Shinto Shrines book review

Pagan, Shinto & Spiritual Book Reviews August 2016

ShintoShrinesJoseph Cali & John Dougill, Shinto Shrines: A Guide to the Sacred Sites of Japan’s Ancient Religion
(University of Hawai’i Press, 2012)

This book is by two of the most generous and enthusiastic non-Japanese specialists on Shinto. Joseph Cali is the creator of Shinto Shrines of Japan Blog Guide, a very useful website for those looking for information about specific jinja (Shinto shrines). John Dougill is the author of Green Shinto, which I consider an essential resource for international followers of Shinto and especially those approaching Shinto from a Neopagan perspective. I’ve therefore had Shinto Shrines: A Guide to the Sacred Sites of Japan’s Ancient Religion on my wishlist for some time, and I’m really glad I’ve finally got to read it. I was not disappointed.

Booksellers would not be wrong for putting Shinto Shrines in their “Travel” section. It looks and feels very much like a Lonely Planet-style guidebook – one that covers, in considerable detail, 57 prominent jinja (shrines) located all over Japan. Like a Lonely Planet book, Shinto Shrines is packed with full-colour photographs and the entries for each shrine all feature a table of useful information.

Megan Manson, a leading figure in the pagan-Shinto fusion currently underway in the West

Megan Manson, a leading figure in the pagan-Shinto fusion that is currently being pioneered in the West

What makes Shinto Shrines stand out from Lonely Planet, and in fact many other books on Shinto, is the attention given to details about the shrines – there’s information here that you just won’t find elsewhere, at least in English. The key information about each shrine not only includes its contact details, but also information on which kami are enshrined there, what kind of prayers are usually offered, and key dates in the shrine’s calendar. Perhaps the most attention is given to the shrine’s architectural features, so if that interests you in particular you’ll be in heaven (and if you don’t, you can just skim-read these parts). This, coupled with the excellent introduction to Shinto (with some really helpful illustrations) at the beginning, means that Shinto Shrines transcends being a mere travel guide and is in fact a solid resource for more serious students of the Shinto religion and its shrines.

Friendly, detailed and clearly written with a lot of love, Shinto Shrines is a reference book for a new generation of Japanologists and other enthusiasts of Japan and Shinto – those who are not content with simple armchair research, and want to go out there and experience Shinto for themselves.


‘Where there are rocks, watch out!’ (Alan Watts)

舞台石 飛鳥Alan Watts has a ‘godlike’ status for those of us who prefer spirituality to religion.  He of course was the first to deny guru status for himself, but as a teacher he continues through his recordings to shed light on what is otherwise obscure and confused. One area in which he sheds illumination is on the spiritual significance of rocks. In the third of a sequence on the subject this month, I should like to quote a short passage from Watts.

 “Where there are rocks, watch out! Watch out, because the rocks are going to eventually come alive and they are going to have people crawling over them. It is only matter of time, just in the same way the acorn is eventually going to turn into the oak because it has the potentiality of that within it. Rocks are not dead. You see, it depends on what kind of attitude you want to take to the world…
You cannot get an intelligent organism such as a human being out of an unintelligent universe. So in any lump of rock floating about in space, there is implicit human intelligence. Don’t differentiate yourself and standoff against this and say ‘I am a living organism in a world made of a lot of dead junk, rocks and stuff.’ It all goes together, those rocks are just as much you as your finger nails.”
~ Alan Watts

To get the full force of this, listen here to Watts himself explaining the living force of rocks.  The ancients must have sensed this in choosing them as a focus for their worship, not only in Japan but throughout the world.  Was there an unconscious realisation that life itself had emerged out of rock?

In the Shinto tradition kami descend to inhabit rocks. In other words, the rocks act as containers for the invisible and intangible spirits.  This concept could be taken in modern terms to symbolise the way the rock of earth nurtured the lifeforce.

The notion of living rocks is a potent ancient mystery that modern Shinto has largely subjugated.  In their place Meiji modernists have substituted ritual reverence for a divinely descended emperor.  Those of us with inclusive inclinations look rather to the animist roots of the tradition, and in so doing we must reclaim the true spirit of rock – the kind of shrineless worship in the heart of nature.  The kind of rock, in short, that really can ‘save your mortal soul’.

Where there are rocks, watch out!!

stone circle

rock meditation



The Stones Cry Out

Korean rock worship

Rocks cry out to those who listen. Rock worship in South Korea, a relic of Altaic shamanism.

My holiday reading this summer includes a Japanese novel by Hikaru Okuizumi that won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize after it came out in 1993.  The Stones Cry Out is the English translation by James N. Westerhoven, published in 1999 by Harcourt under their Harvest Book imprint.  It’s a short story of a WW2 soldier who survives harrowing experiences and finds postwar solace in collecting rocks.  But then violence strikes his family and he’s forced to confront his memories of the past to overcome the tragedies of the present. The writing is deceptively lucid, masking hidden depths and profound feelings.  (For an excellent short review, see here.)  Remarkably, the author was born in 1956, but he is unafraid to tackle the realities and consequences of Japan’s wartime struggle.

What interested me most about the book was its treatment of stones, which play a crucial role in the protagonist’s life as he becomes consumed with collecting different kinds of rock.  ‘Even the most ordinary pebble has the history of this heavenly body we call earth written on it,’ runs the narrative. In the passage below the author expands on the theme, casting light on the rock worship from out of which early Shinto developed. For those of us with a sympathetic interest in the pre-imperial roots of the religion, the writing here is compelling and fully bears out the dictum of Alan Watts that ‘rocks are not dead’.  This is simply the best piece of writing about the deeper significance of rocks that I have come across.


Stones on the top of a torii mark the visit of pilgrims. What stories do they have to tell?

Stones on the top of a torii mark the visit of pilgrims. What stories do they have to tell?

Here is how the book begins…

Even the smallest stone in a riverbed has the entire history of the universe inscribed upon it. The reason Tsuyoshi Manase became a fanatic collector of stones can be traced back to words spoken to him by a dying man during the Second World War, in mid-December 1944, in a cave in the middle of the tropical forest above the Bay of Carigara in Leyte.

The man was wasted by malnutrition and amoebic dysentery, and his face resembled a skeleton of wires covered by parchment. Only his eyes moved, restlessly.  These eyes he now fixed on Manase. With his emaciated fleshless fingers that seemed more like roots to Manase, the man picked up a stone from the ground.  This should be classified as green chert, he said in a magisterial tone, as if he were addressing a group of students. The cave was formed when bedrock from the Paleozolic era rose to the surface and was eroded by the sea. Later, during the Quarternary era, the sea withdrew and left the cave in the midst of jungle.  Thus the walls around them were probably full of fossilized marine organisms.  If you were to examine this little piece of rock under a microscope, the man informed Manase, you would be sure to find radiolarians and the like.  His lecture continued more or less as follows:

Sacred rock iwakura

“You normally don’t pay much attention to the stones you see by the side of the road, do you? Oh, perhaps if they’re stones you can use for your garden, or your house, say, but in general you don’t give much thought to them. You just think of them as meaningless objects scattered in the mountains, rivers, and fields. Even if they’re in the way, it doesn’t occur to you that they might be worth picking up and studying.  Well, you’re wrong, you know. Even the most ordinary pebble has the history of this heavenly body we call earth written on it. For instance, do you know how rocks are formed? Rocks are formed when red-hot magma cools off and solidifies into rock; rock erodes under the influence of wind and weather on the surface of the earth. That’s how you get stones.  Stones are eventually ground into sand, sand into soil; then stones and sand and soil are carried away by streams and settle on the bottom of lakes, fens, or the sea, where they once again harden into rock. That rock crumbles and changes back into stones and sand and soil, or it may be pushed deep beneath the surface of the earth and, under the influence of heat and tremendous pressure, reborn as rock, in all shapes and sizes; or sometimes it melts into magma and returns to its origins.  The form of minerals is never static, not for a second, on the contrary it undergoes constant change.  All matter is part of an unending cycle.  You know of course that even the continents actually move, though at an imperceptibly slow pace.

“What I’m trying to say is, the tiny pebble that you might happen to pick up during a walk is a cross-section of a drama that began some five billion years ago, in a place that would later come to be called the solar system – a cloud of gas drifting idly through space, growing denser and denser until after countless eons it finally gave birth to this planet. That little pebble is a condensed history of the universe and keeps the eternal cycle of matter locked in its ephemeral form.”


The words have such an impact on Manase that in a later passage when talking to his younger son, he repeats them verbatim.  The son is a 1960s revolutionary, and far from being impressed he berates his father for stating the obvious and missing the point. ‘Fooling around with pebbles is not real science…  it’s people like you that are making a mess of this world, with your indifference to what’s essential.  You’re the ringleaders.’

Taken aback by the surety of youth, Manase is unable to answer.  What he wants to say, however, is a tribute to the allure and awesomeness of rocks:

The feel of each separate stone in your hand.  Its smell.  Its taste.  The mysterious colors and shapes of crystals and groundmass polished to a section.  The miraculous accumulation of strata slumbering under the darkness of the forest, sculpted by water over millions of years. The breathing of minerals, noticeable only to those who venture alone and on foot into the deserted mountains. The order of the universe, unknowable until you have experienced it with all five senses. That wonder, that exhilaration, that awe, and more than anything, that endless sea of summer light – if only he could make his son see these things.  But they were impossible to express in words. His eyes burnt with regret and sadness.

Ironically, I myself was once something of a 1960s revolutionary who thought political change would right the wrongs of the world.  Those harsh words of the son could have been mine.  However with the experience (wisdom?) of age, I’m more inclined to share the perspective of the father. My generation used to believe rock was a means of revolution; now I see it rather as something that speaks to the eternal.  The ancients who roamed Japan’s coastlines and riverways also realised that, for they could see beneath the surface of the rocks by which they were surrounded.  Unlike urbanised modern man, they well knew that stones cry out to those who listen.

For more of Green Shinto on rocks, please look at the relevant category in the righthand column.  For the best overview, take a look at this one, and for the inspirational words of Alan Watts click here.


Sheep feeding off the power of a sacred rock in Avebury, England,


One of the alluring rocks Kara Yamaguchi came upon in her quest to find Japan’s power spots



Some of the most famous rocks in the world – in the Zen garden of Ryoan-ji. Spots of time in a sea of eternity, or enigmatic symbols of the lifeforce?

Rocks rock

The Shaman's Rock at Lake Baikal has a cave in which a monster was said to live

The Shaman’s Rock at Lake Baikal has a cave in which a monster was said to live. It’s one of the oldest shaman sites in the world.

The awesomeness of rocks
Green Shinto has written several times of the spiritual significance of rocks in Shinto (see the righthand column for previous postings).  It’s a much overlooked subject.  Why?  Partly because it is associated with the kind of primitive superstition that Meiji era Japan sought to put behind it.  But also partly, I suspect, because rock worship leads back to Korean shamanism and shows that far from being unique, Shinto is inextricably linked with continental nature worship.  Just how this conflicts with the insularity of mainstream Japan will become evident in the remarks below.

It was with some delight that I recently came across a video entitled “Okayama: the profound spirit of the rocks” (28 mins).  70% of Japan is covered in mountains and forests, so it’s not surprising that ancient Japanese felt some kind of kinship with them.  They even named tribes after the protective mountain beneath which they settled.

‘Since ancient times,’ runs the commentary, ‘people in Japan have felt a deep sense of awe towards particularly impressive rocks.’  It’s not limited to Japan, of course. The same could be said for ancient cultures around the world – you only have to think of Stonehenge, the pyramids and Machu Picchu for example.

Rock power
The commentary goes to feature a cave and group of rocks in Okayama, where according to local folklore a demon is said to live  – reminiscent for me of the ‘demon’ said to have lived in the Shaman’s Rock on Olkhon Island in Lake Baikal.  Rocks as an abode of spirits was part of the Ural-Altaic culture that spread down into the Korean peninsula. In Japan’s syncretic tradition, it is a Buddhist temple rather than Shinto shrine that guards the area, though in times gone by there would have been no such artificial division.

Rocks can provide boundaries and guidelines

Rocks can provide boundaries and guidelines

‘In Japan we believe that massive rocks such as these are occupied by divine spirits,’ says the guide, typically emphasising the singularity of Japan rather than its continental heritage. It is in such beliefs, deliberately furthered by Japan’s education system, that the roots of Shinto nationalism lie.

‘In the face of this massive power of nature, we can only put our hands together in awe,’ continues the guide, perfectly expressing the animistic roots of the religious impulse in cultures throughout the world.  The belief that Japanese are somehow unique in this stems from a binary opposition of ‘we Japanese’ versus ‘Christian Westerners’, so deeply ingrained in Japanese education. Is it too much to hope that one day school textbooks will talk of ‘we East Asians’ and of Shinto as part of ‘shamanistic cultures worldwide’.

Rock of ages
Kitagi Island in the Inland Sea is famous for its granite rock (which was used for building Osaka Castle).  One of the quarrymen there says, ‘My father would always tell me the rock is alive,’ and the discussion goes to suggest that newly cut rock is like a baby, freshly brought to life. After hundreds of thousands of years, the pieces of rock are liberated from their deep seclusion by being severed from the base of the parent mountain.

The programme notes that the grandeur of rocks gives humans a sense of their insignificance in the grander scheme of things.  Perhaps it is from this that their spiritual power emanates. As in Zen, the effect induces a diminishing of the ego in face of the sheer immensity and longevity of the rocks. And in the end all we are left with is ‘Gratitude’, as an ink-stone grinder puts it.

Rocks are thus shown to be a true object of worship, and it is to the larger rock on which we live that we owe our very existence.  As the programme shows, rocks truly rock.  We can only live in awe.
(For more of Green Shinto on the mystique of rocks, click here.)


Christian Storms, climber and video maker

Christian Storms, climber, actor and tv producer

Christian Storms, the American featured in the NHK programme, writes:

‘Climbers like me tend to view history via geology, a primordial time before man. Each type of rock tells a different story about the history of the earth. Much like the people I have shared special moments with, rocks come in all kinds of forms, compositions and hardness: just like the characters I have met.

On this trip, I learned to appreciate rocks that I can’t climb, which was a first for me. I met Sugita-san, an old-school climber who has put up over 150 routes in the world-class limestone Bichu climbing area, which now has 400 routes. Climbing his first ascents was a real pleasure because he designed the routes. It felt like picking his brain or dating his ex-girlfriend.

Formed underwater in ancient coral reefs and from shells and skeletal fragments of living organisms, those limestone cliffs I climbed were once underwater, before Japan was ever Japan. I promised Sugita I’d return to develop some of my own routes – and I will.

There is nothing like a ferry ride, and Kitagi Island [out of Kasaoka port] is a real gem. Tsuruta-san was all smiles as he showed me an old quarry for limestone and marble, that s now filled with crystal clear water. Watching limestone being quarried using the old fashioned method was quite something. And the death-defying ladders I had to climb down were scarier than any mountain I’ve climbed.

Finally, finding an inkstone was special. But more than that, I got to make one, together with the master, Nakashima-san. To create something from rock, and to make something that has been used for over 700 years – it felt so primitive. Without this rock, there would have been no written world, no literature, no history.

As the musician Bob Dylan said, “How does it feel? To be without a home, like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone.” Okayama felt like home.’


Places spotlighted in the NHK programme (see here):

Takahashi City in Okayama Prefecture is a popular destination for sports climbers. Rock climbing courses were first set up here in the late 1980s, and the area is now known by the name Bichu. TV producer Christian Storms is an avid sports climber. On this edition of Journeys in Japan, he scales one of the rock walls of Bichu. He visits an island that has a long history of producing high quality granite and inspects an existing quarry. He meets a traditional craftsman who uses the local slate to carve calligraphy inkstones by hand. And he discovers the profound connection that people here have long felt for their rocks.

Mt. Yoze-dake
Mt. Yoze-dake in Takahashi City is one of the most popular areas for sport climbing. The main climbing area, known as Bichu, is equipped with a parking lot, a rest house and a car camping ground.
Mt. Kinojo Visitor Center
Mt. Kinojo Visitor Center
On the summit of Mt. Kinojo you can visit the site of an ancient castle. The beautiful landscape is dotted with places associated with a legendary demon who is said to have ruled this area. Inside the precincts of Iwaya-ji Temple is an impressive rock formation that is believed to have been the demon’s residence. The Mt. Kinojo Visitor Center is 20 minutes by car or taxi from Soja Station on the JR Hakubi Line.
The most famous rocks in the world? The Zen garden at Ryoanji shows how Buddhism absorbed the native tradition of rock worship

The most famous rocks in the world? The Zen garden at Ryoanji shows how Buddhism absorbed the native tradition of rock worship

立石神社 山梨県

A triad of sacred rock deities. This and the following pictures are from a remarkable collection of outstanding rocks by power spotter, Kara Yamaguchi (see

DH000059 地蔵岩 御在所 三重県

舞台石 飛鳥

DH000050 石の配例 唐人駄馬遺跡 高知県

The curious case of San Marino

The San Marino entrance torii opens onto a wonderfully sylvan setting (all photos courtesy of the official San Marino shrine website)

The San Marino entrance torii opens onto a wonderfully sylvan setting (all photos courtesy of the official San Marino shrine website)


San Marino hokora

The inauguration ceremony of the San Marino shrine in 2014. A hokora stands on a stone plinth, with the Japanese and San Marino flags to either side. Francesco Brigante, shrine priest, sits on the far left.


What’s happening in San Marino?

Green Shinto has received conflicting information concerning the curious case of a Shinto shrine in San Marino.  Researcher Aike Rots, in an informative overview of the international outreach of Shinto, claims that the shrine is ‘officially sanctioned by Jinja Honcho’ [Association of Shrines].

However, a representative of Jinja Honcho, when asked about this said that according to the legal regulations it cannot ‘do anything official’ about a shrine in a different country with a different jurisdiction.  On the other hand, Jinja Honcho has received the San Marino ambassador several times and the San Marino-Japan Friendship Society claims that Jinja Honcho has given its recognition (kounin).  How far this can be taken as official sanction is unclear, but there are good reasons for suspecting that there is more here than meets the eye.


On the right is Francesco Brigante, priest of the San Marino shrine. The identity of the Japanese priest is unknown (from Tokyo Daijingu).


The shrine was officially inaugurated on June 22, 2014.  A small wooden building on a large stone houses a spirit-body (goshintai), said to consist of a jewel.  Accompanying the shrine is a torii, stone lanterns and cherry trees.  The shrine is dedicated to the victims of the 2011 tsunami, and it acts as a site for Shinto weddings.

Though the shrine claims to be the first in Europe, Green Shinto friend Paul de Leeuw has been running a shrine in Amsterdam for over 30 years and was the first foreign priest ever.  In addition, there is also a small shrine in a Buddhist temple in France.

The most curious aspect of the shrine, however, is the status of its priest, Francesco Brigante, a hotel owner, who as the photo indicates apparently has the official approval of his Japanese peers.  He is promoting Shinto as an ecological religion with universal application, though how he acquired his qualification is unclear.  Reports suggest that he can’t speak Japanese, which is usually enough to debar one straight away from training and qualification.  The website for the San Marino shrine does not mention his training or qualifications, nor is information about this forthcoming from Japanese sites.  It is therefore mysterious as to how he could be recognised as a head priest by senior members of Jinja Honcho (according to this site, he was ‘awarded a priest’s licence’).

In a video interview Mr Brigante explains how he came to be involved in the project through his friendship with the influential San Marino ambassador to Japan.  He says that the reasons he took up Shinto were: 1) it is a spiritual path which has never had conflict [though kishaku haibutsu and State Shinto show its aggressive side]; 2) it is a nature religion in tune with the ecological needs of today.  Part of his mission, Mr Brigante goes on to say, is to help young Japanese be proud of their heritage – a remark that makes sense in the light of what follows.

Political dimensions

One of the main people behind the project is Kase Hideaki, friend of the San Marino ambassador.  His involvement is such that he wrote the English text for the official shrine website.  Kase Hideaki is a founder of the flourishing Japan-San Marino Friendship Society (1000 members remarkably for a country of just 32,000). Kase Hideaki is also a prominent member of Nippon Kaigi, which boasts more members than the whole of San Marino and which wishes to reintroduce many of the features of prewar Japan.

A friend and ally of prime minister Abe Shinzo, Kase is a war revisionist who has denied that an atrocity was carried out at Nanking in 1937. (Wikipedia notes, “The denial of the atrocity is among the key missions of the influential lobby Nippon Kaigi, a revisionist organization of 35,000 members, including 15 of the 18 members of government in the 2014 reshuffle. [Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is also a member].”)

Kase Hideaki is not the only prominent rightwinger to be associated with the San Marino shrine, for amongst those attending the inaguration ceremony was the mother of Abe Shinzo.  The shrine therefore is well connected with the highest nationalist circles in Japan.  Priests for the ceremony were drawn from the high status Tokyo Daijingu, an Amaterasu shrine.  With links to Jinja Honcho, it seems the influential Kase Hideaki has been able to push through a historic postwar first by opening up a Shinto shrine on foreign soil sanctioned by the authorities.

Does this open the gates to other foreigners wishing to become priests? Does it indicate a drive by nationalists to expand the influence of Shinto abroad?  Does it, as Rots suggests, signify a trend towards rebranding the religion as environmental? (See a previous posting on greenwashing.)

For the moment no answers are forthcoming to these questions, and the authorities are keeping their cards close to their chests.  Perhaps more information will be forthcoming in due course. Meanwhile, it remains to be seen where the curious case of San Marino will lead.  From one of the smallest countries in the world, perhaps big things will follow…


Thanks to Paul de Leeuw for pointing out that the officiating priest at the inauguration was the president of Jinja Honcho, Tsunekiyo Tanaka, chief priest of Iwashimizu Hachimangu.  Curiouser and curiouser.  For those who read Italian, a report of the ceremony can be found here.

San Marino Jinja

Mitarashi at Shimogamo

Mitarashi saiMITARASHI MATSURI at Shimogamo Jinja from 5.30-22.30 (July 19-26) ¥300

Summer in Kyoto is hot, hot and humid!  At this time of year all one wants to do is wade through cold water.  Well, that’s just what you get to do in the Mitarashi Festival at Shimogamo Shrine.  Considering that it promises a disease-free year, particularly for legs, then it’s easy to understand why the festival is so popular.

All dolled up to wade in the purifying water

All dolled up to wade in the purifying water

Purification is Shinto’s raison d’etre, and the festival can be seen as a mini-misogi (cold water austerity).  The idea is that it removes impurities and restores you to full vitality.  In Shinto terms it’s a cleansing of your soul-mirror so that it shines brightly once more.

The water comes out of an underground stream, which is why it’s icy cold (painfully so!) and very invigorating.  Participants pay Y300 for which they get a candle to wade with upstream and set before Mitarashi Shrine, dedicated to a purification kami.  Thousands pass through the stream over the four days, with yukata and trousers hitched up for the knee-high water.

Afterwards you get to drink a cup of the purifying water.  The idea is that the spiritually charged water will infuse you with the strength of the kami.  Following this one walks past a display of black stones taken from the bottom of the stream, which are said to be a special deterrent for disease demons – particularly the one that causes temper tantrums in children!

In front of the shrine the newly furnished enmusubi shrine attracts groups of yukata girls, and amongst the stalls set up for the occasion are the popular Mitarashi dango (dumplings said to resemble bubbles gushing up out of the water).

Shimogamo Jinja is a World Heritage Site and Kyoto’s premier ‘power spot’.  Here is a rare chance to see it lit up in spectacular fashion and in festive mode.  This year the festival has been extended from three days to be a week-long affair, so that unlike the crowded Gion Festival this is on a more manageable scale.  There’s little doubt about it: Mitarashi is the coolest festival in town!

(For a report on the 2014 festival, see here.)

Crowds place their candle in stands before the shrine

Crowds place their candle in stands before the shrine

Afterwards there's a chance to imbibe the sacred water, so that purification is both internal and external

Afterwards there’s a chance to imbibe the sacred water, so that purification is both internal and external

Like other Shinto festivals, a spiritual core lies among all the jollity

Like other Shinto festivals, a spiritual core lies among all the jollity

Special foot ema are provided, on which one writes one's name and age before supplicating the water deity

Special foot ema are provided, on which one writes one’s name and age before supplicating the water deity

Some take advantage of the occasion to pray for a new partner at the shrine’s increasingly popular ‘enmusubi shrine’, where two branches of the sacred tree have merged into one

Cleansing the leg protectors before offering them up to the river kami

Cleansing the leg protectors before offering them up to the river kami


Aesthetic display of seasonal offerings

Sacred river stones that protect children against the supposed blight of 'kan-mushi'

Selecting a sacred river stone that protects children against the blight of ‘kan-mushi’

Taishi Kato, shrine priest

Gon-negi, Taishi Kato

Gon-negi, Taishi Kato

Taishi Kato (加藤大志) is a young Shinto priest, who will be doing a postgraduate course at SOAS in London from September. His father is head priest of the Hattori Tenjingu in Toyonaka City, Osaka, recently featured in Green Shinto. While in the UK, Taishi is keen to give talks and presentations about Shinto.

1) How did you become a Shinto priest?

After graduating from Keio University (business course), I straightly enrolled in Kokugakuin University. I took a one-year course to obtain the license of Shinto priest.

2) What was it like growing up in the house of a priest?

I often ate the food which was offered to the kami, such as sea bream. During New Year’s holiday season, our family members helped to manage the Jinja, such as selling good luck charms.

3) How and when did your family first become associated with Hattori Tenjingu?

My great-grand father served as the chief priest of the Ikuta Shrine in 1945 and he tried to look for a Shinto shrine which the family could hand down to a descendant. He found Hattori Tenjingu which was ruined by the war at that time. He asked the priest who lived nearby whether he could take over the position of chief priest. And so the right of managing Hattori Tenjingu came to belong to my family. As my great grandfather was still chief priest at Sanctuary Ikuta, he let my grandfather become chief priest of Hattori Tenjingu. This is the story of how Hattori Tenjingu became associated with my family.

4) Legally speaking, who does the shrine and its land belong to?  How does the shrine manage to finance itself?

Taisha Kato will be a postgraduate student in the coming year

Taishi Kato will be a postgraduate student from September

My father has the right to manage the shrine, but legally speaking Hattori Tenjingu is registered as a religious corporation which owns the land and buildings.  If we have to rebuild the sanctuary, basically Hattori Tenjingu and the ‘soudaikai’ (see below) are responsible for that. And generally speaking, some of the parishioners and local companies donate money to rebuild the Jinja.

5) Please tell us about the parish association (‘ujiko’).  How is it organised, how many members are there, and what role does it play?

In the case of Hattori Tenjingu, it is complicated. It is true that there is an ujiko area and it consists approximately of 300 people. But, Hattori Tenjingu is not regarded as a parish shrine but ‘Sukeigata Jinja’, which means the area supporting the Jinja is not limited. People throughout Japan can become a member or supporter of the Sukeidantai (support organisation). In the future I would like foreigners to become supporters too and participate in the development of Hattori Tenjingu.

With regard to the Sukeidantai, there are six different groups:
① Representatives of the parish, i.e. members belonging to the ujiko.
➁ Association of Toyonaka Ebisu, people who have made special contributions to Toyonaka City)
➂ Association of Hattori Inari, which consists of people who live in Toyonaka city.
④ Women’s Association of Hattori Tenjingu, i.e. female members of the ujiko (parish)
⑤ Association of Hattori Tenjin, with people from throughout Japan
⑥ Service Association of Hattori Tenjingu.  Members consist of company presidents and celebrities.

All of the groups play an important role in supporting Hattori Tenjingu. Basically, their role is to help prepare for ceremonies and manage the sanctuary.

6) How do you see the future, both in terms of Shinto as a whole and for yourself personally?

Most people assume that it will be hard to manage Jinja in the future. However, from an international perspective, Shinto has infinite possibilities to contribute to Japan as well as the international field. With the advance of global society, all sorts of things will become homogenized. On the other hand, historically speaking, Shinto has been developed by the Japanese aesthetic sense and sensitivity of the general public. In other words, as far as the history of Shinto is concerned, the dependence on Japanese culture is quite high. Therefore, there are some differences from the global context. If Shinto priests can explain the essential aspects of Shinto which have roots deep in Japanese culture, such as Harae (祓え) and Kegare (ケガレ), in a global context, there is a strong possibility that Shinto will develop internationally.


Taishi Kato can be contacted at <k.taishi0926[at mark]>

Taishi Kato demonstrates the leg protecting stone chair in his father's shrine of Hattori Tenjingu,

Taishi Kato demonstrates the leg protecting stone chair in his father’s shrine of Hattori Tenjingu,

Meiji Shrine repairs

Meiji Shrine gate

The Meiji Shrine south gate – or is it?

Meiji Shrine gate just an illusion as undercover repairs proceed
By KAZUHIRO NAGASHIMA Asahi, July 22, 2016

At first glance, the south gate of Tokyo’s Meiji Shrine, which is currently undergoing extensive renovation, doesn’t look out of the ordinary.

Although the gate is shrouded to hide the work, a giant mesh screen has been erected in front offering a full-scale color image of the Taisho Era (1912-1926) gate in all its glory.

It took three months to produce the sheet, which measures 14 meters in height and 20 meters in width. “We want to work on the construction without it being noticed by anyone,” said the head of the Shimizu Corp. construction crew that was commissioned to carry out the restoration. “To make it discreet, we chose a cloudy sky for the background instead of blue skies.”

The south gate of the historic Shinto shrine was constructed in 1920. The restoration of its copper-sheet roof and cleaning of the woodwork is expected to continue until the end of August. The restoration of the shrine’s east and west gates will be carried out as well.

The renovation at the Meiji Shrine complex is scheduled to continue through October 2019.


For a short video (less than a minute) showing the compound inside the south gate, see here.

Gion Ato Matsuri 2) Kanko-sai

Turning the mikoshi round and round while shouting ‘mawase’ is a highlight of the event

From last year July 24 has become a busy day for Kyoto.  In the morning 10 mighty floats parade through the city centre.  They are joined by a Hanagasa procession from Yasaka Jinja to make a pleasing spectacle for the enjoyment of the kami – and the thousands of people who come to watch.

In the afternoon and evening of the same day, the three mikoshi (portable shrines) bearing the kami of Yasaka Jinja are borne aloft and carried back to the shrine in an event known as Kanko-sai.  The three mikoshi travel three different routes through the town’s back streets to reach their destination, taking over four hours in all.  There are some 1000 men involved, hoisting the massively heavy mikoshi aloft and jostling them up and down as they shout out ‘hoitto‘ and other ejaculations.  Many of the participants had been drinking beforehand, making it a wild frenzy of an event, capturing something of the primal connections of mankind and the life-force.


For an overview of the Gion festival, click here.  For the main parade, see here, and the evening before here.  For an in-depth 28min NHK programme in English, click here.


Carrying the mikoshi is so heavy people have to take it in turns to bear the weight


The mikoshi even enter the shopping arcade, heading for the covered food market


Learning to be Japanese at a young age


The priest resisted the lure of Liption tea


Some participants dressed the part but had other things on their mind…


… while others just displayed bare-bottomed cheek!


Gion Ato Matsuri 1) Yoiyama

Star of last year’s festival – the Ofune float representing the ship in which legendary Empress Jingu sailed for Korea. Rebuilt after 150 years, following its destruction in the Great Fire of 1864, it is the last in the July 24 parade of floats. On its side it carries sixteenth-century fabrics from Portugal.


The Hachiman float bears a torii, pine tree and shrine dedicated to the kami

It’s been a busy week for Kyoto.

The second parade of the Gion Matsuri, which takes place on July 24, celebrates the return of the Yasaka Shrine kami from their week-long ‘holiday’ in the city centre where they reside in a resting place known as otabisho. The parade of floats takes place in the morning to entertain the kami, who are moved in an afternoon procession of mikoshi known as Kanko-sai.

In the evenings before the parade people are able to walk around the floats and view the treasures on display as well as pray at the shrines.  Religious goods are on sale, and there is a general atmosphere of festivity.  As this is the second time for this to happen within a week, crowds are far fewer than for the Saki Matsuri (Preceding Festival).

The occasion offers the perfect opportunity to view the floats in greater detail and to talk with some of the participants.  It brings one close to the neighbourly nature of the festival.  And according to old-timers, it’s much more like the Gion Festival of old when one could wander around at leisure rather than be crushed by the tourist throngs in the sweltering heat.

The three mikoshi from Yasaka Jinja that stand at the spiritual heart of the Gion Matsuri

The three mikoshi from Yasaka Jinja that stand at the spiritual heart of the Gion Matsuri, resting in the centre of town at the ‘otabisho’ where they are on display


Musicians play at the otabisho of the mikoshi in Shijo Street, downtown Kyoto

Musicians play at the otabisho of the mikoshi in Shijo Street, downtown Kyoto


The quiet conditions of the Ato Matsuri allow leisurely access to the float buildings where the religious purpose of the festival is apparent.


The diversity of float subjects can be seen at the Kurunushi yama, which honours a Heian-era poet, Otomo Kurunushi. One of the Six Saints of Poetry in the Heian Era, he is represented by a sacred figure which dates back to 1789.


The Kurunushi float has cherry blossom, of which the poet was fond. Since Kuronushi means black lacquer, the float is different from others in not being bare wood but black-lacquered.


A political festival fan – and for once it's not nationalist but a message to Protect the peace constitution that Japan has had since WW2

A political festival fan – and for once it’s not nationalist but a message to Protect the Peace Constitution that Japan has had since WW2 (‘Protect Article 9 – Don’t turn Japan into a war-capable nation’)

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