Cherry blossom (Hirano)

Cherry blossom has arrived in Kyoto!  The trees along the Kamogawa are out in glorious bloom, and people are flocking to the petals in Hirano Jinja, Kyoto’s special shrine for cherry blossom.  Yesterday was the first fine day for the emerging blossom, but since it was a Monday the crowds were not yet out in force.  Next weekend is sure to see a peak.

Hirano Jinja is one of thirteen Kyoto shrines in Cali and Dougill’s Shinto Shrines: A Guide to the Sacred Sites of Japan’s Ancient Religion (Univ of Hawaii, 2013).  From that we learn the shrine was founded in 782 in Nara, before being relocated to the new capital of Heiankyo (Kyoto) in 794.  The present buildings date from 1625, and with their unpainted wood and cypress-bark tiles they present an evocative rustic appearance.

The shrine has long been considered prestigious.  It may have been intended by Emperor Kanmu to guard the north-west of his new capital, and the Engishiki (967) mentions it as guardian of the imperial kitchen.  It was one of only 16 shrines to receive regular offerings from the emperor, and the hereditary priests were drawn from the powerful Urabe clan who specialised in tortoise-shell divination.  (The Urabe were one of the three ‘houses of Shinto’, who later divided to form the influential Yoshida lineage.)

The four Hirano kami are unusual.  According to the shrine, Imaki okami is a god of revitalisation; Kudo okami is a deity of the cooking pot; Furuaki okami is a deity of new beginnings; Hime no okami is a deity of fertility and discovery.  There are suggestions of links with Paekche (in Korea) and that the last kami is in fact the ancestral spirit of Emperor Kanmu’s mother, who was descended from a king of Paekche.

The people who throng the shrine these days are little concerned with history, however.  Their concerns are with saké, picnic, conviviality and the brief glimpses of the moon appearing through clouds of pink blossom.  Within the compound are some 500 cherry trees, and the shrine was noted even in Heian times as a place to go for blossom viewing.  Now with lanterns dotting the grounds and a classical guitar strumming ‘Sakura’ in the Haiden, the shrine is a celebration of spring beauty and the touching brevity of life in this world.

Cherry blossom selfies are much in vogue this year


Even without cherry blossom the Honden (Sanctuary) has an attractive air with its gabled cypressbark roof, slender chigi crossbeams and goldplated details such as the imperial chrysanthemum


As evening falls, the stalls begin to do good business with people arriving after work for 'hanami' (blossom viewing parties)


For some the party takes precedence over the cherry blossom!


For others the combination of moon and cherry blossom is enrapturing... how happy the wandering poet Saigyo would have been!


Paper lanterns painted by primary schoolchildren adorn the grounds


Only two more weeks of cherry blossom heaven... A gift indeed from the gods.

Posted in Festivals, Kyoto shrines, Rites and celebrations, Shrine visits | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Kami relocation

Priests at Fushimi Inari walk past the protective sheets put up to shield the moving of the kami at their annual matsuri


Anyone who has seen kami being moved from one place to another will know it’s an occasion of much pomp and mystery.  The kami are shrouded with sheets so as to be kept free from impure gaze, there may be gagaku music, and priests may make eerie sounds to indicate the presence of the divine.  On Friday, as reported by the Asahi below, Kasuga Taisha witnessed such an event as the shrine prepares for its shikinen sengu renewal (it’s one of only a handful of shrines that keep to the ancient practice).


Photo by Noboru Tomura

Under cover of curtains, deities transferred at Nara shrine
By NORIHIDE FURUSAWA/ Asahi  March 28, 2015

NARA–Shinto priests relocated enshrined deities at Kasuga Taisha shrine in a nighttime ceremony held on March 27 amid repair work on the UNESCO World Heritage site.

The main hall and furnishings of the eighth-century shrine are refurbished every 20 years. This will be the 60th time that the work will be undertaken.

The ceremony got under way at 7 p.m. as chief priest Hirotada Kasanoin and other shrine officials transferred the deities one by one to a temporary facility located west of the main building.

The area around the facilities was covered with large white curtains, and Shinto priests made sounds with their voices to signify the presence of the deities.

The shrine’s main hall will be open to public between April 1 and May 31, after which work will start to restore the interior and construct a new roof.

The deities are scheduled to be returned to the main building on Nov. 6, 2016.

Kasuga Taisha, now preparing for its 20 year renewal (the deer are exempted)

Posted in Kami, Rites and celebrations | 1 Comment

French ritual

As reported previously on Green Shinto, the Sanctuary Yabuhara based in Paris has been working on a project related to the Japanese members of the French Foreign Legion.  On March 21st, the spring equinox, a ceremony took place in which specially made omamori charms were presented to one of the serving members.  The following report has been adapted from the Yabuhara account of the occasion.  (Photos are by Yukinobu Kato, a freelance journalist in Paris.)


On 21st of March, there was a ceremony to hand over to members of the French Foreign Legion a charm for good luck in combat. it took place in the center of Paris, and the hundred charms were delivered by an officiant at the Sanctuary Yabuhara to a representative of the French Foreign Legion who was dressed solemnly in respect for the ceremony.

Previously, on the 1st of January 2015 from 2 am, a ritual for good luck in combat for the French Foreign Legion had been held at the Sanctuary Yabuhara. During the ceremony,there was an offering of a pair of Kagami-Mochi (round rice cakes) and three bottles of red wine brewed by the French Foreign Legion.

The charms were specially made for the French Foreign Legion, and green and red colors were adopted into the design which is the symbolic colors of the French Foreign Legion. In Japan, it was believed from ancient times that green indicates eternity and red has the power to eliminate evil spirits.

Some of the Kami at the Sanctuary Yabuhara, namely Koto-saka-no-wo-no-mikoto and Hayatama-no-wo-no-mikoto, are known for solving terrible situations in a flash and turning them into good, while another Kami at the sanctuary, Susa-no-wo-no-mikoto, brings strong luck especially in battles, according to Kojiki, ‘Record of Ancient Matters’ (712), and Nihonshoki, ‘Chronicles of Japan’ (720).


The specially made good luck charm, in the red and green colours of the French Foreign Legion


A historic first for international Shinto

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Ema fashions

Shimogamo ema - new style of privacy (photo courtesy


The changing face of ema votive tablets
The Japan News — Mar 24KYOTO”Find a good marriage partner for me,” “Let me succeed in an entrance exam” and “I wish for the well-being of my family” are all wishes people write on ema, small wooden votive tablets. An array of ema bearing these, and many other, hopes are hung at temples and shrines around the nation.

Official ema can be eye-catching in themselves

However, this familiar scene has been undergoing changes to meet the needs of worshipers today.  At Shimogamo Shrine, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Sakyo Ward, Kyoto, a section around the Aioi-sha facility enshrining a deity for matchmaking looked as though it was a solid block of red from a distance. Upon closer inspection, however, it was apparent that each of the ema tablets hanging on racks was covered with a red sticker to conceal the worshiper’s name, wish and other matters written on it.

“I don’t have to worry that someone will read what I wrote,” said a smiling third-year high school girl from Tokyo on her graduation trip. “I can write the name of the person I like without a problem.”
The shrine began handing out these stickers to worshipers about 10 years ago after shrine workers saw high school students on a school trip teasing their classmate, who wrote a wish for love on a tablet.Recently, some visitors post others’ wishes written on ema on Twitter or blogs without the permission of their authors. About 90 percent of visitors use the stickers to conceal their ema wishes before they leave, according to the shrine.

At Imamiya Shrine in Kita Ward, Kyoto, rows of ema tablets bearing the image of girls in school uniforms are seen. The shrine is associated with Keishoin, mother of the fifth Tokugawa shogun, Tsunayoshi (1646-1709).  The high school girls are characters from “Keion!” (K-On!), a popular anime featuring a rock music club at a girls’ high school.



Manga ema tend to catch the eye, with the visual aspect dominating the spiritual


What started as an offering of a white horse is fast gaining international acceptance


A New Year's ema heartfully hoping to split up with 'that pig' in the coming year


Not all ema are intended to be private – this one publicly shames the lover of a husband

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Snakes: St Patrick’s Day

What on earth does St Patrick’s Day have to do with Shinto, you may well be wondering?  Well, one aspect that caught my attention concerning the celebration of Ireland day was the matter of snakes.  Look at the following by way of example:

“Saint Patrick’s Day (March 17) is marked with celebrations and remembrance of the great Irish saint who awakened the dead and drove out the snakes from the Island. Snakes here symbolize the inner demons and pagans, to let the radiance of God shine forth. With more than 35 million Americans having Irish roots we have a great time on this feast day of St. Patrick. We let our hair down and guzzle green beer, wear the pious symbol of trinity, shamrock and send Irish Blessings to our loved ones. The message is to drive out the snakes of lust, anger, and greed and give way to generosity, love and peace. Cheers!”

Benten, muse of the arts, dance and music, here seen playing the biwa (lute). Her familiar are white snakes, suggestive of regrowth and fertility of mind.

Snakes play a large part in pagan cultures, and in Shinto in particular.  It’s the reason why they became demonised by Christianity and used as a symbol of paganism.  In the Bible, famously, they act as a representative of evil in the temptation of Eve.

In Japan snakes are best known as the familiars of Benten, goddess of the arts.  Since she’s associated with watery depths, one imagines they are water snakes.  Inevitably they are white snakes, since that’s the distinctive mark of purity and the divine.

But there is more to the snake cult in Japan than just Benten.  The most famous story is that of Omiwa, where the kami manifested itself in the form of a snake according to a mythological story.  Visit Miwa Shrine now, and you’ll find eggs laid out as offerings for the snake kami in honour of the ancient cult.

The following excerpts from the Kokugakuin encyclopedia make plain how close was the identification of the snake with fertility and regeneration (because of its ability to slough off skin and start anew).

Another episode in Nihongi relates that Ōmononushi was wed to a woman named Yamato Totohimomosohime, but visited her only at night; when she requested to see his true form, he hid in her comb case, where she found him as a small snake. After her alarm caused the snake to flee in shame to Mt. Miwa, the woman felt remorse and used chopsticks to stab herself mortally in the genitals.

Paying respects to the mythological snake kami – notice the eggs on the table as offering.

Kojiki‘s tale of Ikutamayoribime is similar, with the maiden becoming pregnant by a young man who visits her only at night. Anxious to learn the identity of their daughter’s lover, her parents tie a thread to the hem of his garments and follow the thread the next morning, whereupon they find it leads to the shrine at Mt. Miwa. These legends are the basis for the broad category of legends of the “Mt. Miwa type.”

Another episode in Nihongi relates that Ōmononushi was wed to a woman named Yamato Totohimomosohime, but visited her only at night; when she requested to see his true form, he hid in her comb case, where she found him as a small snake. After her alarm caused the snake to flee in shame to Mt. Miwa, the woman felt remorse and used chopsticks to stab herself mortally in the genitals.

Kojiki‘s tale of Ikutamayoribime is similar, with the maiden becoming pregnant by a young man who visits her only at night. Anxious to learn the identity of their daughter’s lover, her parents tie a thread to the hem of his garments and follow the thread the next morning, whereupon they find it leads to the shrine at Mt. Miwa. These legends are the basis for the broad category of legends of the “Mt. Miwa type.”

One should not forget too that the dragon has a snake like body, such that depictions often look like a snake with a dragon head and legs.  The cult of the dragon deity as sea kami is believed to have been particularly spread by practitioners of Shugendo, a form of mountain asceticism.  Also the serpent kami of Konpira Shrine in Shikoku was worshiped by seafarers who revered the deity as a tutelary who would protect them from the perils of the sea – “During the Edo Period the Indian deity Kumbhīra (a dragon king sea deity) was conflated with Konpira, and the cult spread along with the development of shipping and the creation of transportation networks,’ notes the Kokugakuin encyclopedia.


Dragons have snake-like bodies, as can be seen here, incorporating the regenerative and other qualities of the creature.

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Kitano 2) Shrine fabric

The fearsome komainu at the entrance torii. If you were an evil spirit, would you dare to enter?


Entering into the inner precincts through the Chuumon (Middle Gate)


Kitano Tenmangu has spacious grounds, though in the past they were much more expansive and enveloped a large Shinto-Buddhist complex of shrines and temples.  Look to the left as you walk along the long entrance path and you’ll see a temple that was once an integral part of the complex, and in the shrine’s museum the prized possession is the Kitano mandala.

It’s a reminder of the long tradition of syncretism, and that those responsible for pacifying the spirit of Sugawara no Michizane were actually Budhhist priests.  These were associated with the Heian aristocracy and anxious to please the rulers by exorcising the angry spirit of Michizane and turning him into the kami of the sky, Tenjin.  Not a lot of people are aware of the history, and such is the success of the Meiji enforced split between the religions that contemporary Japanese automatically assume the process leading to deification must have been entirely ‘Shinto’.

A performance of Edo-era puppet theatre in the grounds, part of the shrine's association with the arts

The most striking feature of the architecture is the combinatory Haiden (Worship Hall) and Honden (Sanctuary) under one cypress-bark roof, built in 1607.  Look at the picture below this text in which people are queuing, and you’ll notice at the top the gorgeous decorations adorning the otherwise plain wood. They are typical of the sumptuous Azuchi-Momoyama period, and the buildings were even given lacquered floors (the Haiden no longer has its, though the Honden does).

Along the front of the Worship Hall runs a series of good fortune animals, including a tiger (for strength), a baku (for eating bad dreams), a kirin (for prosperity or serenity) and, improbably, a unicorn (for goodness).  To either side of the building, unusually, are music chambers, another indication of the lavish treatment and artistic connections of the shrine.

Sugawara no Michizane was a man of many accomplishments, who wrote poetry and was versed in calligraphy.  He was an exceptional scholar too.  The shrine is therefore associated with literary accomplishments as well as academic endeavour.  There are often displays of traditional and contemporary arts, but the most striking aspect of Michizane’s legacy is undoubtedly the masses of ema hung up by schoolkids and students in the hope of persuading Tenjin to help them pass their exams.

The throng of ema tucked into one area of the grounds is testimony to how the tradition still thrives in modern times. The number of ema is almost overwhelming, but of greater interest perhaps is the open-sided ema-dokoro building in which ancient ema are displayed.  These large wooden paintings have themes related to the shrine in one form or another and thought to be pleasing to the kami.  It’s the best collection I’ve seen and one that indicates how precious these votive plaques once were as offerings.

Tenjin-san is the popular name of the monthly flea market held at Kitano Tenmangu.  Held on the 25th of every month, it’s a bustling, popular and lively affair with many bargains for those seeking Japanese paraphernalia. Information for this and the previous posting Kitano 1): plums and oxen is taken from Shinto Shrines: A Guide to the Sacred Sites of Japan’s Ancient Religion published by Univ. of Hawaii Press in 2013.

Queuing to pay respects at the Haiden (Worship Hall). Note the gold finishing and painted decorations at the top as well as the most unusually shaped mirror.


Haiden detail: the mythical bad-dream eating baku

Haiden detail: the mythical unicorn


Haiden detail: the dragon


All dressed up to ring the bell before praying – with someone special in mind?


The shrine office does a brisk trade in ema and omamori, the descriptions of which are helpfully displayed on a board above the payment window.


Most of the ema display the reclining ox associated with Michizane, though some people like to add their own touch of artistry. The banks and banks of ema attest to the popularity of Michizane with schoolchildren wanting to pass exams.


The Ema Hall has a collection of ancient ema which were donated to the shrine in times past. Many are faded now, but this one gives an indication of how big the Shinto-buddhist complex used to be.


Pictures of horses used to be common, but ema in the past were by no means limited to that.

Komainu clearly enjoying the sunny spring weather and the crowds visiting the shrine at this time of year to see the plum blossom

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Kitano 1) plums and oxen


There are over 10,000 Tenmangu shrines in Japan which honour the spirit of Sugawara no Michizane (845-903), a Heian era statesman and poet who was unjustly exiled to Kyushu for plotting against the emperor.  Years later oracular dreams indicated that his ‘angry spirit’ (goryo) was responsible for a series of disasters in the capital, and measures were taken to placate it. Apotheosised as Tenjin (Spirit in the Sky), he replaced an earlier thunder kami that had been worshipped at Kyoto’s Kitano.

Kitano Tenmangu now stands at the head of some 10 – 20,000 Tenmangu shrines nationwide (though Dazaifu Tenmangu in northern Kyushu, where he was buried, has claims too).  Anyone familiar with such shrines will know three things: 1) they feature plum blossom; 2) they have ox statues; 3) their ema are hugely popular at exam time, as the deified spirit is the kami of scholarship.

Sugawara no Michizane had been a great lover of plum trees, and so the tree is planted at shrines in his honour.  When he was sent into exile, one of his last poems had been to his beloved plum trees:

When the east wind blows,
Let it seed your fragrance,
Oh, plum blossoms.
Although your master is gone
Do not forget the spring.

It’s said that his favourite plum tree in Kyoto was so distraught when Michizane went into exile that it flew off to be with him.  Called the tobiume (flying plum), it is held to be the one that stands today in front of Dazaifu Shrine.

As well as individual plum trees dotted around the grounds, Kitano Tenmangu boasts a grove of some 2000, and it is here every year that the Baikasai (Plum Blossom Festival) is held on Feb. 25.  The festival began about 900 years ago, and a huge open-air tea ceremony is held nowadays by the geisha and apprentice maiko of the nearby Kamishichiken district.  It was one of the first events I ever saw in Japan when travelling around the world in 1975, and it made a profound impression.

Another striking aspect of the Kitano shrine is the number of reclining cow or oxen statues.  This derives from a legend about Michizane’s funeral at Dazaifu.  The ox pulling the cart that carried his body was supposed to take him to his resting place but stopped suddenly and lay down.  Despite repeated attempts to get it to move, it obstinately refused to budge.  Those in attendance realised this was a sign from Michizane’s spirit that he wished to be laid to rest there, and the site became the present-day Dazaifu Tenmangu shrine.

Information for this and the following posting on Kitano 2: shrine fabric are taken from Shinto Shrines: A Guide to the Sacred Sites of Japan’s Ancient Religion published by Univ. of Hawaii Press in 2013.





A bovine water basin for 'purifying' hands and mouth


The custom is to rub the ox to get better or protect yourself. In particular you should rub in the place corresponding to the part of the body where you have an ailment. Those wishing to become cleverer rub the ox's head!


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Sumo, a Shinto Sport

Wikicommons photo of a 2008 fight


With the Osaka tournament currently on day 5 of its two-week span, it’s a timely moment to consider the Shinto origins of the sport (there are six tournaments a year).  For anyone familiar with the rituals of sumo, the religious trappings are evident in the etiquette, clothing and the design of the ring.  Given the similarities with Mongolian and Korean wrestling, it seems likely that the sport arrived from the continent.  Thereafter it developed distinctive features as it was adapted as an entertainment for the kami.  In early times these ‘gods’ were deified clan founders whose descendants cultivated their memory.  There would have been a strongman element in the contests, with implications for martial and bodyguard duties. This ties in with the sentiments in the first paragraph in the passage below.

For most of sumo history of course, all the wrestlers were Japanese only.  It was only in Edo times that it became a spectator sport rather than a purely religious one.  It’s said some foreigners tried their luck at the sport in the late nineteenth century, but only after WW2 were serious inroads made.  In 1972 the Hawaiian-born Takamiyama Daigoro, whose real name was Jesse Kuhaulua, became the first foreigner to win a tournament.

In 1993 another Hawaiian, Akebono Taro, was the first foreigner to become a grand champion (yokozuna). Six years later another Hawaiian, Musashimaru Koyo, was promoted to yokozuna alongside him.  After that, the focus switched to Mongolians as three wrestlers from Ulaanbaatar became yokozuna, including the present record-setting champion, Asashoryu.  Now the top ranks include wrestlers from Egypt, Brazil, Georgia, and Bulgaria in addition to Mongolia.  Though there was resistance at times and a limit put on the number of foreigners, you could say sumo is one aspect of Shinto that has truly internationalised!


Shinto origins of sumo  (From Wikipedia, slightly modified)

The Shinto origins of sumo can easily be traced back through the centuries and many current sumo rituals are directly handed down from Shinto rituals. The Shinto religion has historically been used as a means to express Japanese nationalism and ethnic identity, especially prior to the end of World War II. In its association with Shinto, sumo has also been seen as a bulwark of Japanese tradition.

The former grand champion, Asahshoryu, was the first person to win all six sumo tournaments in one year. Now retired, he hailed from Mongolia and was criticised for not keeping to traditional standards of modesty, sincerity and propriety.

Sumo can be traced back to ancient Shinto rituals to ensure a bountiful harvest and honor the spirits known as kami.  In modern times, the canopy over the sumo ring, called the dohyō is reminiscent of a Shinto shrine, the officiator is dressed in garb very similar to that of a Shinto priest, and the throwing of salt before a bout is believed to purify the ring.

Prior to becoming a professional sport in the Tokugawa period, sumo was originally performed on the grounds of a shrine or temple. The present dohyō, which is still considered sacred, is in honor of the days when matches were held on the sacred grounds of shrines and temples. The roof called yakata originally represented the sky for the purpose of emphasizing the sacred nature of the dohyō, which symbolizes the earth.

Some shrines such as Suwa Taisha have close ties with sumo and honour former champions

On the day before the beginning of each tournament, the dohyō-matsuri, a ring-blessing ceremony, is performed by sumo officials. They are the referees, who judge each sumo match. Their elaborate, colorful costumes are based on ceremonial court robes of the Heian period (AD 794 – 1185). Also their black hats are exact copies of the hats worn by Shinto priests depicted in various Heian art.

Dressed in the white robes of a Shinto priest the officials purify and bless the dohyō in a solemn ceremony during which salt, kelp, dried squid and chestnuts are buried in the center. Observing officials and invited guests drink saké, Japanese rice-wine, as it is offered to each one in turn. The remaining saké is poured over the straw boundary of the dohyō, as an offering to the gods.

Shinto ritual still continues to pervade every aspect of sumo. Before a tournament, two of the sumo officiators functioning as Shinto priests enact a ritual to consecrate the newly constructed dohyō.  And 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.

The ceremony involves the wrestlers 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.

For a listing of the tournaments and dates for the coming couple of years, please this page of the Japan Times.
For an article about the rise of foreign wrestlers in Japan, see this page from ********************************************************

The Hawaiian wrestler, Konishiki, had to be seen to be believed. Now retired, he's slimmed considerably and appears occasionally on television – a gentle giant who likes entertaining children. (courtesy

Posted in Japanese culture, Martial arts and sumo | 1 Comment

Shimogamo construction

My local shrine has been making the headlines because of its plans to build a three-storey apartment block within its precincts overlooking the famed Tadasu no mori woods, which are a remnant of the original woodland that once covered the Kyoto basin.

It’s on a site literally three minutes walk from where I live so I have a vested interest, though I can’t get as upset as some in the media appear to be doing.  Why not?  First of all, because it’s on the other side of a road from the woods.  Secondly, the site where it will stand is already built up and none too attractive.  And thirdly, because the shrine obviously needs the money and I’d rather they did this than some of the very, very ugly car parks that disfigure so many Shinto shrines.  If the condominium is well-designed, it may even enhance the area.

Here is a report of the matter as carried by Japan Today.


1,400-yr-old Kyoto shrine leasing part of its grounds for condo development

The Tadasu no mori woods, just over the road from the proposed condominium

One of the things that makes Japan such a compelling place is the country’s long cultural history. The upkeep of centuries-old buildings can be extremely expensive, however, especially since traditional Japanese architecture is mainly wood, reed, and paper, which aren’t exactly the sturdiest building materials.

As we’ve seen before, sometimes even sites of historical significance can struggle to make ends meet, and Kyoto’s famous Shimogamo Shrine is no exception. That’s why in order to raise the funds it needs, the institution, which was founded some 1,400 years ago, is planning to lease a section of its grounds for the construction of a condominium complex.

Although it’s been around in some form since the 6th century, the Shimogamo Shrine has gotten a number of publicity boosts in the modern era. The shrine was designated a UNESCO world Heritage Site in 1994, and much of the surrounding forest is part of the Tadasu no Mori, an old growth nature preserve that’s listed as a national historical site. In even more recent years, the shrine was depicted in in the 2013 Kyoto-set anime “The Eccentric Family,” and the shrine remains one of the most important Shinto sites in Kyoto, beloved for its fall colors and host of the Aoi Matsuri festival, held every year on May 15.

The shrine is known for its pure water flowing through the grounds and celebrated by the Mitarashi Jinja

This year, however, the shrine’s finances are looking bleak. Like many shrines, Shimogamo periodically takes part in a ritual called Shikinen Sengu, wherein new shrine buildings are constructed to replace the old ones as the homes of the gods. Shimogamo Shrine does this once every 21 years, and with Shikinen Sengu scheduled to happen in 2015, expects to incur related expenses of some three billion yen.

Government funding should provide about 800 million yen, and, like many shrines in Japan, Shimogamo is also likely to receive donations from major business entities. However, two months into the year, donations are not projected to be nearly enough to cover the necessary costs. In response, Shimogamo Shrine announced earlier this week that it is planning to lease out a section of its shrine grounds for the construction of a condominium complex.

Head Priest Naoto Araki said that the ordinary monetary offerings the shrine receives over the course of a year are applied to ordinary administration and maintenance costs, but points out that the latter are rising every year. Faced with the additional burden of finding a way to pay for 2015’s Shikinen Sengu, he has come to the conclusion that there is no other choice that will enable him to preserve the shrine for future generations but to build the condos. The 50-year lease is expected to bring in about 80 million yen annually for the shrine.

Following renewal the shrine looks resplendent – but it comes at a price

Conservationists will be partially relieved to know that the proposed construction site, while still on the shrine grounds, lies outside the World Heritage Site and national historic site boundaries. The 9,650-square-meter plot, which borders the Mikage-dori road, was formerly the site of housing for the shrine’s priests. Following World War II, the area was repurposed as a golf driving range because of financial difficulties, and in the early 1980s became a parking lot, which saw less and less use as other lots were built in the area.

In keeping with Kyoto’s reverence for its past, any development will have to comply with a number of regulations meant to preserve the city’s traditional beauty, and the developers are currently in the middle of preliminary talks with Kyoto’s Municipal Beautification Council. The proposed 107-unit complex would be spread among eight buildings, each a modest three-stories tall and no more than 10 meters high so as not to mar the surrounding views, with traditional Japanese tile roofs. Within the complex, the same type of elms as those which grow in the Tadasu no Mori woodlands are scheduled to be planted.

Despite these concessions, many online commenters still weren’t happy about the news.  “I was really surprised to hear about this. I don’t mind if they charge admission to the shrine, but I want them to call off the condo construction. It’ll ruin the scenery.”

“At first I thought, ‘That’s just wrong,’ but it looks like there’s no other way for them to get the funds they need, so it can’t be helped.”  “Even if they’re a World Heritage Site, is this the only way for them to survive?”  “Ah man…are they still going to be able to film samurai TV shows there?”

If approval processes go smoothly, construction is expected to start in November, with completion of the complex estimated in spring of 2017.  – Sources: Jin, Mainichi Shimbun

An example of how the need to provide an income can absolutely ruin a shrine and replace the worship of nature with car fumes and engine noise

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Meditation at a shaman's rock in Korea. Candles, alcohol and nature...


Previously Green Shinto carried a posting on agnosticism, which resonated with several readers, and it’s a theme I’d like to develop further as thoughts turn towards the celebration of spring. It’s a time when, in tune with nature, new ideas spring up and blossom.

"Nature is my god." - Mikhail Gorbachev

Spirituality as a concept is increasingly attractive to many in advanced countries, as outmoded belief systems give way to individual development.  In a recent poll in the US about a quarter of the population described themselves as spiritual but not religious.  Many such people see nature religions as a modern alternative to a God-based religion.  The pragmatic proponent of Perestroika, Mikhail Gorbachev, put it this way: “I believe in the cosmos. All of us are linked to the cosmos. So nature is my god. To me, nature is sacred. Trees are my temples and forests are my cathedrals. Being at one with nature.”

The modern aversion to traditional religion stems from it being rooted in a non-scientific past with a tendency to create barriers between believers and non-believers.  ‘Religions are divisive and quarrelsome,’ said the late, great Alan Watts.  ‘They are a form of one-upmanship because they depend upon separating the “saved” from the “damned,” the true believers from the heretics, the in-group from the out-group.’

Sam Harris, one of ‘the Holy Trinity of Atheism’, has written a book on the subject, seen from a modern scientific angle. In Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion, he explores the subject by integrating scientific and spiritual viewpoints.  Harris is a well-known sceptic with no belief in God or gods, yet he sees the possibility for a more fulfilling life than the simple pursuit of materialism:

Rediscovering ties to nature...

“Although the claim seems to annoy believers and atheists equally, separating spirituality from religion is a perfectly reasonable thing to do.  It is to assert two important truths simultaneously.  Our world is dangerously riven by religious doctrines that all educated people should condemn, and yet there is more to understanding the human condition than science and secular culture generally admit.”

Harris considers the nature of happiness, and how in the modern age it consists of repeated acts of gratification.  ‘Is there a form of happiness beyond the mere repetition of pleasure and the avoidance of pain?’ he asks.

His book pursues the possibility of lasting fulfilment at a deeper level, and the solution he comes up with has to do with attaining a state of ‘selfless well-being’.  Meditation is one of the practices he advocates.

The gateless gate of torii, open to all who wish to commune with the transcendent, is a potent symbol for those seeking greater spirituality.  It neither demands membership, nor imposes a mandatory doctrine.  It is a belief system with no belief. It calls us back to nature, back to the contemplation of the mystery of life, back to a state of grace.  It calls us home.

The torii – symbolic opening into a sacred world and open to everyone


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