Shimane website

It’s kamiari time in Izumo, when all the gods of Japan (except Ebisu) gather for their annual meeting in Shimane.  How appropriate then that Green Shinto should carry a piece about Shimane.

2012 marked 1300 years since the publication of Kojiki.  To mark the occasion Shimane Prefecture commissioned an English language website, which Izumi Hasegawa of the Shusse Inari Jinja in Matsue worked on.  Our thanks to her for drawing our attention to this gem of a website.

As readers of Green Shinto will know, we are a big fan of the attractive Izumo Province, which is full of folklore, historical sites and mythical associations. These have previously been hard to access for English speakers, but now light is shed thanks to Izumi’s work on the website.


Shimane coast, along the coast to Hinomisaki

The contents include a piece about the Kojiki; the entry to the underworld (Yamotsu Hirasaka); the fearsome monster, Yamata no Orochi; Tales of Okuninushi; the splitting of the country, known as Kunibiki; the role of Saké; the roots of Kabuki (Izumo no Okuni); Izumo Taisha, grandest of all shrines; and a feature article on Sengu rebuilding.

Our favourite piece is the account of Okuninushi and the Rabbit (or Hare), because of the compassion it shows with animals. Sadly, despite being an animist religion, Shinto’s record on animal rights is not noteworthy.  The historical ban on eating meat was instigated on Buddhist principles, and there is no known case in which Shinto priests have spoken out against animal cruelty.  Here in the tale of Okuninushi are grounds for thinking they should.


The following is taken with acknowledgement from

Okuninushi and the Rabbit

Okuninushi lived in the land of Izumo in Ashihara-no-nakatsukuni with his numerous brothers. One day, his brothers heard of a goddess of unrivaled beauty named Yagami-hime. She lived in the land of Inaba, and every one of them wanted to ask for her hand in marriage. When they set out for Inaba, they brought Okuninushi along as their servant to carry their baggage, which was so heavy that he soon lagged behind the group.

Cape Keta, where Okuninushi met the rabbit of Inaba. (photo from website)

When his brothers reached Cape Keta in Inaba, they came upon a rabbit lying on the ground that had been stripped of its skin and was crying in pain. The brothers said to the rabbit, “You should wash off in seawater and then climb to the top of a high hill where the winds blow strongly to dry off. You’ll recover very quickly if you do.”

So the rabbit did as it was told, but instead of recovering, things got worse. As the winds blew, its skin dried and cracked, and the salt from the seawater got into its cracked skin. It couldn’t stand the pain, and fell down crying.

When Okuninushi, who was still trailing the group, finally reached Cape Keta, he saw the rabbit crying out in pain, and asked it what had happened.

The rabbit replied, “I’m from the island of Oki, and I wanted to cross over to the mainland. There was no way for me to do it on my own, so I decided to fool the sharks that live in the waters around Oki. I called out to one of the sharks, ‘Let’s see which there are more of, you sharks or us rabbits. Have all your fellow sharks line up one by one from here to Cape Keta, and I’ll count you. Then we’ll know for sure which group is bigger.’ ”

“And they did just like I said. So I ran over them, counting each one, and just as I was about to reach land, I said, ‘I just tricked you all into doing what I wanted.’ Just then, the last shark in the line caught me and bit my fur right off me. As I was lying here, a large group of gods came along and told me to wash off in seawater and then go where the wind would dry me off. I did what they told me, but now things are even worse.”

This bronze statue of Okuninushi and the rabbit of Inaba is on the grounds of Izumo Taisha. (photo from website)

Hearing this, Okuninushi told the rabbit, “Go to that river over there and wash off in fresh water. Then gather some cattails, spread them out on the ground and roll over them. You’ll be as good as new in no time.” So the rabbit did as it was told, and soon it had completely healed.

Then the rabbit said to Okuninushi, “Your brothers will never earn the love of Yagami-hime. Even though you look like a poor servant, she will fall in love with and marry you.” When Okuninushi finally arrived at Yagami-hime’s palace, the rabbit’s prediction came true. Yagami-hime said to his brothers, “I will have nothing to do with any of you. Okuninushi is the one I will marry.”Hearing this, his brothers were enraged, and they decided to kill Okuninushi. Each time they tried, his mother came to his rescue and was able to save him, but their plots became so frequent that his mother said to him, “If you stay here, your brothers will succeed in killing you.” So Okuninushi fled far away, to the house of Susano-o in the land of Ne, the Underworld.


For the Shimane website on mythology, click here.
For Matsue and its connections with Lafcadio Hearn, click here.
For a review of a PhD on Izumo Taisha, click here.
For a piece on Izumo no Okuni, founder of kabuki, click here.
All about the mists, myths and otherness of Izumo here.
The wonderful Izumo Taisha is written about here.


Susanoo slays the monster Orochi, just one of the many myths set in the Izumo region

Festival Day, Oct 22

Just a reminder that Oct 22 is a big day for Kyoto, with the Jidai Matsuri (Festival of Ages) during the daytime and the Kurama Hi Matsuri (Fire Festival) in the evening. The former is run by Heian Shrine and the latter by little Yuki Shrine in Kurama Temple.

The two festivals make an interesting contrast. One was created in Meiji times as a conscious attempt to revive the city’s fortunes in the wake of the move of the emperor and his associates from Kyoto to Tokyo. It’s given the full backing of the city in provision of its lavish costumes etc, and it has a strong imperial bias in keeping with Kyoto being the seat of the emperor for over 1000 years.

Kurama Fire Festival by contrast has the feel of a traditional village festival with an air of merriment and spontaneity as revellers parade their large burning bamboo torches along the main street of the small settlement. “Saireya, sairyo,” shout the torch bearers. When they turn to rush up the steep stairs at the entrance to the temple-shrine, things can get quite sparky. Literally.

Both festivals are parades. Both memorialise Japanese history. But while one is a stately procession of 2000 people that seems to go on forever, the other has something of the true spirit of kami possession (or would do if only the police didn’t sanitise the whole thing by keeping the crowds back and the traffic flowing!).


The following comes from the monthly publication, Kyoto Visitors Guide.

The Jidai Matsuri Festival (Oct. 22)
The rich costume pageant portraying Kyoto’s history

In 1895, Kyoto city held its first Jidai Matsuri Festival: a colorful, exotic costume parade dedicated to the Old Capital’s 1100 year history. The first festival also marked the opening of Heian Shrine, a 2/3 scale model of Kyoto’s original imperial palace. The shrine was specially built to enshrine the spirit of Emperor Kammu (reigning 781-806), who founded Kyoto in 794, and the city’s last reigning emperor and Emperor Komei (reigning 1847-1866).

Today, after nearly 120 years, the Jidai Matsuri Festival continues to be a major focus of pride for the city of Kyoto. For most visitors, the festival’s biggest attraction lies in the fantastic range of authentic historical costumes, covering twelve centuries of Kyoto’s history and social development, worn by the participants.

The festival begins at seven in the morning on the 22nd with the transferal, on sacred palanquins, a covered seat carried on poles on the shoulders of two or four people, of the imperial spirits from Heian Shrine to the Old Imperial Palace. At around 12:00, the southern central axis of the Old Imperial Palace becomes a massive stage of the ages. The procession departs from here and slowly makes its way through the streets of Kyoto to Heian Shrine.

Oct. 22 Kurama Fire Festival in Kurama

The festival begins at sunset with the lighting of fire lanterns in front of each house; The highlight of the festival is watching the men in traditional clothing as they walk up through the village straining under the weight of huge fire torches (5-6 meters long, weighing over 100 kg); Around 20:00, a group of cheering men race up the stairs to Yuki Shrine carrying a large mikoshi (portable shrine) to make the annual offering to the gods

Access: Eizan Railways Kurama Stn. (from Demachiyanagi Stn.; *The train after 17:00 or so, expect to wait in line and be packed in; It’s best to go early and leave early.

For a two and a half minute video of the fire festival, with lots of chanting, smoke and flames, see

For a similar length video that gives a feel of the Jidai Matsuri, see

Yasukuni comments

85 lawmakers visit Yasukuni Shrine

85 lawmakers visit Yasukuni Shrine
A Shinto priest leads a group of lawmakers at Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo on Tuesday. AFP

Japan Today carries news of political use of Yasukuni Shrine by members of the Japanese Diet.  It also carries a lively comments section from which some have been culled and appended below.


TOKYO —Dozens of Japanese lawmakers visited a controversial war shrine on Tuesday, in an annual pilgrimage that has angered China and South Korea, who see it as a painful reminder of Tokyo’s warring past. A group of 85 politicians arrived at the leafy Yasukuni Shrine in downtown Tokyo during a four-day autumn festival. It was not immediately clear if any cabinet ministers were among the group.

The visit comes a day after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe—who has been criticised for what some see as a revisionist take on the country’s wartime record—sent an offering to the shrine, but avoided a visit. Abe and other nationalists say Yasukuni is a place to remember fallen soldiers and compare it to Arlington National Cemetery in the United States.On Monday, speaking in Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying blasted Abe’s offering, urging Japan to “reflect on its aggressive history and take concrete actions to win back the trust of its Asian neighbors and the international community”.

Abe visited in December 2013 to mark his first year in power, a pilgrimage that sparked fury in Beijing and Seoul and earned a diplomatic rebuke from close ally the United States, which said it was “disappointed” by the action. He has since refrained from going, sending ritual offerings instead.


Schopenhauer Yasukuni shrine today is legally one of many religious organizations existing in Japan. It is a “private” religious group. I visited the shrine and found they justify the prewar Japanese militarism. It is OK if they think so since it is a private religious body. But it is not good the government members visit the shrine regularly as if Yasukuni has a special meaning to Japan. The War Dead Memorial Serivice on August 15 at Budokan is enough where the emperor and the prime minister attend.

GW ……here we go again, getting it wrong, why aren’t these suits going to Chidorigafuchi instead!!!

Strangerland Every nation has the right to honor their war dead.”
And every other nation has the right to protest a shrine that whitewashes said war. That’s a blade that cuts both ways.

Schopenhauer Yasukuni shrine today is legally one of many religious organizations existing in Japan. It is a “private” religious group. I visited the shrine and found they justify the prewar Japanese militarism. It is OK if they think so since it is a private religious body. But it is not good the government members visit the shrine regularly as if Yasukuni has a special meaning to Japan. The War Dead Memorial Serivice on August 15 at Budokan is enough where the emperor and the prime minister attend.

smithinjapanAly Rustom wrote: “When American politicians visit Arlington, they just go ahead and do it quietly. They don’t bring the cameras like these muppets do. Why not just visit the shrine quietly and privately?”
Exactly! These guys tell the media they are going, ask them to follow, go in suits and use transportation that is put aside for political purposes, go on the public’s dime, and sign in in their official capacity — then try to say it is a personal visit when it is anything but. THAT is a PART of the problem.

choiwaruoyaji This is good news because it gives foreign people the chance to hear about the scary extreme nationalist religious cult (Nippon Kaigi) that these people belong to.

MrBum Yeah, yeah, Yasukuni is a religious site. But it’s operated by an organization that has a distorted view of history and includes a museum that white washes it. Yasukuni is not just any Shinto shrine. Look up its history and who funds it. It’s a symbol of the ultra-nationalist (and revisionist) right in Japan and everyone knows it. Your average citizen can go wherever they want without complaint, but politicians represent their country. They still have the right to worship where they want, but there are consequences to their actions. In this case, their very public actions understandably upsets Japan’s neighbors and adds unnecessary tension to their relations.

Shigemori Mirei and the power of rock


Shigemori’s trademark garden is this Horai recreation at Tofuku-ji, which was his first ever commission. The south-facing garden which is the official face of the Abbot’s Quarters is deliberately conventional in comparison with his other creations. More than just decorative, the garden serves religious ends. Raking the gravel is a training in mindfulness, and the Horai Isles are a mythical ideal where opposites are reconciled, presenting a lesson in Zen thinking about the underlying unity of the universe.

Green Shinto has carried several articles on the common elements between Zen and Shinto, some of which focus on rocks and the raking of sand or pebbles. The spiritual significance of rocks is another subject which the blog has covered at various times. This is all brought together in an article for the ZenVita architectural design site which deals with Shigemori Mirei, the twentieth century garden designer whose work can be found in both Zen temples and Shinto shrines.  Here’s the link for the article:

And here’s how the article begins…


Shigemori’s checkerboard pattern of moss and stone slabs echoes the Japanese aesthetic of ‘mikansei’, or incompleteness, as it fades away into the ‘borrowed scenery’ of a nearby grove of trees.

Rocks in Japan have long been seen as sacred. In Shinto there are ‘spirit-bodies’ made of rock which form the object of worship, the idea being that ancestral spirits descend into them and are made manifest. These special rocks, known as iwakura, are hung with rice rope and treated with reverence. In Buddhism too rocks are revered, and all over Japan are bibbed stones representing Jizo, guardian of the dead.

The association with the dead is typical of an animist universe in which rocks represent continuity, in contrast to the transient world of vegetation. The desire for life after death means that the human spirit is associated with the former, the human body with the latter. The connections were reinforced by ancient burial patterns, when bodies were sealed in tombs (or left on hillsides). While the body decayed, the spirit was absorbed into the rock.

Some see these numinous rocks as the origin of Japanese gardens, for they were marked off as distinct from the surrounding nature. The ground around them may have been cleared, and as time passed other rocks were added and arranged in groups. The placement was done with care, for these were the seat of spirits. As Alan Watts pointed out, rocks are not dead and inorganic but foster life, the supreme example being the large rock on which we hurtle through space and which ‘peopled’ us into existence. ‘Where there are rocks, watch out!’ said Watts.

One person very much aware of the potency of rocks was the twentieth-century garden designer, Shigemori Mirei ((1896-1975). He was a follower of Shinto, and the house in which he lived near Kyoto University had belonged to a line of priests from nearby Yoshida Jinja. ‘Nature is a world made by the gods,’ he once wrote, and in an essay on the Japanese garden he identified nature worship as the source. Interestingly, his trademark feature is standing stones.

(to read more, please click here to see the full and original ZenVita posting.)


A recreation of mythical Mt Sumeru at the centre of the cosmos. But what is the significance of a rock being at the centre of the universe? A possible answer is suggested in the article…

Hata 8) Kawakatsu festival (Osake Jinja)


Priests attending the initial ceremony prior to the start of the festival.  This is the serious religious part of the festival, after which things start to get a little wilder.

Autumn is here, and the festival season is in full swing. People associate this with harvests and nature worship, though many if not most of the festivals are nominally ancestral. That of Osake Jinja in Ako City (Hyogo Prefecture) is a case in point. Known as the Sakoshi Boat Festival, it started in Edo times to honour the memory of Hata no Kawakatsu , a Culture Hero and one of the leaders of the realm in the early seventh century. His supposed grave is just offshore from the shrine on the sacred Iki island, forbidden to visitors.

The festival is known as one of the Inland Sea’s three great boat festivals, along with Tenjin Matsuri in Osaka and that of Itsukushima at Hiroshima.  It was everything you would wish a festival to be – dedicated to a clan leader of the past, it was marked by wild abandon, joyful high spirits and traditional style entertainment.

Followers of this blog will know of the vital role the Hata clan played in the establishment of Kyoto (as well as being the founders of the popular Fushimi Inari). This post follows up an earlier one on Hata no Kawakatsu (?567-647), who acted as advisor to the top of the realm, Prince Shotoku. The Hata probably had Chinese origins (the Chinese character for their name was the same as the ruling dynasty of China). They may well have linked up with the Yamato clan because of their shared immigrant status (personally I suspect a common Chinese heritage, but that’s my own pet theory; most authorities claim the Yamato as linked with Korea).

It seems that after the death of Prince Shotoku in 622, Kawakatsu fell into disfavour with members of the Soga clan and escaped to a place on the coast (currently Ako City). He died here and was supposedly buried on the offshore island of Iki, where by tradition a kofun (burial mound) marks his grave. The island is now regarded as sacred and no one but the priests and festival members are allowed onto it. A torii and shrine mark the worship area; the burial mound is at the other end of the small forested island.


The sacred island of Iki on which lies the burial mound of Hata no Kawakatsu. Because Sakoshi Bay is shielded from typhoons, it was a major stopping point for boats in ancient times.


The festival began with one of the best purification rites I’ve ever seen, as Sarutahiko leads the way swinging a large haraigushi stick from side to side of the pathway, followed by two fearsome Chinese dragons. Symbolically a native Jomon figure of reddish features guiding the way for Chinese immigrants, perhaps…


A four-legged shishi, not easy to navigate the flight of stairs. Traditional Chinese-style entertainment guaranteed to scare little kids and amuse the parents


The initial purification rite which took over half an hour to progress down the stairs was very very slow (a reminder of the different sense of time in former ages compared with today). Surprisingly, the priest and dignitaries were all drinking alcohol as they took part in this slow opening procession.


Once down the steps the procession suddenly raced at full and exhilarating speed towards the beach and the pre-launch festivities on the sand.


There was much jostling among the inebriated loin-clothed boatmen as they fetched long planks to set up a gangway for the mikoshi


Edo-style cheerleaders added a colourful and flamboyant touch to the proceedings


The mikoshi was accompanied by the sound of a conch shell being blown shugendo-style


The festival had a Dionysian feel as chanting naked men jostled and teased each other while chanting and hoisting long wooden planks as they charged around the beach


Once afloat the oarsmen playfully made ‘raids’ on the onlookers


There were some acrobatics too as the cheerleaders were hoisted aloft


Sweets are thrown to the crowd, who compete to get hold of the lucky festival souvenirs


Another of the planks is taken up to the accompaniment of chants and banter by the intoxicated rowers


After all the celebrations the mikoshi is hoisted aloft and taken onto a boat. There were nine boats in all, two with rowers and the others motorpowered or towed. One was for gagaku, one for officials, etc. The announcer said that one was reserved ‘for those who don’t drink’.


The mikoshi and other boats first sail around the small bay (making a round of the parish, as it were) before heading for the sacred island behind.


One of the boats at the sacred island, where a torii marks the arrival point for visitors.


The mikoshi is born to its ‘otabisho’ (resting place) where a short service was held. Meanwhile, other participants headed back to shore.


Piled wood waiting to be lit at dusk; notice the sake bottle waiting for those who light the fire. There was a long line of similar piles of firewood the length of the beach, to be set alight at dusk when participants gathered for bento and omiki (festival saké).  It marks the end of a great day of entertainment for the kami, and you can be sure there will be plenty of sore limbs and even sorer heads the following morning.



For six minute video of the event on youtube, click here.

For previous entries about the Hata clan:
Part 1 Overview
Part 2 Kawakatsu
Part 3 Silkworm shrine
Part 4 Triangular torii
Part 5 Early Buddhism
Part 6 Matsuo Taisha

Part 7 Inari origins

Kasuga Shrine teletour

Kasuga Taisha in Nara, one of the country’s foremost shrines, is having its twenty-year renewal at the moment, and since the four honden are being rebuilt and repainted, the kami have been taken out to temporary quarters. It means that visitors have a rare chance to go into the usually off-limits Sanctuary where the kami normally resides. To mark the occasion, ABC television channel ran a short programme showing a couple guided round the shrine by a priest.


Aerial view of the main Kasuga complex. It is set in a wooded area next to the famous deer park, and there are 61 subshrines in all.


The two visitors express excitement at being able to see the honden.


On the approach are rows of stone lanterns, donated by people in the past in hope of ‘worldly benefit’.


These ‘golden lanterns’ are rather special, donated by Tokugawa Ieyasu for a young relative


Inside the shrine are some 1000 hanging lanterns. ‘There are various designs,’ one of the visitors notes.The lanterns are lit up for the special Manto Matsuri at Obon.


The Chumon gate, normally closed so as to prevent access to the honden.


Finally the couple are led nto the most sacred area of the shrine, normally off-limits to all but the priests.


The restored honden are immaculate in their new coats of paint.


Pictures too have been restored, first time for forty years.


To the side of the honden are the temporary quarters of the kami, to whom the group make their prayers.


Some of the treasures in the Kasuga museum include these splendid and huge taiko drums donated at the time of Hideyoshi


This splendid bird must have been seen as divine in ancient times, flying gracefully and mysteriously between worlds.


One of Kasuga’s subshrines boasts a popular ‘enmusubi collection of heart ema.


The young man however preferred to head for another of the subshrines where he earnestly prayed for winning the lottery, or at any rate getting lots of money.


For a detailed description of Kasuga Taisha, see p. 160 in Shinto Shrines: A Guide to the Sacred Sites of Japan’s Ancient Religion by Joseph Cali and John Dougill

Koxinga Shrine in Taiwan


Today’s Koxinga Shrine in Tainan, Taiwan (courtesy chipango)

The Koxinga Shrine in Taiwan is typical of Chinese ancestral shrines, and similar to those of Japan. It was set up by by Zheng Jing (1642-1681), to worship his father Koxinga.  When Taiwan became part of the Qing Empire, it was renamed The Cheng’s Ancestral Shrine, then came under Japanese influence in prewar years when a torii and other Shinto features were added.  Today the official name is Ancestral Shrine of Koxinga, though only an old well is all that is left from the original. The shrine typifies the commonality of ancestor worship across East Asia, with clan shrines typically set up for worship of their founding father.  In more modern times, Tosho-gu at Nikko is a prime example, set up by Tokugawa Ieyasu’s grandson to deify the dynastic head.
152, Kaishan Road, West Central District Tainan, Taiwan
Dates of (re)founding:
1662, 1875, 1914, 1963
Present structure:
Reinforced concrete and steel with red brick walls and green ceramic tiles along with a gray and red brick courtyard
Originally built in 1662 to honor the Ming dynasty loyalist Zheng Chenggong aka Koxinga, a Taiwanese –Japanese pirate who expelled the Dutch from Taiwan
 in 1875 the Qing dynasty rebuilt the shrine in the southern Hokkien style to foster nationalism against the encroaching Europeans powers
 in 1914 the Japanese colonial government added a torii and a worship pavilion to increase Taiwanese solidarity
 in 1963 the KMT government tore down Japanese architectural features and redesigned it in the Han Imperial style to connect Taiwan with mainland China
Symmetry and Axial relationships:
the axis of symmetry is located along the central line through the main hall; it is considered the most sacred space. All of the main spaces of the building would lie on the axis of symmetry; other secondary spaces were located to the left or right of this. There is a broken horizontal axis to further emphasize the importance of the central axis.
the depth and the width of each bay of the building would often be equal to each other with the height being 1.3 times that measurement
 the spaces bordering the enclosure had openings face the main axis of the courtyard
 the number of spaces would range from one through nine, but would never exceeded eleven; typically it was often just seven; nine and eleven were reserved for the imperial palace.
 the number of rooms along the main axis would not exceed five
 odd numbers were preferred as they had a stronger connection with the element of yang/zhong which is connected to balance, order and symmetry
 the roofs were ordered by decreasing height
 the eaves in the front of a building were higher than those at the rear and the eaves at the sides would be lower than those in the center
 the pitch of the roof at the front was often between 30° and 40°
Parts from Public to Private
Worship hall:
during the period of Japanese colonialism a hall of the irimoya zukuri style was placed along the main axis of the complex in front of the main shrine to Koxinga, this was done to add an element of separation similar to Shintoism where secular and sacred space were cut off from one another
The main torii was redesigned to resemble a Chinese paifang, this was done by inscribing the once plain gateway with Chinese characters and designs of traditional lions holding up the symbol of the KMT of the blue sky with a White sun. The lion carvings are placed in front to ward against evil, the male is placed on the left and the female on the right

First built in the southern style with slightly bent roofs then it was changed to the Hokkien style with highly curved roof that almost pointed upwards. Then the Japanese style focused more on a hipped gable roof with a central moya that denotes the center as the most sacred space and the hisashi which is the aisle underneath the eaves of the roof. Shinai or roof ornaments of dragon; fish were added to protect the wooden structure against fire.  The KMT changed the roof to match the imperial style with much steeper pitches
the central spot on the building farthest back on the central axis is the most private as that is where the first brick is lain and because it houses the shrine dedicated to the deified Koxinga, his Taiwanese father, his Japanese mother and his son along with their descendants
Site Context:
The shrine is located in central Tainan, the oldest city in Taiwan which was ruled by Koxinga. Southeast of the shrine there is a museum dedicated to Koxinga. Southwest of the shrine there is the campus of National Tainan Girl’s Senior High School. On all other sides there is a small park that can be accessed by the portal shaped entrances on the sides of the shrine.
Presented by:
Rukshan Vathupola
 Professor Fuller, AET 470 Architectural Programming
 September 21, 2015

Top shows the temple layout, below which is a picture of the temple from 1914-63, and the older temple of 1875,1914. The gateway stands before the present-day temple, and the bottom picture shows the temple pre-1875. All photos courtesy the author.

Pagan Britain 2): Animism

Call it earth worship, call it Gaia, call it neo-paganism, but ancient elements of animism are finding new life in a New Age, and as the revival takes hold, the commonalities with Shinto become ever more apparent. But whereas Britain’s paganism is having to be resurrected, Shinto has long remained a living force in Japan.  Small wonder therefore that visionaries are looking to borrow and synthesise the two traditions.


Sacred rock. Put a ‘shimenawa’ rope around it, and it might be in Japan –except for the sheep of course!


The Adam and Eve rocks of Avebury, equivalent to the Izanangi and Izanami rocks of Japan. (The Avebury rocks were erected around 2,500 BC)


Pagan ribbons tied to a tree at the Avebury stone circle and carrying their prayers aloft on the wind.


The number of pagan prayer ribbons has grown considerably in recent years, testimony to the way in which neo-paganism is taking hold in Britain.


Amongst the prayers is one that looked very much like an ema. Inspired by a visit to Japan?


An improvised pack of goods and spells, including a prayer for the Brexit decision to be reversed.


A statue at the Chalice Well in Glastonbury. Virgin Mary or Earth Goddess?


The first Goddess Temple to be officially registered in over 1500 years! It’s so successful that branches are spreading all over Europe and beyond. Inside one can get smudged by incense from purifying herbs before sitting in contemplation before images of the Goddess – great ancestress like the Sun Goddess of Japan.


Since aesthetics are such an important part of Shinto ritual, I was glad to see someone taking aesthetic care with the arrangement of leaves before a goddess statue.


Within the magnificent cathedrals of England can be found many instances of the mysterious Green Man, ancient pagan symbol and quite possibly descended from Khidr of the Middle East. In Gloucester Abbey the guides informed me there were no fewer than 40 Green Man statues.  Extraordinary!


As in Japan, springs are sacred because of the gift from Earth of life-giving water. This pagan spring at Glastonbury known as White Springs has water with special properties, being particularly rich in iron.

Notice at the White Springs. (Faeries have been claimed by some as the equivalent of kami.)

Notice at the White Springs. (Faeries have been claimed by some as the equivalent of kami.)


I was taking a picture of the offerings outside the White Springs when a robin redbreast suddenly appeared and posed for me. Magical!


In Japan that would be an ‘enmusubi’ tree, a sacred symbol of good relationships. Here at Glastonbury it is marked out too as sacred because of its striking form.

Japanese Culture (book review)

51s2a88l52l-_sx321_bo1204203200_A book on Japanese Culture written by an academic and subtitled ‘The Religious and Philosophical Foundations’ hardly promises to be light reading.  Yet this relatively slim volume (154 pages), while not exactly a bundle of laughs, is clear, accessible and informative.   Indeed, one could go further and say that it’s one of the shortest yet authoritative overviews in print.  ‘A well-rounded, succinct, and thought-provoking analysis’ says Alex Kerr.

The contents speak of the clarity of concept.  After a couple of short sections on The Origins of the Japanese and Approaches to Japanese Cultural History, the book lays out its essentials – Shinto, Buddhism, Taoism, Zen, Confucianism and Western Influences.  Refreshingly, there’s no attempt to put forward a theory explaining Japaneseness.  Rather the book has a sythesising function, with the main assertions referenced to standard authorities such as Reischauer and Alan Watts, etc.

The book evolved out of classes taught at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo to groups of international business students, and it takes the form of a textbook in that each section is followed by Discussion Questions.  However, that does not mean that it is unsuited to personal reading, for the material is well-written and the discussion questions provide food for thought.

The book steers a sensible course through the choppy waters of unadulterated praise and outright condemnation.  I was happy to see acknowledgement in the early chapter that ‘the earliest religion (Shinto) has much in common with the Shamanism of north-east Asia’ rather than the trite assertion  of it being unique to Japan.  The book acknowledges too the borrowings from ‘southern China evident in Japan, including the wet cultivation of rice and the Japanese physique’.  Despite this, the book notes, the Japanese have cultivated a self-image of being racially pure and homogenous.  (Interestingly the selection of mixed blood models for Miss Japan and Miss Japanese Universe in the past couple of years show that this is now being challenged.)

Not all the material is familiar.  For example, the idea of menstruation as an impurity is relatively well-known in Shinto, but the book provides some surprising details: “Women’s menstruation is still considered to be kegare (impure), and so women are barred (or used to be barred) from certain practices in Japan. For example, they are still not permitted to enter the dohyo in Sumo, some mountain shrines such as the one at Mt. Ishizuchi still prohibit women from attending the mountain-opening ceremony every July, and there is still a belief that pregnant women should not attend funerals.”

Some of the assertions are also far from standard.  ‘Early Shinto in Japan can be classified into two categories, ujigami and hitogami‘, the book asserts while referencing a 1967 article by I. Hori.  ‘The former was closely tied to the clan system and the agricultural rituals of agrarian communities; the latter is linked to powerful shamanistic individuals, both male and female, who were believed to have intimate access to kami and the world of the spirits.’

The importance of Taoism and Confucianism in shaping Japanese thinking is often overlooked, but the book gives a good account of their significance.  If there was one section I found problematic it was that of Zen, where the author seems unduly influenced by the D.T. Suzuki school of thinking and makes expansive statements about the sect influencing the whole mentality of the country and its cultural arts.  Many of the influences cited, such as the emphasis on simplicity and purity, predate the arrival of Zen, as do other aspects such as the evolution of haiku. In a series of postings on the subject, Green Shinto has tried to show how in fact Zen itself was shaped by Japanese culture, absorbing many of its salient characteristics.

Nonetheless the book can be thoroughly recommended for anyone wanting to get a basic appreciation of the historical factors shaping Japanese culture.  It serves as a basic introduction, but there is much to learn from even for those familiar with the concepts.  With his balanced air and refusal to indulge in glib theories, Roger Davies has produced a book that helps enormously in the demystifying of Japan.


An Edo-era ema of Confucius displayed in a Shinto shrine. The Chinese sage was honoured for his role in ethics and codifying the relationships by which the stability of state was secured.

Pagan Britain: 1) Glastonbury Tor


Glastonbury Tor, beloved of humans and sheep alike

This summer I made a brief pagan tour of Britain, starting with the most famous site of all – Glastonbury Tor.  It reaches up out of low-lying land surmounted by an ancient tower like a finger pointing heavenwards.  It is a natural hill, but has been shaped by man most notably in the form of a prehistoric labyrinth that wound its way towards the top where rituals may have been carried out to facilitate entry into the world beyond.  From the top are views over the Somerset Levels far away towards the sea on the far horizon.


Eyes drawn upwards by St Michael’s Tower atop the Tor

There are many myths and legends surrounding the Tor, many of which have to do with Faeries, the Underworld and King Arthur. It is thought to be the mythical Isle of Avalon, for until modern times the lowlands flooded for most of the year leaving the hill stranded like a magic island in a watery dimension (the name Glaston derives from the ‘glass’-like shallows that surrounded it).

The uncle of Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea, is said to have visited the area as a tin merchant and to have brought the young Jesus with him.  Intriguingly, there is a thorn tree of a type only found in the Middle East which is said to be descended from a stick Joseph planted into the ground.  The legend inspired a famous poem by William Blake, which was later set to music as Jerusalem – ‘And did those feet in ancient times walk upon England’s mountains green, and was the holy Lamb of God, on England’s pleasant pastures seen!  (Curiously the oddest experience I’ve had on the Tor, to which I like to make a pilgrimage whenever possible) is being rubbed on my back by a sheep while in a state of deep contemplation.)

Early Christians were drawn to the hill, perhaps because of its spiritual heritage, and there may have been monks’ cells here at the time of St Patrick (also said to have visited).  Later a church was raised to St Michael, defeater of dragons, in order to channel the energies of the ‘power spot’, but ironically an earthquake in 1275 destroyed it.  A second church was put up but demolished in 1539 at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII (the church belonged to the Abbey in the town below).  All that survived was the ruined tower that caps the Tor to this day.

In 1191 the monks of Glastonbury Abbey claimed to have discovered the grave of King Arthur.  It was an audacious claim at a time of failing fortunes to increase the fame and thereby the income of the Abbey through the donations of those who came on pilgrimage.  So wealthy was the Abbey that Henry VIII eagerly seized it for the state, hanging the abbot for resistance on top of the Tor.  Now it has been reclaimed by New Agers and neo-pagans, who can often be found along with the day trippers and tourists absorbing the spirit of place.


The ruined tower on the ancient power spot channels a sense of radiance

The ruined tower on the ancient power spot channels a sense of radiance from on high


View from the top of the Tor, looking toward the distant sea. In times past the whole plain would have flooded, and even in recent times it has been covered in water.

Pagan prayer ribbons on a tree by the path to the Tor

Pagan prayer ribbons on a tree by the path to the Tor

Glastonbury Tor

Humans gaze while sheep graze in the meadows below the Tor

There are places on earth that seem to summon those in the vicinity. For millennia the Tor has been doing just that.


The ‘power spot’ of ancient Avalon

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