive.  If you’re in Tokyo today, go see it for yourself…

Izumi Iwaki writes in the Japan Times about the Saidaiji Eyo…

This festival is believed to be nearly five centuries old and to have started after a rumor spread that a talisman distributed by a local temple brought its owners lots of good luck.

Men in fundoshi at Kyoto's Gion Matsuri

On hearing this, so many people went to the temple that the staff had no choice but to throw the talismans into the crowd, who fought their way to get at them. It is said that sometimes the scramble was so fierce that the visitors ripped each other’s clothing to shreds.

These talismans — originally paper, now wooden — are known as shingi and every year on the third Saturday of February, thousands of men compete to get hold of one. Wearing only loincloths, despite the cold wintry night, they perform ritual ablutions at Saidaiji Temple until 10 p.m., when the light in the main hall is turned off and two sacred shingi are thrown into the crowd.

The men who catch the shingi could become fuku otoko (lucky men) for the year, but to claim the talismans, they must first carry them out of the main hall and off the temple grounds. This is a lot easier said than done when the rest of the men — who even if they can’t see the shingi can still follow their distinct smell of incense — all battle each other for the lucky charms — right up to the gate of the temple.

Every year, many are injured during this unusual festival, so if you dare to participate, make sure to read through the instructions carefully.

Saidaiji Eyo (Naked Festival) takes place at Saidaiji Temple, which is 10-min. walk from Ako Line Saidaiji Station. For more information, visit the website.

Photo courtesy Japan Times

People jostle frantically to get a piece of rice cake at the Nagemochi event, part of the Hounen Matsuri at Tagata Jinja

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French conference

Presenter Masatsugu Okutani at the Feb 12 conference in Paris


Masatsugu Okutani explaining 'What is Shinto' to his French audience

Green Shinto has previously featured the work of Shinto priest Masatsugu Okutani in Paris.  Now comes news of a conference and photo exhibition held on Feb 12, ‘the first time for France to have such a conference specially in French by a Japanese Shinto priest.’

The meeting centred around the topic of ‘What is Shinto?’ and was held, ecumenically, at the ‘Association Culturelle Franco-Japonaise de Tenri’.

Masatsugu Okutani, who is a priest from the  Yabuhara Shrine in northern Japan, has been working in Paris for some time as a company employee while at the same time helping to spread awareness of Shinto among the French, who he reports are surprisingly open to learning more about the traditions involved.

The exhibition of photographs featured the work of Yamaguchi Katsuhiro, Executive Director of the Society of Japanese Photographers who specialises in cultural heritage such as kyogen, kagura and kabuki as well as the Ontake sacred mountain cult.


Following the presentation, there was opportunity for more informal interaction


Photo exhibition of Japan's cultural and spiritual heritage


A toast with saké to round off the proceedings



For more information and pictures see here for the Yabuhara Shrine or here for the profile of Masatsugu Okutani.

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Japanese characteristics

Respect for tradition is a vital part of Japanese culture

Japan Today
ran an article on Japanese characteristics as seen by foreigners, which was notable for being strikingly positive.  It helps explain why living and travelling in Japan is such a joy.  Everyday interactions are unfailingly polite and pleasant, while efficiency and good service are the hallmarks of business institutions.

It’s tempting to speculate how much of this is the result of ‘Shinto values’.  Certainly the cleanliness of Japanese is often tied to the emphasis on purity in the native tradition.  Sincerity too could be said to underlie the honesty (and naivity) of Japanese.  Similarly the collective nature of Shinto might be connected with the groupism that characterises Japanese society.  Other attributes would seem to derive more from Confucianism than Shinto, though one could argue that the two are closely linked.

Just how and why the Japanese have managed to maintain a high level of civilised behaviour has long been a mystery.  The missionaries of the sixteenth century were puzzled by the phenomenon to the extent that they wondered how a non-Christian country could possibly be more advanced in many respects than Europe.  It seems that the Japanese have internalised values that are passed on from generation to generation in a way many other countries can only look at with envy.  Perhaps respect for tradition in the form of honouring the kami plays a part in this…


Here are the most common adjectives that Westerners chose when characterizing the people of Japan.  (For the original article, see here.)

#1. Polite
Weighing in at number one was polite, or in Japanese “reigi tadashii.” Everyone has heard of the traditional Japanese bow used as a greeting during any given exchange. Though handshakes are perfectly common in Japan now, they more often than not come with a bow as well (or two or three). To the Western mindset, this style of address already seems much more polite than a simple handshake, high-five, or shoulder clap. Of course, the term “polite” in and of itself doesn’t only have a positive connotation. It’s possible to remain too polite and distant from a person, even if you’ve known them for quite a while.

#2. Punctual
Japan takes its time management very seriously. The Japan Railway (JR) and other connecting subways and train systems are well-known for their incredibly punctual schedules. As such, when there is a delay of even a minute, the whole system gets thrown off. Trains often issue late slips for passengers to take to their employers if their trains get delayed. After all, it leaves a very bad impression if you’re late to work.

Patience, politeness and kindness are singled out as key Japanese traits

#3. Kind
Unlike polite, which can have its downsides, kind is a genuinely positive word. In Japanese, words with similar connotations to the English phrase are “yasashii” or “omoyari no aru,” meaning “thoughtful of others.” One sterling example of this is the custom of bringing a gift (usually food) when you visit another person’s house in Japan. This praiseworthy adjective was the third-most repeated term in the thread. That’s a winning score on anyone’s report card.

#4. Hard-working
A hard-worker or “hataraki-mono” is definitely a common word that classifies a Japanese mindset. In a culture where your job is supposed to take precedence over even your family at times, it’s unsurprising that foreign nationals would latch on to this particular description. There is even a word for “death by overwork” in Japanese (“karoshi”). It’s not uncommon for people to work several more hours after their contractual quitting time and, if you’re not a contract worker, that means that you aren’t paid for that overtime. Even if you have a “haken” (contracted job), it’s still considered rude to leave right on schedule.

#5. Respectful
Another tie-in with polite, respectful or “tanin ni taishite keii wo hyo suru” to loosely describe it in Japanese, is a mainly positive word. However, it can sometimes be associated with distance. With the epidemic of idolization in Japan, it’s also possible to take respect just a bit too far. Many Westerners find the concept of being so respectful to their elders a bit outside the norm. But in Japan, the older you get, the wiser you are considered and the more respectfully you’re treated. You’ll get in big trouble if you use informal language with a person older than you unless they’re family. Even then, some relatives still expect proper formal language befitting of their senior status.

#6. Shy
An overall impression of the citizens of Japan is that they’re very shy people, or “hazukashigariya”. This might be linked to their focus on politeness and respect. It is true that you don’t always hear a lot of outspoken Japanese people, especially tourists in foreign countries, but this might be for a different reason altogether. Many Japanese people worry about their foreign language skills and fear saying something incorrectly in English when they talk to native speakers. Conversation practice has only recently become a staple of English classes in Japan.

Formality, order and hierarchy are important to Japanese

#7. Intelligent
There’s a definite stereotype of people from Asian countries being the brainy cream of the crop. Whether this is factually correct or not wasn’t technically relevant to the survey thread, but it certainly was a nice compliment. The Japanese word for intelligent is “kashikoi.” Incidentally, if you tried to say the katakana pronunciation of smart, “sumato,” that actually means to be thin and attractive in Japanese. Not that they’re mutually exclusive adjectives, but be careful of confusing your Japanese friends by trying to call someone intelligent and accidentally calling them slim and sexy.

#8. Grouping
You know how girls are always said to travel in packs? Same goes for Japanese people, apparently. A word of advice to any aspiring English teachers in Japan is to make lots of group activities. Unlike America, where group work is often disliked because sharing the workload with other students inevitably means that it gets divided unequally, Japanese students thrive off of it. They prefer not to have to voice their opinions alone, but would rather share ideas with their peers and make a group decision. In a class of thirty Japanese kids, not many people want to stand up by themselves and read out of an English textbook. But put everyone in groups of three and make them read it in turns and you’ve got yourself an engaged classroom.

#9. Formal
Tying in with polite, Japan has a reputation for being very formal. This manifests itself in both manner and language. Japanese has many different formality levels depending on who you’re addressing. This can be tiresome for people attempting to learn the language, and it can also lead to crossed wires between friends, especially in the case of foreigners and Japanese people. An American might wonder why their friend still calls them “David-san” when they’ve known each other for a few years. Far from wanting to keep distance between them, the Japanese friend might just be waiting for David to mention that they don’t really need to keep titles between them. After all, without checking first, it can be considered rude to suddenly stop using formal language (an act called “yobisute” or “dropping the name honorific”).

#10. Clean
Many Internet users have seen Japanese tourists pick up trash from around campsites and rest stops even when they didn’t make the mess themselves. This habit and others added the description of clean to the list. Did you know that Japanese students clean their schools by themselves? No janitors, just students hauling trash bags, sweeping the steps, and wiping down the halls with washcloths for a good 30 minutes each day. Most storefront owners sweep up the sidewalks and streets outside their stores, too. Making it your business to keep communal space clean is a distinctly different mindset from some Western countries. Just think of all the gum-strewn, littered streets of big cities in America.

Cleanliness is next to godliness


Harmony brings happiness to the Japanese sense of groupism

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Valentine’s shrine

Namba One Shrine – made entirely of cookies and chocolates


There’s often a lighthearted aspect to Shinto, evidence of which can be seen in ‘a candy shrine’ to Valentine’s Day put up by a shopping centre in Osaka.  You could see it as a curious mix of the traditional enmusubi (love connection) aspect of shrines with imported notions about love on Valentine’s Day.  The result, as this report from the Japan Times shows, is peculiarly Japanese.  (The website for the shrine speaks of Fushimi Inari as ‘a love power spot’, and being able to hang up an ema at the Valentine shrine as a means of gaining romantic fulfilment.)


Matchmaking Namba One Shrine

Valentine’s Day in Japan is quite a different affair to that of the West. On Feb. 14, it is the women who confess their love to the men, and they do so by giving chocolates to the objects of their affections.

Women don’t take this custom lightly, looking for good chocolates, sometimes even making them. To help them in their love quest, Namba Walk, an underground shopping center in Osaka has set up a Namba One (No. 1) match-making shrine.

Constructed entirely from cookies, biscuits, macaroons and chocolates, this shrine was designed and created by students from Osaka Cooking and Confectionery College. It’s a sweets version of Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto, which is famous for its god of good fortune and matchmaking. Like any other shrine, visitors will find ema (votive tablets) and omikuji (written fortunes), while special gifts will also be given to visitors looking for romance. (Izumi Iwaki)

The shrine's logo, complete with the Inari konkon mascot


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Iceland neo-paganism

High priest of the Asatru Association, Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, leads a procession at the Pingvellir National Park near Reykjavík. Photograph: Reuters


Neopagan religions like Wicca have been on the rise in the West since the 1970s.  Their appeal lies in the reclaiming of an affinity with nature and ancestral spirits, as well as an absence of doctrine and dogma.  This has gone along with a desire for spirituality in an age marked by the waning of belief in Christianity, with its patriarchal values.

Now in an article from The Guardian news comes of a revival of the old ways in Iceland, with a strong environmental element underpinning a symbolic and psychological attachment to the gods of old.  As such there’s much in common with Shinto, which like other pagan religions is polytheistic and nature oriented.  The big difference of course is that Shinto has been sponsored by the state since Meiji times, whereas neo-pagan religions in the West remain minority beliefs at odds with the mainstream.

As the article below points out, paganism can take on elements of nationalism through the glorification of deities particular to a race or people.  But modern times are crying out for a new form of borderless environmentalism.  Perhaps sometime in the future, when neopaganism has become more established, an international alliance of pagan religions will emerge which embraces Shinto as a fellow faith.  Like-minded people guided by the wisdom of the past and reaching out in the spirit of global collaboration – now there’s a vision for the future.


Back for Thor: how Iceland is reconnecting with its pagan past    The Guardian, Feb 6, 2015

On Thursday, Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, who lives near Reykjavík, flew to the tiny fishing town of Höfn on Iceland’s south-east coast to conduct a marriage ceremony. He is not a churchman or a registrar; in fact, he is a pioneering film composer and musician who has collaborated with Sigur Rós and Björk among others. But thanks to his position as high priest of Iceland’s neo-pagan Ásatrúarfélagið or Asatru Association, he has an authority formally recognised by the Icelandic state to conduct marriages, name children and bury the dead.

The ceremony itself, Hilmarsson said shortly before departing, would be a simple one: after performing a hallowing ritual to sanctify the space, he would read from one of Iceland’s celebrated epic poems and then invoke three ancient Norse gods and, “as a countermeasure”, three goddesses including the fertility deity Freyja. The couple would then grasp a large copper ring and make vows to each other, and that would largely be that. “It’s a short ceremony; there’s no preaching because the idea is it’s the couple who are marrying themselves, and I just sanctify that.”

Hilmarsson has conducted more than 200 weddings during his time as high priest, but he and the Norse pantheon of Thor, Odin, Freyr and Frigg are likely to find themselves even busier in future. In the 12 years since he took over its leadership, membership of the Ásatrúarfélagið, which the Icelandic government recognises as a formal state religion, has increased sixfold. In March, after decades of planning, the group will start building what is almost certainly the first temple to the pagan Norse deities since Iceland was officially converted to Christianity in 1000AD.

Norse deities rise from the dead to capture the imagination of new generations


Not that this is a religion like many others. He may be building a temple to Thor and his fellows, but Hilmarsson says he doesn’t pray to the Norse gods or worship them in any recognisable sense, nor does he believe in the literal truth of the texts – the treasure-trove of 13th century Icelandic “Eddas” recording the mythology of earlier times – on which the religion is based. He cheerfully admits that the rituals and blods or gatherings that the group practises are no more than creative reimaginings of how pre-Christian Norse people related to their deities.

“So yes, it’s partly a ‘romantiquarianism,’” he says of his faith. “But at the same time, we feel that this is a viable way of life and has a meaning and a context. It is a religion you can live and die in, basically.”

Happily for him and the group’s 3,000 members, the Icelandic government agrees, meaning that the organisation is entitled to a share of the religious taxes that each Icelandic citizen is obliged to pay. The result, after more than a decade of careful saving, will be the wooden-clad new temple or hof, built on a quiet section of Reykjavík’s shore with a wall of south-facing glass designed to capture the rising and setting sun on the shortest day of the year.

There, the group will gather for weekly study and for the five main feasts of the year when, under the leadership of a robe-clad Hilmarsson, they will gather around a central fire, recite the poems, make sacrificial drink offerings to the gods – unlike some pagan groups they do not practise animal sacrifice – and feast on sacred horsemeat.

Honouring the mystery of life is a universal trait

By the time the Icelandic Eddas were written down in the 13th century, an active belief in the pantheon of historic gods they describe was already archaic. For centuries, however, the Viking world from Iceland to the Black Sea had been shaped by belief in the central world-tree of Yggdrasil, the hammer-wielding god Thor, the one-eyed, raven-attended Odin and a host of elves, trolls and nature spirits.

Rosa Thorsteinsdóttir, a folklorist at the University of Iceland’s Institute of Icelandic Studies who has been collecting and archiving the country’s oral legends, says it is impossible to know whether the pre-Christian stories survived in the oral folklore after the country’s conversion, but even after a millennium of Christianity, nature beliefs never quite died out. “People tell fairy stories of the hidden people; there are nature spirits that walk over the country and you should not disturb them. These stories are alive.”

Her own name, she notes, is derived from Thor’s stone – “there are many, many names in Iceland linked with Thor”. Interest in the Norse myths revived, as elsewhere, in the late 19th century, and again in the spiritually conscious 1960s and early 1970s, when the Edda manuscripts were returned to Iceland from Denmark.

The reason for the recent flowering in neo-paganism among Iceland’s young is less easily explained, however. On a mild Wednesday evening in central Reykjavík, a group of a dozen or so members have gathered for the organisation’s weekly reading group, to pore over the elder Edda. Several of those present are in their 50s, but more than half are twentysomethings. The atmosphere is less that of a ritualised session or religious prayer meeting than a lively Chaucerian study group with beer and biscuits, in which members interrupt a lively debate to share their delight in a favourite image or metaphor.

Thor has a hammer, Daikoku has a mallet. Commonalities between pagan religions are the norm rather than the exception.

Linus Orri, a thoughtful 25-year-old environmental activist, says he thinks the group’s appeal lies in the fact that “in a world that is quite artificial, here there seems to be an interest in the real, something authentic – whether that’s searching for some older wisdom or the truth about how society was, or whether it’s [our] commitment to nature, I can’t really say”.

“Also, the group is so incredibly inclusive. You get a really unpretentious group of people for some reason. Nobody would pretend to be having a conversation with Thor, for example.”

Unlike some neo-pagan societies across the world, the group has been careful to permit no space for far-right ideology and has severed all ties with outside organisations (“Some of them are really pissed off that a stupid hippy nation should have the sources in their own language,” says Hilmarsson.)

For Sólveig Anna Bóasdóttir, a professor of theology and ethics at the University of Iceland, the growth of paganism may be explained by the country’s complicated relationship with Christianity – in one sense, Iceland is a highly secular society, but she says 90% of 14-year-olds still undergo confirmation in the state Lutheran church, which remains rich and powerful thanks to the country’s religious taxation.

Though equal marriage, for example, is now accepted in the state church, she believes many were disillusioned by the long debate over the issue, and by a more recent spat (“I think it was simply racist,” says Bóasdóttir) over whether to permit Iceland’s first mosque to be built near Reykjavík.

“In Iceland we don’t really have this situation with the evangelical churches on the rise. Rather, it would be these alternatives that are quite moderate, like the Ásatrúarfélagið, that hold the appeal. People respect them.”


For a guide to the Viking deities, see here:

For a discussion of paganism and Shinto, see the series on Pagan Pasts beginning with this one here.

Pagan cloth offerings on a pathway to Mt Fuji – a coming together of East and West

Posted in Paganism | 5 Comments

An optimistic religion

There’s an interesting interpretation of Shinto as a folk religion on the Japan News website (owned by the conservative-leaning Yomiuri Shimbun).  The article is notable for stressing the communal nature of the religion, in contrast to the personal belief systems of such faiths as Buddhism and Christianity.  The professor’s views on the benevolent nature of kami, however, stand in opposition to the notion that early worship arose from the placation of angry deities.  As is well-known, deities have a ‘rough spirit’ as well as a calm or kind one, and nature’s bountifulness is often offset by the infliction of disasters.  The notion that ‘Japanese gods are gods that cannot do bad things’ seems completely at odds with Susanoo no mikoto and the changeable character of the deities.  It is after all their human-like nature that makes people feel close to them.


Japan’s Traditional Culture of Folk Beliefs
Hiroyuki Torigoe, Professor, Faculty of Human Sciences, Waseda University

Hioryuki Tomogoe, professor at Waseda

Many people in Japan visited Shinto shrines at the beginning of the new year. Long lines formed at even the small local shrine near my home, snaking out of the grounds and down the road. Rather than consisting of just elderly people, these lines reflected an even distribution of age, from children to young couples, the middle-aged and the elderly. As evident in this scene, there are no signs of a decline in Japanese folk religion.

At New Year’s, people read fortune slips to check their fortunes for the coming year. The slips are popular among young women. People burn wooden prayer sticks to pray for the safety of their families and the prosperity of their businesses. Both are New Year events.

During hatsumōde (the first visit to a shrine of the new year), people pray for their happiness over the coming year. Naturally, some make specific requests for things like passing an entrance exam. Very small amounts of money (50 yen on average) are tossed into the donation box for such “big favors.” As this cannot be regarded as a fair exchange by any stretch of the imagination, no rationally-thinking person would conclude that the gods will take the request seriously.

Yet we still join our hands in prayer at shrines for the safety of our families and the happiness of our friends and feel like we’ve done something good. And we optimistically wonder if the gods might possibly grant our requests. This “doing something good” and “optimism” are keys to understanding Japanese folk religion.

Japanese folk religion has traditionally been more of a communal religion than a personal one. Even today, the Emperor of Japan plants rice at the Imperial Palace—a ritual in which the Emperor prays for a bountiful rice harvest as the head of the community (the “community” in this case being Japan). Speaking of rice, long ago when there were not enough irrigation systems, the Emperor would send a messenger to a place like Mount Yoshino to pray for rain when it seemed the people would be unable to secure the water needed that year.

'Let me go out with Nakamura san' asks this ema prayer board, optimistically

As you may know from Japanese history, there have been several Emperors since ancient times who were devout followers of Buddhism. These Buddhist Emperors faithfully held community events like rainmaking rituals and the Autumn Harvest Festival (Niiname-sai). There was no sense of contradiction in this for either the Emperors or the people around them. This was because Buddhism was a personal religion while folk religion was a communal one.

If the head of the community does not hold these events as its head, his title loses its meaning. This is different, however, from a personal religious belief. On the other hand, one cannot be both a Buddhist and a Christian since both Buddhism and Christianity are personal religions.

Thus, Japanese folk religion is a communal religion in which, essentially, “everyone” in the community prays for the happiness (good harvest and long life) of “everyone.” At some stage, specialized Shinto priests emerged and took charge of the events (in a way, the Emperor also possesses the attributes of a Shinto priest). At any rate, “everyone” prayed to the gods on behalf of “everyone” in principle. And this was “something good.”

In fact, while there are nature gods like the god of fire and the god of water, Japanese gods (kami) are primarily ancestral gods, or what are called “tutelary gods” (ujigami). When a grandfather or grandmother dies, the entire family prays, believing that the soul of the deceased will be purified through prayer and transform into a god over time. The more the family prays, the purer the ancestor becomes and the closer he or she gets to godhood. Thus, even if the spirit of the deceased tries to do bad things, it will be transformed from a demon or a ghost into a god through prayer.

Sugawara no Michizane, whose malevolent spirit was appeased by being deified and worshipped at shrines

This tenet gives ancestral gods a very distinct feature: they never do anything bad to their descendants. When a high school student about to take the college entrance exam and her parents pray to a god (they could go to the memorial tablet of a grandfather who had died not that long ago), the god (grandfather) will never respond, “Ha! That’s a good one. I never really liked this kid, so I’m going to make her fail.” From the god’s perspective, being an ancestral god is inconvenient in a way—his vector only moves in the direction of good because the family is always praying to him. He doesn’t have the ability to do bad things.

To take a well-known example from history, after the death of Sugawara no Michizane, his political opponents became sick and died and natural disasters occurred, leading people to believe that these events were caused by his wrath.

As a result, the government of the time built the Tenmangū shrine in Dazaifu dedicated to Michizane. Once the shrine was built, people prayed to Michizane continuously; his will changed, and he became a god who only did good things.

In other words, Japanese gods (kami) are gods that cannot do bad things and are not to be feared. They are easy to get along with, compared to gods in other countries. You could say this is a very optimistic way of thinking.

With their openness to nature and gratitude for the blessings of life, Shinto shrines project an aura of optimism

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National Foundation Day

Shrines today are decked out with flags for the supposed establishment of the nation by Emperor Jimmu


Today being February 11 it’s a public holiday known as Foundation Day.  Flags are flying, and people are out enjoying themselves on a crisp sunny day in Kyoto.  At various shrines around the country there are special events to mark the occasion – martial arts, displays of bonsai, even some football (or kemari as the Heian-era kick-ball is known).

The national holiday was first held in 1967 as a day to reflect on the establishment of the nation and to nurture a love for the country.  It’s basically a resurrected piece of State Shinto celebrating the Yamato imperial lineage that is said to have presided over Japan from the seventh century onwards.  From 1872 to 1948, February 11 was known as Kigen-setsu, a holiday commemorating the ascension of Emperor Jimmu to the throne in 660 BC according to the Nihon Shoki (720).

Emperor Jimmu is a mythical figure thought to have been a later invention, and the dating of 660 BC is acknowledged as fanciful. Like King Arthur, he may have been a composite figure around whom legend accrued and to whom heroic tales were attached.  We therefore have the fascinating situation in which ‘modern democratic’ Japan celebrates the mythical founding of the country by an imperial lineage which remains the country’s symbolic representative.

None of this would matter very much if it did not contain the nucleus of a resurgent nationalism based on retrogressive nostalgia for State Shinto.  It’s why at certain shrines today rightwing extremists will be gathering to display their patriotic fervour.  It’s an occasion when particularism gains the upper hand over universalism.

For its part Green Shinto will be looking forward to the Vernal Equinox (Shunbun no hi), a national holiday established in the heady postwar days of 1948 as a day for the admiration of nature and living things.  Now there’s something worth celebrating!


An article in Japan Today on Feb 12 points out that 8 out of 10 Japanese have no awareness of the significance of the public holiday on Feb 11.  This was immediately seized on by the rightwing who declared it a source of national shame and a need to install a correct understanding of history.  ‘“In an ever-more globalized society, it will be necessary to provide well rounded education in national history, including a nation’s founding, at the compulsory education level,” said Hirofumi Munehisa, speaker of the Japan Jaycee Assembly on National History.  Mythology as history apparently lives on in the minds of some.

Rightwing extremists will be taking their trucks to gather at certain shrines across the country, including Yasukuni and Kashihara Jingu, supposedly built on the site of the palace of Emperor Jimmu

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