Word power (kotodama)

Recently I had occasion to re-read David Morley’s Pictures from the Water Trade (1985), one of many books to describe a foreigner’s coming to terms with living in Japan.  It won praise at the time of its publication, and even though much of the book has dated, there are striking scenes that linger in the mind.

Priest reading out a prayer in the archaic language of the 'norito'

What distinguishes the novel from lesser works is the author’s interpretation of Japanese culture through the peculiarities of the language.  It’s thought that the sound of words in Shinto can have a power over and beyond their meaning, and this is known as kotodama (word spirit). It’s essentially a belief in magic, in that the sounds themselves are said to produce an effect in the real world.  It is why the wording of Norito prayers is thought to be of such importance.

In the passage below, Morley notes the ritualistic use of language in Japanese everyday life. Though it’s not explicit as such, I think there’s a link here with kotodama and the religious use of language in Shinto.  What’s of particular interest is the connection Morley makes with Japan’s propensity to natural disasters, for it’s been often said that Shinto was shaped by the geographical conditions of the country.  Appeasing  deities in order to prevent cataclysm was a strong motivating factor for early kami worship.


There was an element of superstition in the use of language, which Boon had hitherto only noticed in dead languages such as Anglo-Saxon and Latin.  Relics of archaicism, of course, are to be found in all languages. Goodbye is archaic, and so is any liturgy; speech which has become fossilised, which has acquired its power or nourished a belief in its power as a result of unvarying repetition over many centuries: speech with talismanic properties.  It was Boon’s impression, however, that the function of language as prophylaxis and invocation characterised Japanese on a much grander scale.

When the emperor made his famous broadcast announcing the capitulation of the Japanese at the end of the war his speech was unintelligible to the majority of his people.  The special use of language evolved for the imperial family, of what might be termed imperial aimai [vagueness], was grounded in the belief that a form of speech so removed from the language of his common subjects as to be virtually impenetrable was a proper symbol of the emperor’s inaccessibility.  Sustained euphemism making up a distinct language, isolating the emperor from verbal contamination, supplied a clear example of the superstitious use of words.

The formulaic use of language, a supersititious belief in the power of words, a declared trust in intuitive feeling and distaste for the logic that ignores reality: what was then this ultimate reality which superstition sought to appease, which only feeling could discern and with wihcih logic was allegedly unable to cope?  Boon decided that an answer to this question would have to allow for the unpredictability and violence of the natural conditions under which the inhabitants of the Japanese islands had always lived.


Japan - a land of shifting tectonic plates, volcanoes, and earthquakes




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The Way of the Flute

Fue and Shinto by Graham Ranft

Australian Graham Ranft seeking harmony with self and nature through the fue (photo by Peter Hislop, Canberra 2013)

In this current digital/digitised age I wonder if the appeal of Shinto for Westerners is about a more natural spirituality and also as a way of reconnecting with that world we lose as we ‘grow up’ and dimly perceive a sense of loss as we get older.

I would suspect that many westerners who are surrounded by the tumultuous avalanche of ‘noise pollution’ – both visual and actual sound, and maybe being more sensitive to this – are looking for some escape or at very least ‘getting back to basics’.  In a kind of paradoxical way ‘tuning out’.

I use the word pollution quite deliberately as this has a Shinto meaning as I understand it that is separate from a ‘western’ meaning.

How does this relate to playing the Nōhkan fue [flute]?

The Nōhkan fue is a 7-holed transverse flute with equally sized and spaced finger holes with a deliberate bore narrowing/constriction between the utaguchi- blowing hole – and the nearest finger hole. It neither plays in tune or overblows like a normal flute.

In blowing Nōhkan – I am still very much a raw beginner – I am learning to recreate the spare and enigmatic ‘melodies’ of the Nōh play.

I see playing a fue as making sound with nothing more  that the breath as a way of connecting or reconnecting  with the natural.  Of course non-keyed flutes are much more difficult  to play well than modern instruments with keys and mechanisms to facilitate both technique and intonation. Each note has to be played with care with attention and deep hearing.

The Nōhkan fue, like the Shakuhachi, is a purpose-built instrument for the music they play.

“Noh-flute is sometimes called “Kami-oroshi no fue” (meaning a flute which calls gods down to the visible human world). It can be said that nōh-flute in Noh performance plays the role of building a bridge between the world of gods and spirits, and invites them to the human world for even a brief period. Noh-flute is also played to let invisible beings come back to their own world”…

– Kumiko Nonaka  http://www.fuu-chou-sha.jp/profile_e.html

The Nōh play fue music are comprised of short phrases of melody which are typically played either for introduction of characters or to heighten the emotion of that particular scene. There are of course some entire self-contained pieces e.g. Oshirabe, Koi no Netori, and others.


I am currently working on ‘Kakeri’. At first glance it is just a series of short phrases but in each phrase are nuances of tempo, timing and affect.  Through my Nōhkan teacher Mr Hiroto Watanabe sensei of Mejiro Music in Tokyo, I am beginning appreciate the depth of this apparent simplicity.  Every lesson he introduces more nuances into each phrase. The sound of the breath, the change in tone and phrasing and rhythm of the notes in each phrase, the space ‘ma’ between the phrases.

These are not pretty melodies as such, although there can be those in the short phrases, but also something more refined.  Just sound.

(If one wanted to play just pretty melodies then there are many beautiful folk tunes that are playable on the Shinobue e.g. Sakura Sakura.)

One might also say that this ‘natural’ fue is made of  dead wood. In breathing into them we are bringing a new ‘life’ out of them and I see that as consistent with what I understand of Shinto. And certainly in that, a sense of gratitude, to be able to play fue.  To play is to breathe and to some extent to be in harmony with the instrument and with oneself.

Every lesson I start with “Oshirabe” which is a piece played at beginning of a Nōh play before the actual performance and it is as much to check ones ‘condition’  as to warm up the bamboo fue.  To center and collect oneself.

Rokurobyoe Fujita, master of the Fujita style of Nōhkan said in a DVD – reflecting on his thoughts about blowing Nōhkan: -

“Nohkan does not have do re mi – not because it is old but because it is special. I really want to make sound with my existence – is that a dream or is it not”?

I was very much interested with this idea  “I want to make sound with my existence”.

How to achieve that I am yet to find. In many ways playing a fue is about self-discovery…a journey with  spiritual overtones and gratitude for this opportunity at this age to learn a little about this old and enigmatic little fue and its music.  I will never play fue in a nōh play, but that is not the point.  It’s the journey – not the destination.

“Nōhkan becomes the player and the player becomes Nōhkan”..
– Rokurobyoe Fujita.


A musician adds to the atmosphere of the Gion Matsuri in Kyoto

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French connection

From Paris comes news of a major development in Shinto terms.  Masatsugu Okutani has written in to notify us of the Sanctuaire Yabuhara, through which he is offering services as a licensed priest.  It is an outreach of the Yabuhara Jinja in Nagano prefecture.

Masatsugu OKUTANI performs a ritual at the National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilsations

Masatsugu Okutani works for a Japanese company in Paris and is responsible for French, Italian, Spanish and Swiss markets.  He has two French subordinates and a British boss.  It’s an unusually rich international environment for a Shinto priest.

The Sanctuaire Yabuhara has a website and Facebook page.  At the moment, there is no Jinja or hokora (small shrine), but the priest sets up a temporary shrine (himorogi) for each ritual or celebration.

Activities in Europe are updated on the Facebook page, and the parent shrine of Yabuhara Jinja in Nagano will also be adding information from Japan.

Further information can be found in French and Japanese at the following pages:

Facebook    https://www.facebook.com/#!/sanctuaireyabuhara
Web site   http://www.yabuhara-jinja.org/


At a lecture in Paris to introduce Shinto

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The mahogany torii of the Brasil Daijingu outside Sao Paolo


In Brazil, I once talked to the elderly priest at the Brasil Daijingu, named Tamotsu Sato.  He’d gone to Brazil on May 22, 1934, and only been back briefly to Japan after the war to get his license to be a priest.  He told me he disliked the Japan-first orientation of Shinto there, and much preferred the international orientation in Brazil.  ‘Gratitude’ lies at the heart of Shinto, he told me, ‘Gratitude for life.’  It’s a universal value after all, endorsed by modern psychology.

Gratitude is written into Japanese cultural life, and the constant expression of thankfulness is one of the most endearing traits of the country.  For those who have the time, I thoroughly recommend reading friend Christal Whelan’s award-winning essay on the subject.  “As gratitude affirms not only the complex web of human relations, but also those with the environment, it is as relevant to ancient Yamato as to postmodern Japan,” she concludes.  “My own debt to Japan for having taught me this precious lesson in gratitude is something that I will never be able to fully repay.  But at least I can begin by acknowledging the debt.”

In an article on the web, psychologist David Mezzapelle, author of Contagious Optimism, shares 10 tips for living more optimistically.  Significantly, No. 1 is Being Grateful.   http://www.shape.com/lifestyle/mind-and-body/10-habits-happy-people

“It all starts with counting our blessings. If you are not grateful for the good things in your life, you will never be satisfied. Take inventory of the good around you. But don’t neglect what’s not great, either: You also need to be grateful for the hardships, the obstacles, the failures. Why? Because these are the points of wisdom in your life. They give you strength, they teach you how to persevere, and they form your resilience. Being thankful for every step makes life’s hardships surmountable. All of this is the foundation of optimism; being psyched about the good and the bad, and knowing that they all point to a bright future.”

It turns out that there is an organisation dedicated to grateful living, and though inspired by a Christian monk, it is committed to values of universalism and environmentalism.  Here is the mission statement: “A Network for Grateful Living provides education and support for the practice of grateful living as a global ethic, inspired by the teachings of Br. David Steindl-Rast and colleagues.  Gratefulness – the full response to a given moment and all it contains – is a universal practice that fosters personal transformation, cross-cultural understanding, interfaith dialogue, intergenerational respect, nonviolent conflict resolution, and ecological sustainability.”

The quotes below come from the organisation’s Facebook page

Just to be is a blessing; just to live is holy.  – Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

O Great Spirit, I awake to another sun, grateful for gifts bestowed, granted one by one.   – Twylah Nitsch

All good things are wild, and free. – Henry David Thoreau

Gratitude places you in the energy field of plenitude. Perceiving life in a consciousness of gratitude is literally stepping into another dimension of living. Suddenly the seeming ordinariness of your days takes on a divine sparkle. - Michael Beckwith

It is a wholesome and necessary thing for us to turn again to the earth and in the contemplation of her beauties to know of wonder and humility.  – Rachel Carson

That’s what I consider true generosity. You give your all, and yet you always feel as if it costs you nothing. – Simone de Beauvoir

"To the illumined mind the whole world burns and sparkles with light."

Gratefulness is that fullness of life for which we are all thirsting.  – David Steindl-Rast

To the dull mind all nature is leaden. To the illumined mind the whole world burns and sparkles with light. - Ralph Waldo Emerson

A hundred times a day I remind myself that my inner and outer life depend on the labors of other people, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the full measure I have received and am still receiving.  – Albert Einstein

If you light a lamp for someone, it will brighten your own path. – The Buddha

So much has been given to me; I have no time to ponder over that which has been denied. – Helen Keller

Gratitude is something of which none of us can give too much. For on the smiles, the thanks we give, our little gestures of appreciation, our neighbors build their philosophy of life.  – A.J. Cronin

The world is holy. We are holy. All life is holy. Daily prayers are delivered on the lips of breaking waves, the whisperings of grasses, the shimmering of leaves.  – Terry Tempest Williams

Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God. – Elizabeth Barrett Browning

“If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs — that is your success.”  – Henry Thoreau

For me, every hour is grace. And I feel gratitude in my heart each time I can meet someone and look at his or her smile.  – Elie Wiesel

As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them. – John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

Ironically, gratitude’s most powerful mysteries are often revealed when we are struggling in the midst of personal turmoil. – Sarah Ban Breathnach

Bless those who challenge us for they remind us of doors we have closed and doors we have yet to open. – Native American Prayer

Gratitude as a discipline involves a conscious choice. I can choose to be grateful even when my emotions and feelings are still steeped in hurt and resentment. It is amazing how many occasions present themselves in which I can choose gratitude instead of a complaint. – Henri Nouwen


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An Izumo study

A close-up study of Izumo's rice-rope, largest of its type in the world


An interesting review by Green Shinto friend Aike Rots has appeared of a dissertation that focusses on Izumo Taisha and its role in the development of modern Shinto.  The shrine remains a significant institution, though as the review below makes clear its role might have been all the greater but for the emphasis given to Ise by the Meiji imperialists.

What follows is an abridged and slightly modified version of the review.  Those wishing to read the full review can do so at this link: http://dissertationreviews.org/archives/8209


Aike Rots   –  A review of Gods Without Names: The Genesis of Modern Shinto in Nineteenth Century Japan, by Yijiang Zhong.

Until fairly recently, scholarly works on Shinto were few and far between. It was not until the 1990s that a generation of critical historians started taking kami worship seriously as a field of study. Drawing on the groundbreaking work of the Japanese historian Kuroda Toshio, scholars such as John Breen, Alan Grapard, Fabio Rambelli, Mark Teeuwen and Sarah Thal have challenged the dominant “emic” paradigm, which states that Shinto is the ancient, indigenous worship tradition of Japan.

A model of how the fabulously tall original Izumo shrine may have looked

Instead, they have studied local traditions of kami worship in relation to the Buddhist and Confucian institutions and ideologies with which they were historically intertwined, and shown that “Shinto” is an abstract concept that has been subject to various transformations in the course of its history. As their works make clear, the configuration of Shinto as an independent, “indigenous” ritual tradition in the early modern period was closely related to the development of the modern nation-state, and as such deeply political.

In line with this scholarly development, several studies have been published that trace the history of one particular shrine (or shrine-temple complex).  Examples include Alan Grapard, The Protocol of the Gods: A Study of the Kasuga Cult in Japanese History; Max Moerman, Localizing Paradise: Kumano Pilgrimage and the Religious Landscape of Premodern Japan; Sarah Thal, Rearranging the Landscape of the Gods: The Politics of a Pilgrimage Site in Japan, 1573-1912.

Yijiang Zhong’s PhD dissertation, Gods Without Names, is the first book-length English-language study of Izumo Taisha and its mythology…  Gods Without Names is more than just another historical account of an individual shrine, however. It is also an illuminating study of the development of kokugaku and related currents of thought in the Edo period, and it demonstrates how these different ideological stances were co-constitutive for the establishment of Shinto as the national imperial cult in the Meiji period.

Zhong’s dissertation consists of five chapters.  In the first chapter, he describes how in the second half of the seventeenth century Izumo Taisha was transformed from a place of worship deeply intertwined with Buddhism into a self-consciously “Shinto” institution.  In other words, Izumo Taisha was one of the first shrines in the country that was dissociated from Buddhism both institutionally and theologically.

Okuninushi statue in front of Izumo Taisha

In the course of the Edo period, Ōkuninushi gradually gained popularity as “the Shinto god of creation, protection and fortune” (p. 78).  In the second chapter, Zhong discusses this development, the main cause of which was a dramatic change in shrine funding.  As much of the shrine’s land was confiscated in the late sixteenth century, it had to look for alternative sources of income.  These came from the popular proselytisation activities of Izumo priests throughout the country.  During this period, the notion that in the tenth month of the year all Japanese kami come together in Izumo for their annual meeting spread throughout the country, greatly contributing to Izumo’s popular appeal.

Meanwhile, the power of Ōkuninushi as the god of Creation was asserted.  Moreover, he and his son Kotoshironushi were identified with two highly popular deities of good fortune, Daikoku (Mahākāla) and Ebisu.  It was during the Edo period, then, that Izumo Taisha gained nationwide popularity as one of the main shrines associated with divine protection and good fortune (including love as well as success in business).

In Chapter 3 Zhong proceeds to discuss the impact of Nativist (kokugaku) ideology on the development of Izumo Taisha in the late Edo period, and examines various ways in which the powerful deity Ōkuninushi was appropriated by kokugaku scholars. …  In particular, Ōkuninushi was of great importance for Hirata, who placed him in the centre of his Shinto pantheon. As Zhong makes clear, Hirata’s ideology thus “provided Izumo priests a directly empowering Shinto discourse to represent Ōkuninushi and the god’s priest as the anchor of Japan”.

However, Ōkuninushi was not the only powerful deity believed to be intimately intertwined with the nation as a whole.  In the nineteenth century, the Ise-based cult of Amaterasu – who, significantly, was seen as the ancestral deity of Japan’s imperial family – also took on nationwide importance, and was appropriated for ideological purposes.

Okuninushi and the White Hare of Inaba that he rescued

In Chapter 4, Zhong examines the tensions that emerged between Ise- and Izumo-related ideologues in the mid-nineteenth century, against the background of the confrontation with foreign powers in this period (and, more in particular, the perceived threat of Christianity).  He discusses the attempts by Aizawa Seishisai (1782-1863) and Ōkuni Takamasa (1792-1871) to reconstruct Shinto as a “modern” ideology capable of competing with Christianity, and shows how their works influenced early-Meiji reconfigurations of “Shinto,” “religion” and the state.

Finally, in Chapter 5, Zhong describes how in the early Meiji period the tensions between the Ise and Izumo factions gradually escalated, until they finally culminated in the “enshrinement debate” (saijin ronsō) of 1880-1881.  Although the Izumo priests wanted Ōkuninushi to be on top of the national pantheon alongside Amaterasu, their proposals were rejected by the powerful Ise priests.  As a consequence of Izumo’s defeat, Ise and its goddess became a core aspect of the imperial cult later known as “State Shinto,” whereas the worship traditions of Izumo were incorporated into a newly established private religious institution.

In this period “Shrine Shinto” was configured as a “non-religious” public ritual cult, centered around the emperor and the Sun Goddess.  Shrines were redefined as public ritual places rather than private religious institutions – with the exception of the twelve “Sect Shinto” (kyōha shintō) institutions that came to be legally and politically defined as “religions.”  Thus, “Ōkuninushi remained the ‘Great Pillar of the Land’ but that status was transformed to private religious belief, against the public and political status of the Sun Goddess”).

As said, Gods Without Names constitutes an important new contribution to the young field of Shinto studies. Drawing on a wide range of relevant primary sources, it sheds new light on the development of both kokugaku thought and Meiji-period “State Shinto.”  Moreover, it gives an informative account of the (early) modern history of Izumo Taisha and its main deity, Ōkuninushi.  Hence, I wholeheartedly recommend it to anybody interested in the history of Japanese religion, ideology, and mythology.

Aike P. Rots
Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages
University of Oslo

Lining up to pay respects beneath the giant shimenawa rope at Izumo

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More cherry blossom

A KYODO picture of the taki-zakura (waterfall cherry tree) of Miharu, Fukushima Prefecture


The Japan Times carries an article today about the wave of cherry blossom sweeping the nation…


It is widely believed that the custom of viewing sakura began in the Imperial Court in Kyoto early in the Heian Period (794-1185). Before that, it seems that people were rather more partial to the blossoming ume (梅, plum) trees that had been brought from China and were a symbol of foreign culture. But when the practice of sending envoys to China was discontinued in 894, the court in Kyoto began to be more appreciative of local culture and things indigenous to Japan. With that, sakura trees gradually became more popular.

But why has this delicate fluffy light-pink flower been so popular for such a long time?

Generally, the transience of the blossoms, which last only a few days before falling, is said to strike a chord with the Japanese character. So, too, eating and drinking under the trees is associated with an ancient belief that the fallen hanabira (petals) that happen to land in sake cups promote good health.

Rather less romantically, department stores and shops are now often decorated with cherry blossoms — more likely plastic than real — and at this time of year will have a section devoted to sakura-related products. Among these are many foods and drinks only available at this time.

Perhaps the best known are sakura cha (桜茶, cherry blossom tea)— made by pouring a hot water over a salted cherry flower — and sakura mochi (桜餅, a sweet cake made of glutinous rice and sweet red beans that’s wrapped in a salted sakura leaf). In addition, special hanami bentō (花見弁当, boxed lunches for flower-viewing), menu courses, desserts and cocktails associated with sakura will be widely available.

But Japanese don’t have a monopoly on the appreciation of sakura. Even first -time visitors to Japan will be touched to see blossoms drifting down in what’s known as a hanafubuki (花吹雪, shower of falling cherry blossom petals) and a chance to experience yozakura (夜桜, cherry-blossom viewing by moonlight or by the light of paper lanterns) should remain long in the memory.

Although there are many renowned cherry-blossom viewing spots across the nation, before setting off to visit one be sure to check radio or TV reports so you can catch the trees at their best.

In Tokyo, one of the most famous venues is Shinjukugyoen National Garden with its 1,500 cherry trees of 75 species. Ueno Park, Tokyo’s largest park, is now holding a sakura matsuri (桜祭り sakura festival), while Sumida Park along the Sumida River has more than 400 trees lighting up at night.

For enthusiasts in Kyoto, the shidare-zakura (しだれ桜, weeping cherry blossoms) of Maruyama Park and Heian Jingu are a must. The best time for hanami in the former capital is from early to mid-April, with the famed yae-zakura (八重桜, double cherry blossoms) at Ninnaji Temple normally among the last to come into full bloom.

While the sight of hundreds or thousands of cherry trees in full bloom together is a wonderful experience, around Japan there are also many beautiful ippon-zakura (一本桜, solitary specimens) well worth visiting.

Among these, three in particular are normally singled out and called sandai-zakura (三大桜, best three cherry trees). The taki-zakura (滝桜, waterfall cherry tree) in Miharu, Fukushima Prefecture, is so called because the rose-pink blossoms on its mass of downward arching branches resemble a waterfall; while usuzumi-zakura (薄墨桜, light Chinese-ink color cherry tree) in Neo, Gifu Prefecture ,is believed to have been planted by an emperor 1,500 years ago and is famous for petals that gradually change from pale pink to the color of its name. Finally there is the jindai-zakura (神代桜, mythological age cherry tree) in the precincts of Jisoji Temple in Mukawa, Yamanashi Prefecture, which is believed to be 2,000 years old and Japan’s oldest sakura.

So wherever you go, whatever you do, be sure to enjoy the fleeting delight of the cherry blossom this season and hope the weather is kind, and hard rain and strong winds hold off to allow the trees to show their full splendor.

A weeping cherry in Kyoto's Takaragaike Park

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Cherry blossom


“Why should the trees be so lovely in Japan?  With us, a plum or cherry tree in flower is not an astonishing sight; but here it is a miracle of beauty so bewildering that, however much you may have previously read about it, the real spectacle strikes you dumb.  You see no leaves, – only one great filmy mist of petals.  Is it that the trees have been so long domesticated and caressed by man in this land of the Gods, that they have acquired souls, and strive to show their gratitude, like women loved, by making themselves more beautiful for man’s sake?  Assuredly they have mastered men’s hearts by their loveliness, like beautiful slaves.  That is to say, Japanese hearts.”   –   Lafcadio Hearn

The Japanese have long made a cult of cherry blossom.  It used to be plum blossom until Heian times, a custom adopted from China, for the reawakening of nature after the long sleep of winter was marked by the miraculous first flowering of the fruit tree.  But the Japanese preference for cherry gradually prevailed, driven by an affinity with the evanescence of its blossom.

The sentiment is associated with the Buddhist view of the transience of life, but Shinto shares a similar outlook.  It was after all the great Shinto scholar, Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801), who came up with the compelling notion of mono no aware (the pathos of things) as an underlying current in the culture.  It was Motoori too who wrote the poem:

If someone asks
about the spirit of a true Japanese,
point to the wild cherry blossom
shining in the sun.

Celebrating the yearly round is an important part of pagan traditions, which signifies our connection with the seasonal cycle and our rootedness in Mother Earth.  Above all, it heightens awareness of the wonder of life; through ritualising our place in the annual round, we enrich our consciousness of living.


Posted in Animism, Japanese culture, Rites and celebrations | Leave a comment

Shrine items and names

The Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) has a website with indepth explanations of aspects of Japanese culture, together with some useful illustrations.  Here for example is their page on Shinto Shrines, which provides names for the various items.  Interesting too for what it has to say about the origins of Shinto lying in fear of destructive powers, and the origins of Kagura lying in the desire to restore the souls of the dead…

The following is (c)JTB2000:  http://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/indepth/cultural/experience/d.html


Shrine components
The jinja, or shrine, is where believers in Japan’s indigenous religion, Shintô, go to worship. Shintô originated in ancient peoples’ fears of demons and supernatural powers, and their worship of these.  It has no written body of doctrine, but it is Japan’s main religion and is practised widely through ceremonies and festivals.

Shrine architecture
The main sanctuary of a shrine is called the Shinden or Honden. There are also ancillary buildings such as the Haiden, or outer hall, and the Hômotsuden, or treasury, but these are not arranged according to any particular specified layout.

Charms and fortune slips
There are many lucky charms and other such objects to be seen at a shrine. Some are used to determine the will of the gods and some as a way of communicating with the gods and asking for their protection.

Shrine staff
The chief priest of a shrine is called the Kannushi. He is responsible for all the religious observances and the running of the shrine. The young girl assistants in a shrine are called Miko.

In ancient times, it was believed that people died when the soul left the body. To try and call it back, they used a form of magic called Kagura, which involved dancing and playing flutes and drums. This became formalized and developed into Noh and Kyôgen.

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Shrines and trees pt 2

This is the second part of a prize-winning essay by Mike Zdan, entered for the International Shinto Studies Association competition in 2011.  For the first part, please click here.


When the historic ginkgo at Tsurugaoka Hachimangu was uprooted due to a storm in 2010, people across Japan – as well as those who had visited the shrine from other countries – expressed a common sense of loss and sadness. However, these feelings turned to relief and excitement at news that new shoots had grown from the trunk, and that the tree’s life was beginning again.

One of the many shrines at Ise to be renewed every 20 years. Next to it is an open space for the rebuilding, with a small structure covering the shin-no-mihashira (sacred central pillar)

A theme of natural cycles, continuation, and renewal begins to take place in this way. Perhaps the most symbolic of the mutual relationship of shrines and trees is seen in the shikinen sengu ceremony at the Grand Shrine of Ise, during which the shrine complex is taken down and rebuilt anew, every twenty years. For over a thousand years, this ceremony has continued, with shrine buildings rebuilt of local timber on adjacent sites, and festivals held to commemorate the transfer of the enshrined kami to the new building.

Crossing the Isuzu River, passing through torii into the grounds of the shrine, one enters a deepening forest of cedar.  As the sounds of traffic grow faint, the iconic buildings of the shrine come into view.  The simple and elegant style of construction pairs the unfinished timber and its gold accents with the rich greens and reds of the surrounding cedars, and is unique to the Grand Shrine.

Enshrined at this important location is the kami of the sun, Amaterasu Omikami. The ceremonies of thanksgiving conducted at Ise recognize that all living things receive energy from this same, ultimate source.  In this grove, the lives of man and tree are recognized as springing from a common origin.  Though doctrines, ideals, and concepts of various faiths and philosophies differ, the understanding of the source of life’s energy represented here is fundamental.

A tree at Ise grows upwards to the sun from the soil, composed itself in part from trees that had formed the shrine ages ago.  Similarly, the busy festival of rebuilding ensures the transmission of the skills, ideas and understanding of one generation to the next.  For twenty years then, what remains in the space left beside the renewed shrine, marked by contrasting black and white pebbles?  Only a small building, sheltering the tip of a wide cedar pillar, anchored deep into the earth. This is the shin-no-mihashira (sacred central pillar); the yorishiro at the heart of the shrine.

Spirit pillar as used in Yayoi times for shamanic rites

The architect Tange Kenzo recognized that the erection of a single post in the center of a sacred area strewn with stones represents the form taken by Japanese places of worship in very ancient times; the shin-no-mihashira would thus be the survival of a symbolism from a very primitive symbolism to the present day.  Like the forest mountain yorishiro of Omiwa Jinja, the pillar at Ise illustrates the impressive intuition of people long ago concerning the natural world, and helps us understand a concept vital to Shinto.

Sustained and surrounded by old growth forest, the relationship between the Grand Shrine and its trees allows it to be at once ancient, and at the same time young and vibrant, able to look to the future.

More than simply a vehicle to teach the techniques of building the shrine, the dedication to this form for over a thousand years suggests a purpose and mind to preserve something important. That those who care for the shrine strive to ensure that a tree remains at its heart is extremely significant. By using a great tree in this way, they compel us to respect it, and the natural world that it represents.

The late Reverend Yukitaka Yamamoto outlined the Shinto concept of interconnectedness as kannagara, the way of living harmoniously with other people, the physical world, and kami. He illustrated that we exist at a crossroads, connected vertically from kami and our forefathers through to those who will come after, and on a horizontal plane to people throughout the world.  Like trees sprouting upwards from the earth, our roots as humans and living beings share a common origin, and our actions in life shape the world that our children will inherit.  We are not isolated; we interact with the world, its ecosystems, its society and its people, like the branches of a tree growing and extending outwards. At once simple and profound, Shinto’s awareness of the interconnectedness of all things is invaluable.

As a truly global civilization, our focus on mutual relationships has broadened. More and more, we communicate and work across boundaries of nation and language. Moving from studies of the symbiosis of two species, to the connections between seasonal cycles of distant ecosystems, we continue to reevaluate our position relative to the environment we live in. Advances in both communication and in scientific understanding continue to broaden our point of view.

This is not to say that our existence is free from challenges and difficulty.  It is not an easy task to empathize with those with whom we disagree.  Also, as we find that the economic and environmental systems that we interact with are extremely complex and interrelated, we may feel overwhelmed with crises we are unable to anticipate.

Yet, we are recognizing more and more that the desire to live in harmony with the natural world and those with whom we share it will not only ensure our survival, but enable us to thrive, mutually benefiting each other in turn. Sharing a common origin as living beings, we have the potential to realize this way of life.

From the use and symbolism of trees in shrine ritual, to their illumination of the concept of kami, this relationship clearly demonstrates many facets of Shinto itself.  Yet, if the connection of Shinto shrines to trees can also illustrate to the modern mind “the deep spiritual intuition of the universality of creative divinity,”  we will have learned a powerful concept indeed.


Shrine to the spirit of the tree, an example of “the deep spiritual intuition of the universality of creative divinity”


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Shrines and trees pt 1

Every year the International Shinto Studies Association (Shinto Kokusai Gakkai) runs a competition for the best essay about Shinto.  The winners are usually published in a collection, though last year there were no winners. The Essay Competiton flyer for 2014 will be posted shortly on the Association*s homepage.

Green Shinto is delighted to carry one of the winning entries for the 2011 competition, thanks to its author Michael Zdan who has obtained permission from the Association.  It concerns a subject dear to the heart of any animist and nature lover.  Trees are born out of Mother Earth and reach upwards towards the heavens, making a sacred connection between the Lower and Upper Worlds.  They speak to the shamanic roots of Shinto, and they formed mankind’s earliest places of worship.  They have much to teach us if we would only listen.


Shrines and their Trees – Pillar at the Heart of the Divine
by Michael Zdan

In this sanctuary,
I perceive the fundamental unity of all religions.
- A. J. Toynbee, on Ise Jingu

Sakaki offering in a tree shrine

From before recorded history until the present day, a relationship has existed between Shinto shrines and trees that is without parallel in terms of a connection between sacred and natural spaces. Besides the emblematic torii that one enters when crossing into the purified grounds of a shrine, the verdant groves, lush foliage and impressive size and shape of strong, old trees make them one of the strongest emblems of Shinto and its shrines.

Perhaps even more so than in the past – when human architecture and cities were less pervasive – the oases of green that shrine grounds continue to protect remind both reverent visitors and casual observers alike of an intangible connection that we as humans have with trees. More than this, a consideration of the connection between shrines and trees offers insight into Shinto thought and worldview that was as profound thousands of years ago as it is today. The study of this relationship however, contributes not only to deeper understanding of Shinto itself, but also its correlation to other ways of thinking and its potential as a positive spiritual, social, and environmental force.

Indeed, it is exceedingly difficult to imagine life without trees. Verdant parks, golf courses, and lake property are coveted by land owners, in no small part due to the abundance of the shade-providing wildlife habitat of which groves and forests are an integral element.  In the same instant that a community permits deforestation to develop land into a city suburb, new residents demand and expect shipments of young trees from nurseries to enliven home lots and boulevards.  There exists a clear human desire for closeness to the greenery of a tree.

The human connection to trees is more obvious in our use of their products. Even in an age of steel and plastic, our homes, workplaces and most other buildings continue to rely on wood for its ability to be shaped, its strength and structural qualities, as well as its physical beauty.  The paper we use in vast quantities allows our personal and business lives to flourish, and books and newspapers remain indispensable for education and the flow of ideas and information.

Sacred trees are like pillars to a different world

Upon first consideration, the modern perception of trees as scenery and resource does not appear compatible with the sort of reverence that ancient peoples might have accorded them.  We may worry that our professed appreciation of them appears hypocritical.  Yet, the wood of magnificent trees was prized ages ago as material for important shrines or Buddhist statuary.  In other cases, the cutting of such trees was absolutely prohibited in Japan, by virtue of the divine character which they expressed.

Some of the most treasured scenic areas of Japan have been noted for their green spaces and trees; the islands of Matsushima, for example.  The desire to be close to living spaces has not diminished, and industries such as eco-tourism give people the opportunity to visit breathtaking areas around the world.  From these ways of thinking alone, it becomes obvious that human thought concerning trees has not changed substantially throughout the ages.  We make use of trees, yet maintain a fondness, and a sometimes unspoken respect for them.

Shinto shrines, places where people feel an especially strong connection to kami, were originally specific, sacred groves of trees, or other inspiring natural areas.  Such spaces in particular were deliberately selected, due to a feeling of connection to kami in that particular location.  Although the concept of kami may be well understood by Japanese and those with an exposure to Shinto, it is essential to understand the unique connotations of this word in the Shinto context of shrines, trees, and the spiritual world.

One definition of kami includes “any thing or phenomenon that produces the emotions of fear and awe, with no distinction between good and evil.”  While such a definition may seem imposing, scholars also note that “in Shinto, there is no separation between the universe and divine creative spirit.  The universe is divine creative spirit extending itself as matter and as life.”  Like the expansion of the universe and its coalescence into stars, planets and living organisms, it is possible to visualize divine energy being manifest as kami.  As the word Shinto itself means “the way of the kami,” it can also be understood as the way of harmoniously following divine creative spirit, the cycles and systems of the natural world.

Touching the trees at Ise is considered good luck

Shinto thought concerning the interrelatedness of the universe and divine spirit as kami is illuminated through the logical connection to nature, including of course, trees. From extremely talented or charismatic individuals, to devastating natural disasters including typhoons and earthquakes, to breathtaking ocean or mountain scenery, Shinto associates that which is awe-inspiring to a common, natural source.  “Nature is not a mechanical product of an aloof manufacturing principle… Nature is divine spirit, itself, self-expanding.”  In other words, Shinto recognizes the interconnectedness and common origin of all universal phenomena. This is a level of ancient understanding that has not been discarded with time, but has rather been reinforced by continuing scientific discoveries, most famously the dual nature of matter and energy of Einstein’s equation.

Accordingly, a visit to a Shinto shrine is made to renew a sense of connection to kami, and to express gratitude for the life and nourishment one receives from the natural world.  As buildings, shrines house goshintai, physical objects in which the presence of kami is localized.  Also known as yorishiro, these objects can be man-made, but were originally rocks, trees and sacred groves.  Just as we appreciate the beauty of a tree and enjoy spending time in scenic woods, we can imagine the impression that great trees would have made on people long ago, and the sense of divinity those trees would have inspired in them.  At Omiwa Jinja, the mountain Miwayama itself serves this purpose, its tree-covered slopes representative of an ancient shrine layout, before the building of separate shinden for the shrine’s goshintai.

While today’s shrines are often comprised of many buildings, their connection to trees is maintained.  Significantly, the offering of a branch of sakaki is frequently a part of shrine ritual.  Known as tamagushi, the evergreen bough symbolizes both longevity and the energy that connects oneself to kami.  This respect for the size, age, and vibrant greenery of great trees was common to ancient thought throughout the world, and people continue to feel a deep, spiritual connection to the impressive sakaki and ginkgo of shrine grounds.

Woods - wholesome, purifying, and life-enhancing. Simply divine.


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