Animist poem

The immensely moving poem below was written in 1932 and circulated anonymously.  Only after it became popular in Britain following a reading of the poem for a fallen soldier in Northern Ireland was it discovered to have been written by an American poet and housewife, Mary Elizabeth Frye.  The sentiments transcend national and religious boundaries, appealing to the most basic instincts of humanity.  It’s included here by way of respect for those who died this past weekend on the sacred mountain of Mt Ontake.

Do not stand at my grave and weep.
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.

The poem was set to music by Japanese singer-songwriter Man Arai as “千の風になって” (Sen no Kaze ni Natte, or “Become A Thousand Winds”). Other singers later covered the song, among them Japanese tenor Masafumi Akikawa. In January 2007, it became the first classical music piece to top the Oricon weekly singles chart and subsequently the first classical music piece to top the Oricon yearly singles chart.

For a  5 min. organ accompaniment of Masafumi Akikawa’s version in Japanese, click here.
For a 4 min. piano accompaniment of Maki Mori in Japanese, click here.
For a live version by Hayley Westenra in English, click here.

Mt Ontake eruption (courtesy NBC)

Posted in Animism, Death | 2 Comments

Land of catastrophe

The kami of Mt Ontake blows its top (anonymous photographer via Kyodo News)


Meanwhile, a typhoon is approaching Japan, as seen here on the weather forecast


Mt Ontake, Japan’s second tallest volcano at 3067 meters (1062 ft), has erupted with dozens stranded or injured.  (The Guardian has a short video of the eruption with a statement by prime minister Abe here.)

Unfortunately, because it was a beautiful sunny weekend in early autumn, there are thought to have been hundreds on the mountain at the time of the eruption.  The volcano which sits on the border of Gifu and Nagano prefectures is a sacred mountain, where shamanistic practices have long been carried out.  These include artists and actors entering a meditative trance to get divine inspiration.

It’s often said that one of the formative features of Shinto is its cultivation in a land of disasters.  Earthquakes, volcanoes, typhoons and tsunami are common events.  In the face of this the Japanese developed a ‘shikata ga nai‘ (it can’t be helped) stoicism.  They also developed a religious practice of placating the kami which visited such disasters upon them.  There was little thought of morality in this, but rather an awareness that kami have a rough side (aramitama) and a soft side (nigimitama).

Wikipedia carries this useful explanation of the differences:
The ara-mitama is the rough and violent side of a spirit.  A kami’s first appearance is as an ara-mitama, which must be pacified with appropriate pacification rites and worship so that the nigi-mitama can appear.  The nigi-mitama is the normal state of the kami, its functional side, while the ara-mitama appears in times of war or natural disasters.

These two souls are usually considered opposites, and Motoori Norinaga believed the other two to be no more than aspects of the nigi-mitama.  Ara-mitama and nigi-mitama are in any case independent agents, so much so that they can sometimes be enshrined separately in different locations and different shintai (spirit-bodies).

For example, Sumiyoshi Shrine in Shimonoseki enshrines the ara-mitama of the Sumiyoshi kami, while Sumiyoshi Taisha in Osaka enshrines its nigi-mitama.  Ise Shrine has a sub-shrine called Aramatsuri-no-miya enshrining Amaterasu’s ara-mitama.  No separate enshrinement of the mitama of a kami has taken place since the rationalization and systematization of Shinto actuated by the Meiji restoration


Mountain lodge covered in ash on Mt Ontake

(Photo courtesy AP)

Posted in General, Kami, Shamanic connections | 6 Comments


Yokozuna Asashoryu in a fight in 2008 (courtesy Wikicommons, as others below)


The Tokyo tournament is now under way (there are six tournaments a year), and as usual the wrestling is featured on Japan’s main television programme, NHK.  Despite the relative weakness of Japanese wrestlers in recent years, sumo remains the country’s national sport.  As Wikipedia notes, ‘In its association with Shinto, sumo has also been seen as a bulwark of Japanese tradition.’

In searching for information about the origins of sumo, I’ve come across pieces championing the wrestling as a purely Japanese phenomenon while other sites claim its origins lie in China.  Personally I can’t help wondering if there isn’t a connection with Mongolian and Korean wrestling, both of which are very similar in rules.  Given the spread of Siberian shamanism to the south and into the Korean peninsula, perhaps ancient forms of horsemanship and wrestling would have been introduced too.

Whatever the origins may be, there’s no doubt that sumo wrestling as it developed in Japan became closely connected with Shinto ritual, and the piece below taken from the sumotalk website illustrates the particular borrowings in some detail.  Even in its secular form, it retains all the trappings of an offering to the kami.


Historians agree that the origins of sumo date back 2000 years; however, it never really flourished as a spectator sport until the early 1600′s. Like any other social group in Japan, there are strict rules and traditions that are observed throughout the sport. The beginner watching his first sumo broadcast on television soon realizes that very little time is actually spent grappling. Rather, the wrestlers spend most of their time performing pre-bout ceremonies steeped in Shinto tradition.

Shinto is the native religion of Japan and is more a set of rituals and ceremonies than a system of beliefs or a definite code of ethics. The word itself means “way of the gods.” Sumo was originally performed to entertain the gods (kami) during festivals (matsuri). Sumo as part of Shinto ritual dates as far back as the Tumulus period (250-552), but it wasn’t until the 17th century that it began adopting the intense purification rituals that we see in sumo today.

The sumo dojo is full of symbolism

Most of the Shinto that we see in sumo occurs symbolically. To begin with, the sand that covers the clay of the dohyo is itself a symbol of purity in the Shinto religion. And the canopy above the ring is made in the style of the roof of a Shinto shrine. The four tassels on each corner of the canopy represent the four seasons, the white one as autumn, black as winter, green as spring and red as summer.

The purple bunting around the roof symbolizes the drifting of the clouds and the rotation of the seasons. The referee (gyoji) resembles a Shinto priest in his traditional robe. And kelp, cuttlefish, and chestnuts are placed in the ring along with prayers for safety.

Each day of the tournament (basho), a ring entering ceremony is held, wherein each wrestler’s body and spirit undergoes purification.

Yokozuna are dressed in mawashi with five white zigzag folded strips of paper on the front, the same as those found at the entrance of Shinto shrines. On the front of all mawashi are sagari, which are fringes of twisted string tucked into the belt, and they represent the sacred ropes in front of shrines.

Numbers of strings are odd, between seventeen and twenty-one, which are lucky numbers in the Shinto tradition. And of course, the salt that is tossed before each bout is an agent for purification and one of sumo’s most visible rituals.

As a religion of customs and not laws, Shinto developed as a religion to please the gods in order to ensure a good harvest and divine protection, but soon made headway into the sport of sumo as a way to entertain those same gods, purify the sport itself and protect the wrestlers from harm.

Statue of a sumo champion at Suwa Taisha, where matches are put on in a sumo dojo for entertaining the kami

The first ceremony of the day is the dohyo-iri, or ring ceremony performed by Juryo and Makuuchi wrestlers before their bouts begin. The wrestlers are grouped into two groups—East and West—and each group takes a turn entering the ring. The lowest-ranked wrestler enters first and walks a complete circle around the ring followed by the other wrestlers in ascending order according the rank.

Before individual wrestlers enter the ring, they are introduced to the spectators. Once the last wrestler in the group has been introduced, the wrestlers, who are facing the spectators, turn inward and face each other around the ring. After clapping their hands once, they raise their right hand, lift their kesho-mawashi (decorative aprons created for the ring ceremony), and finally raise both hands in unison.

This tradition goes back to the samurai days and represents the wrestler showing each other that none is armed. During the Makuuchi ring ceremony, the Yokozuna are notably absent from the group as they must perform their own individual ring ceremonies.

Once the actual bouts begin, the two wrestlers spend several minutes before their match lifting their legs high in the air and stomping them down, a practice said to scare away any demons. They also throw several handfuls of salt into the ring, which is said to purify the ring.

Many wrestlers will also sprinkle salt around their bodies as a means of protecting them from injury. After the last bout of the day, the bow twirling ceremony is performed by a wrestler from the same stable as a Yokozuna. True fans of the sport will not leave their seats until this ritual is performed.

Presently, sumo consists of six major tournaments a year called basho. The tournament months and sites are as follows: January-Tokyo, March-Osaka, May-Tokyo, July-Nagoya, September-Tokyo, and November-Fukuoka.

Up through the early 20th century, there were only two basho a year; however, as sumo’s popularity grew, the number of major tournaments increased to four basho a year and then in 1958, the current six-basho-a-year format was established.

The latest yokozuna, the Mongolian Kakuryu

Also, up until 1949 a basho only lasted for 10 days; currently a basho runs for 15 days. In between basho, the wrestlers constantly keep busy by touring the outskirts of Japan giving exhibitions for fans who might otherwise not get a chance to see the sport up close and live. While the wrestlers do battle each other in front of the fans, they are more concerned about avoiding injury than winning. This type of exhibition sumo is called hana-sumo, or flower sumo.

Throughout the history of the sport, there is a record of only 71 wrestlers having ever been crowned as Yokozuna. Currently #69 Hakuho, #70 Harumafuji and #71 Kakuryu, all Mongolians, are actively fighting.  Often, sumo eras are defined by the Yokozuna who fought in them.

In order to receive promotion to the rank of Yokozuna nowadays, a wrestler must win two tournaments in a row. To emphasize how difficult this task is, out of the hundreds of thousands of youngsters to have ever stepped in the ring only 70 have ever reached the pinnacle. In times past when there were no active Yokozuna, exceptions to the two tournament rule were made if a wrestler won one tournament and then followed that performance up with a record “worthy” of a Yokozuna.


For information about the new sumo museum in Tokyo, see here.

With regard to the ‘ring-entering ceremony’ based on Shinto ritual, the Wikipedia page on sumo notes… ‘Each day of the tournament the dohyō-iri, or ring-entering ceremonies performed by the top divisions before the start of their wrestling day are derived from sumo rituals.

This ceremony involves them ascending the dohyō, walking around the edge and facing the audience. They then turn and face inwards, clap their hands, raise one hand, slightly lift the ceremonial aprons, and raise both hands, then continue walking around the dohyō as they leave the same way they came in. This clapping ritual is an important Shinto element and reminiscent of the clapping in Shinto shrines designed to attract the attention of the gods.

The yokozuna’s ring-entering ceremony is regarded as a purification ritual in its own right, and is occasionally performed at Shinto shrines for this purpose. Every newly promoted yokozuna performs his first ring-entering ceremony at the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo.’



Posted in Martial arts and sumo | Leave a comment

Emperor worship

Emperor Akihito with Empress Michiko. He's supposedly the 125th member of his family to reign since the legendary Emperor Jinmu. | AP


The other day I took a taxi ride and struck up conversation with the driver.  Amongst other things, he told me he was a Communist but that he liked the present emperor who was doing a good job of representing Japan.  It reminded me of a discussion I once had with a royalist in Britain, who was angrily attacking Prince Charles for not doing his job properly.  I’m not a royalist, I told him, but I generally agree with the line Prince Charles takes on environmental, architectural and social issues.  “Well, I am a royalist, and I don’t!” my opponent replied testily.

There’s a similar situation in Japan, where right-wingers who are most vocal in defence of the imperial system find themselves at odds with the views of the emperor.  Yasukuni is an example, a shrine which two reigning emperors have made a point of not visiting since Class A war criminals were secretly enshrined there in 1978. ( In 2006 it was revealed that Emperor Hirohito had expressed strong displeasure with the enshrinement.)

Browsing the internet about such matters led me to the following article from The Japan Times.


Emperor’s apparent liberal leanings jar with Japan’s right wing
Japan Times  BY PHILIP BRASOR  DEC 7, 2013

In the media debate about the state secrets bill, much has been said about the public’s right to know. Participants in a democratic society must be informed to make decisions in their interest, and critics of the bill, which ostensibly protects matters of national security, believe it will be used to keep people in the dark about anything the government doesn’t want revealed or discussed openly.

But even before there is a law limiting the dispersal of official information, Japanese citizens operate with a built-in filter that controls what an individual believes he or she has a right to say. According to documentary filmmaker Tatsuya Mori, this self-censorship function is a holdover from the prewar regime’s effort to monitor the hearts and minds of the populace, and its main tool in that effort was emperor worship.

Yamamoto Taro seen here handing the emperor an anti-nuclear petition, considered a grave breach of protocol (courtesy

In an interview published in the Asahi Shimbun on Nov. 27, Mori talks about the recent controversy surrounding rookie lawmaker Taro Yamamoto, who handed Emperor Akihito a letter during the annual autumn garden party at the Imperial Palace. The actor-turned-politician wanted to draw the Emperor’s attention to the plight of those affected by the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant, but by personally giving him a note without obtaining prior permission he was violating protocol. The reaction was swift and hard, and came from across the entire political spectrum.

Yamamoto was admonished by the Diet. Mori thinks his action revealed a “lack of common sense,” but he did not break any laws, regardless of what the ruling Liberal Democratic Party implied. Mori asked a group of university students for their opinion of the incident and everyone said Yamamoto had been “rude,” even “blasphemous.” One student seemed deeply offended by the fact that Yamamoto used “only one hand” to present the letter.

What struck Mori was that all of these young people were born during the current Heisei Era, and yet their approach to the Emperor was effectively no different from the public’s reverence prior to the end of World War II, when Hirohito was considered a deity. He concluded that the “emperor system” (tennō-sei), which was once inculcated by the government, has become “internalized.” All Japanese people carry it with them, as if it were hard-wired into their consciousness. Though they no longer think of the Emperor as a god, they believe he possesses special rights and is cocooned within a matrix of taboos. As a result, he said, they are “docile in the face of authority.”

When the interviewer points out that the Emperor, whose role is defined in the Constitution as being symbolic, is not supposed to be “used” for political purposes, Mori says the Emperor cannot avoid politics. The United States decided not to remove Hirohito after the war so as to make it easier for the Japanese people to accept its authority during the Occupation. He was used by the American military to achieve its goals, just as the wartime Japanese government used him for its own purposes. Though there are still arguments regarding Hirohito’s complicity in the war, blame was borne by Class-A war criminals whose prosecution, most historians agree, was arbitrary.

In April last year, the government celebrated the 60th anniversary of the end of the American Occupation with a ceremony attended by the Emperor and Empress. Since the LDP was sponsoring the event, it was politically “using” the Emperor, and when the Imperial couple left the stage, shouts of “Banzai!” — a remnant of emperor worship — erupted from many members of the audience, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Recordings on government websites eventually cut this portion of the ceremony, but not before Mori saw it. When the shouting started, Mori said, “The Emperor looked much more perplexed than when he received the letter from Yamamoto.”

An AP photo of Emperor Akihito, more liberal-minded than many of those who most ardently support the emperor system

It’s not the first time the Emperor has resisted, passively or actively, the role that some want him to fill. In 2001, during a press conference to mark his birthday, he remarked that he felt close to the Korean Peninsula, since he understood his ancestors came from there. Rumors persist that he wants to visit South Korea but that the government won’t let him, saying it doesn’t want the Emperor to be used politically by South Koreans. But isn’t preventing him from going also motivated by politics?

Mori, who once planned a documentary about the imperial system, likes the Emperor because he appeals to his own liberal leanings, which is why genuine right-wingers, such as former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, aren’t interested in the Emperor as a person. Their agenda really has no use for the kind of open-mindedness the Emperor occasionally demonstrates.

Another progressive pundit, sociologist Shinji Miyadai, said the same thing in a recent interview on, expressing admiration for the Emperor for something he said during the 2004 autumn garden party, which didn’t receive nearly as much attention as the Yamamoto faux pas. Shogi player Kunio Yonenaga, a member of the Tokyo municipal government’s educational committee at the time, proudly told the Emperor that it was his job to make sure all public schools sing the national anthem and raise the flag. The Emperor responded — and everyone heard it clearly — that he hoped Yonenaga wasn’t forcing them to do it.

As Miyadai points out, the administration of Keizo Obuchi had already stated that schools could not be legally compelled to sing the anthem or salute the flag, even if local governments like Tokyo’s have done exactly that, so the Emperor was clarifying the law in front of Yonenaga. What the shogi player said may not have been a breach of protocol, but it was definitely the espousal of an illegal act. And yet he received no criticism in the press or from the government.

In contrast, Yamamoto, by handing the Emperor a letter, was advancing an agenda that he not only had the right to advance, but also the responsibility, since it was the basis of the platform on which he had been elected. “If I had to explain to a foreigner why Yamamoto’s action was a problem,” Miyadai said, “I don’t think I could do it.”

Posted in Emperor (imperial family), Nationalism | 4 Comments

The Hidden Sun

The emergence of the rising sun is among the greatest wonders of existence


One of the points of this blog is to show that Shinto, far from being unique in any way, shares much in common with religions throughout East Asia and beyond.  In this respect it was of interest that we read Michael Witzel’s article in the Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies.  It’s entitled “Vala and Iwato: The Myth of the Hidden Sun in India, Japan and beyond”.

Green Shinto readers will know that Iwato refers to the famous Rock Door in the Kojiki myth in which the sun-goddess Amaterasu (Heavenly Shining One) retreats inside a cave after being insulted by her brother, the storm-god Susanoo.   Similarly Vala refers to the cave in the Indian myth which Indra opens to release the first dawn.  It appears in Rigveda c.1500 BC, and thus some 2000 years before the Japanese equivalent.

Tajikara pulls aside the Rock Door of Amaterasu's cave

Details of the myth are obviously culture-influenced (the cow plays a significant part in the Indian myth), but the underlying structure is similar.  “Both share a large number of congruencies that cannot be just accidental,” writes Witzler.

The myth revolves around the disappearance of the sun and its reappearance after intervention by a group of gods.  It’s a story shared by many other cultures worldwide, notes the author.  One can presume that its universalism comes from the need to explain why at the end of the day the sun disappears below the horizon,  sinking into the ground or sea, before emerging the next morning.  One way of explaining this is through the concept of a cave, where the sun is able to spend the night in hiding.

The idea of the world being plunged into darkness and chaos, however, suggests something more than the daily occurence of nighttime.  This is reinforced by the need for special rites and external intervention, with the obvious conclusion being that the event refers to the winter solstice and the waning of the sun.  The release from the cave signals dawn and the beginning of a new cycle.  Or simply a new beginning.

“Looking for an understanding of the myth complex dealing with the Hidden Sun,” writes Witzler, “one can discern, at various interepretative levels…”

* nature mythology and the disappearance of the sun at night and at the winter solstice
* discussion of incest and the relationship of the sun and moon
* ways of reestablishing concord at times of distress
* arrangements of exchange between gods and humans in order to maintain harmony

The birth-death-rebirth motif was of course taken over in the Christian myth in reference to Jesus Christ, who significantly was buried in a rock tomb and resurrected.  He then ascends to heaven.  The son of God thus turns out in essence to be a Sun-God with his own version of the Cave Myth.  It seems then that Christianity too draws on the compelling notion of a hidden sun.

What conclusion can we draw from all this?  Perhaps in personal terms, it’s a message to us to let our hidden sun shine.  Rumi summed it up best: “Be grateful for your life, every detail of it, and your face will come to shine like a sun, and everyone who sees it will be made glad and peaceful.”

Amaterasu, depicted manga style


Posted in Mythology | Leave a comment

Sun poem

I’m grateful to John Hanagan for bringing my attention to this beautiful poem by the American poet, Mary Oliver (b.1935).  It’s a reminder of the beauty of existence, and of where our priorities should lie in life.


The sun setting into the 'rumpled sea'


Have you ever seen
in your life
more wonderful

than the way the sun,
every evening,
relaxed and easy,
floats toward the horizon

Sunset at Hamanako

and into the clouds or the hills,
or the rumpled sea,
and is gone–
and how it slides again

out of the blackness,
every morning,
on the other side of the world,
like a red flower

streaming upward on its heavenly oils,
say, on a morning in early summer,
at its perfect imperial distance–
and have you ever felt for anything
such wild love–
do you think there is anywhere, in any language,
a word billowing enough
for the pleasure

that fills you,
as the sun
reaches out,
as it warms you

as you stand there,
or have you too
turned from this world –

or have you too
gone crazy
for power,
for things?

Sunset on the Amakusa Islands


From the Wikipedia page on Oliver…

Mary Oliver’s poetry is grounded in memories of Ohio and her adopted home of New England, setting most of her poetry in and around Provincetown since she moved there in the 1960s.  …  Influenced by both Whitman and Thoreau, she is known for her clear and poignant observances of the natural world. Her creativity is stirred by nature, and Oliver, an avid walker, often pursues inspiration on foot. Her poems are filled with imagery from her daily walks near her home: shore birds, water snakes, the phases of the moon and humpback whales. …
Oliver has also been compared to Emily Dickinson, with whom she shares an affinity for solitude and interior monologues. Her poetry combines dark introspection with joyous release. Although she has been criticized for writing poetry that assumes a dangerously close relationship of women with nature, she finds the self is only strengthened through an immersion with nature.

Sunset at Laka Hamana

Posted in Animism | 1 Comment

Cry-baby festival

Babies take part in the “baby-cry sumo” competition at the Irugi Shrine in Tokyo on Sunday. (AFP)

Having a bawl: Sumo wrestlers grapple with cry-babies
SEP. 22, 2014 Japan Today  AFP  TOKYO —

Japanese parents watched with glee on Sunday as sumo wrestlers tried to reduce their babies to tears, in a centuries-old ritual believed to bring good health to bawling infants.  More than a hundred sobbing babies were subjected to the ordeal at Tokyo’s Irugi Shrine, with their doting parents watching happily as the amateur wrestlers bounced them up and down in a makeshift sumo ring.

Babies show their vigour by crying loudly, to the delight of onlookers (courtesy Hanamaki city, Iwate)

Some of the infants, aged between six and 18 months, were roared at in the face in a bid to get the tears flowing  “The babies’ cries are intended to reach God and parents hope that their little ones will grow healthy and strong,” explained Yoshimi Morita, a priest at the shrine, where screams and squawks filled the air.

“So if a baby doesn’t cry at this event, sumo wrestlers try to make him or her cry on purpose, moving the baby up and down, while their parents watch with pounding hearts,” he said.  “There is no victory nor defeat in this wrestling, and a match always ends with a chorus of ‘Banzai raku!’ which means ‘Live long’.”

The ceremony dates back some 400 years and is held at shrines nationwide. The rules vary from region to region — in some versions the babies are raced against each other to see who will cry first, while in others the first crier is the loser.

Delighted mother Mae Shige said her son had performed well at Sunday’s event.  “He’s not a baby that cries much but today he cried a lot for us and we are very happy about it,” Shige said.  Yuki Ibusuki, another mother at the shrine, said of her son: “He’ll be one year old soon and we wanted to come here so that we would have a memory of this event for when he grows up.”


Posted in Festivals, Kanto | Leave a comment

Izumo enmusubi

In the Japan Times today Stephen Mansfield writes of Matsue and its connections with Lafcadio Hearn (a writer featured previously on Green Shinto here and here).

Matsue is in the charming prefecture of Shimane, one of Japan’s best-kept secrets.  Anyone wanting to get away from the tourist trail would do well to head for this area, and for the prime Shinto shrine of Izumo Taisha. Such is its prestige that the kami of all Japan gather there each year in the autumn (click here for a report).

The reputation of Izumo Taisha as Japan’s premier place of enmusubi (good relations) derives partly from the networking that goes on at the meeting of kami, and partly from the love-match of its deity, Okuninushi no mikoto with the daughter of Susanoo, Princess Suseri.  The shrine’s reputation has had an enormous boost recently due to the engagement of an imperial princess with the heir to its ancient priestly lineage (see here).

The Izumo boom was reflected in a television programme last night in which Nishikawa Ayako, a divorced doctor, made a ‘pilgrimage’ to the shrine to seek good fortune in her hunt for a new partner.  Below you can see what happened…

Nishikawa boards a special enmusubi train for Izumo, the seats of which are covered in heart marks

The divorcee arrives at the station for Izumo Taisha

On the way to the shrine she stops at one of the stalls to enjoy a special 'enmusubi sweet'

As she arrives at the shrine, it starts to rain – a bad sign perhaps

Even in the rain the enormous thick knots of the shimenawa rice rope stand out. The buildings still have a fresh feel after the 60 year cycle of renewal was completed last year.

A close up of the rope, aesthetically pleasing as well as impressive in dimensions – 13.5 meters in length and weighing 4.5 tons

Nishikawa pays respects to Okuninushi, the Great Land Master who is the putative founder of Izumo Province (tradition says the shrine stands on the site of his palace).

At the shrine Nishikawa runs into an engaged couple who met near the shrine and have come to give thanks and pose for photos

Now comes the big moment as Nishikawa discovers with trepidation what her fortune says - 'I'm afraid... my heart is beating fast', she says.

A smile comes to Nishikawa's face as the fortune slip turns out to be relatively good - after some difficulty she will be able to meet a person whom she likes.

Much relieved, Nishikawa goes off to explore some of the natural sites in the area associated with folklore and then to overnight in a hot spring resort. Typically for contemporary Japan, the trip has centred around enjoyment and a spiritual 'power spot'.


Posted in Izumo | Leave a comment

Island shrine

Visitors can only approach Kojima Shrine in Nagasaki Prefecture at low tide, when the causeway is uncovered. The shrine itself is at the rear of the islet. (courtesy KYODO)

Islands have a charm of their own, and when they are imbued by a sense of the sacred their allure can be captivating.  There are hundreds of charming island shrines around Japan, some set in lakes and some on off-shore islands.  Set against a sparkling combination of green and blue, they speak of communion with nature.  The aesthetic appeal is enhanced by the ebb and flow of the tide, as it laps at the base of the torii or exposes the pathway approach.  The shrine above, featured in a Japan Times article, is off the island of Iki in the Japan Sea, a couple of hours by ferry from Kyushu.  I visited Iki several years ago, island hopping my way from Korea to Fukuoka, and found it to be full of historical interest.  Sadly, however, I didn’t know of the Kojima Shrine at the time.  One thing is sure, however: it’s certainly a lot less crowded than Mont St Michel, to which it is compared in the article!


Island shrine is picturesque destination for tourists and pilgrims alike
KYODO as carried in the Japan Times SEP 18, 2014

NAGASAKI – A tiny shrine on a tiny island that is drawing grand comparisons to France’s fortified Mont Saint-Michel monastery is drawing more visitors, raising expectations that tourism will improve in that part of Nagasaki Prefecture.

Kojima shrine is a Shinto holy site on Maekojima, an uninhabited islet about 60 meters wide that’s situated in a sizable bay off the southeast edge of much larger Iki Island. The two are connected by a tidal causeway about 200 meters long.  “The path to the shrine appears at low tide,” said Susumi Goto, 68, the shrine’s chief priest. He added that pilgrims can “feel the Holy Spirit in (the site’s) mysterious nature.”

Visitors approach the island on foot and then climb a path that leads through trees to the rear of the island, where the unmanned shrine stands.  Shinto believers consider the island to be a sacred spot, and visitors are asked to refrain from taking any leaves, twigs or pebbles as souvenirs.

Iki itself is home to multiple shrines built in ancient times, when travelers would visit from the mainland. The island and its holy sites have since become a draw for tourists today.

Mont Saint-Michel, represented by a towering castle off the coast of Normandy in northern France viewable from miles away, is a major tourist attraction. It used to be connected with the mainland 600 meters away by a tidal causeway that disappeared at high tide, but that was reportedly over a century ago. The 100-hectare monastery is now accessible by bridge and the permanently dry causeway is scheduled for removal under a project that will turn it into an island once again.

Mont St Michel in northern France is well worth a visit – if you can avoid the crowds

An island shrine in the Nojoriko lake in Nagano Prefecture

Harumiya Shrine on a small island at Suwa in Nagano

Posted in Shrine types | Leave a comment

Animal Cruelty (Ageuma)

In the Ageuma Shinji unwilling horses have to be forced up steep slopes (courtesy JCAW)

Since Shinto is promoted as a nature religion, one might presume that green issues would be uppermost in its social thinking.  However, this is often far from the case, as traditional interests and political support for right-wing nationalism take priority.  It explains why many Shinto believers in Japan, contrary to expectations, actually support whaling and the dolphin massacre at Taiji.

Green Shinto has written of animal cruelty in Shinto before, particularly in the glaring example of the Ageuma Ritual held every May at shrines in Mie Prefecture.  (For details of the ritual, please see here.)

The horseback ritual forms part of the Tado Festival, in which horses are forced up dangerously steep slopes, and five representatives of the shrines involved have faced animal cruelty charges (click here).  Beating, bullying and sticking the horses in the ribs is how the animals are forced up the slope, leading often to injury.

The cruelty is defended by traditionalists who claim it has been carried out for centuries and is therefore somehow justified.  It’s an absurd argument, which could be used to condone all manner of abuse from slavery to summary execution.  Fortunately the Animal Rights group to which I belong has organised a campaign against the animal cruelty, and in the report below is an account of the results together with the present situation.  I’m grateful to the Japanese Coalition for Animal Welfare for permission to reprint the report and for the photographs.


“Part of this article is excerpted from the JCAW newsletter (The Japanese Coalition for Animal Welfare).”

Ageuma Shinji

1. JAWS Tokyo has been sending a petition to Inabe Shrine and Tado Shrine (both in Mie prefecture) to stop cruelty to the horses as a leading member of JCAW (The Japanese Coalition for Animal Welfare) since 2002.

2. We had conducted a strong campaign [No cruelty to Ageuma horses] in 2003

3. In 2004, both shrines declared an official promise to keep loyalty to mutual agreement between them and JCAW in the presence of Mie Local officials. So we stopped the campaign.

4. But there are no progress so far in 2006, so we sent a strong petition letter to both shrines again.

5 Five spectators were injured seriously by being involved in the horse accident.

6. Since we found more cruelty deed at the festival site, we sent a bill of indictment to Kuwana Police Department with Video tapes we made to prove many ill-treatments.

7. Kuwana police started investigation for both shrines

8. In 2011, Mie Council for the Protection of Cultural Properties discussed the cruelty issue and conducted inspection to both shrines.  Thanks to both investigation and inspection, there was a dramatic improvement to reduce cruelty this year.

9. But we see some change for the worse this year 2014, and we are considering again to organize another campaign [No more cruelty at Ageuma].

Since Ageuma is seen as an traditional cultural event based on Shinto deeply rooted in local communities, it is so difficult to persuade local people involved  to change their way of thinking and behavior.  But we will keep fighting those ill treatment to the animals.

We don’t think it is a good idea to conduct online petitions, because those local  people are not well accustomed to internet communications and there  is always strong  suspicion about misbehaving of net freaks on touchy issues in Japan.

An indication of the sickening challenges faced by the horses (courtesy JCAW)

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Posted in Festivals, Green issues, Social values | 7 Comments