Zen and Shinto 19: Architecture

The following is taken from Wikipedia, indicating how Buddhism and Shinto overlapped architecturally.  The similarities are particularly acute in Zen, which lays great emphasis on the kind of exactitude and purity of form found in Shinto.  One thinks for instance of dry landscape gardens and the use of plain gravel for shrine entrances, or the use of rocks as spiritual and symbolic features.



In Japan, Buddhist temples co-exist with Shinto shrines, and both share the basic features of Japanese traditional architecture. Not only can torii, the gates usually associated only with Shinto, be found at both, but the entrance to a shrine can be marked by a rōmon, a gate which is Buddhist in origin and can therefore very often be found also at temples.

Some shrines, for example Iwashimizu Hachiman-gū, have a Buddhist-style main gate called sōmon. Many temples have a temizuya and komainu, like a shrine. Conversely, some shrines make use of incense or have a shōrō belltower. Others – for example, Tanzan Jinja in Nara – may even have a pagoda.

Honden of the Zennyo Ryūō shrine, inside a Shingon temple in Kyoto

Similarities between temples and shrines are also functional. Like a shrine, a Buddhist temple is not primarily a place of worship: its most important buildings are used for the safekeeping of sacred objects (the honzon, equivalent to a shrine’s shintai), and are not accessible to worshipers. Unlike a Christian church, a temple is also a monastery. There are specialized buildings for certain rites, but these are usually open only to a limited number of participants. Religious mass gatherings do not take place with regularity as with Christian religions, and are in any event not held inside the temple. If many people are involved in a ceremony, it will assume a festive character and will be held outdoors.

The reason for the great structural resemblances between the two lies in their common history. It is in fact normal for a temple to have been also a shrine, and in architectural terms, obvious differences between the two are therefore few, so much so that often only a specialist can see them.

Shrines enshrining local kami existed long before the arrival of Buddhism, but they consisted either of demarcated land areas without any building or of temporary shrines, erected when needed. With the arrival of Buddhism in Japan in the 6th century, shrines were subjected to its influence and adopted both the concept of permanent structures and the architecture of Buddhist temples.

A Buddhist-style gate (karamon) at Iwashimizu Hachiman-gū

The successive development of shinbutsu-shūgō (syncretism of Buddhism and kami worship) and of the honji suijaku theory brought to the almost complete fusion of kami worship and Buddhism. It became normal for shrines to be accompanied by temples in mixed complexes called jingū-ji (神宮寺 lit. shrine temple) or miyadera (宮寺 lit. shrine temple).The opposite was also common: most temples had at least a small shrine dedicated to its tutelary kami, and were therefore called jisha (寺社 temple shrines?). The Meiji era’s eliminated most jingūji, but left jisha intact, so much so that even today most temples have at least one, sometimes very large, shrine on their premises and Buddhist goddess Benzaiten is often worshiped at Shinto shrines.

As a consequence, for centuries shrines and temples had a symbiotic relationship where each influenced the other. Shrines took from Buddhism its gates (Mon), the use of a hall for lay worshipers, the use of vermilion-colored wood and more, while Chinese Buddhist architecture was adapted to Japanese tastes with more asymmetrical layouts, greater use of natural materials, and an adaptation of the monastery to the pre-existing natural environment.

The clear separation between Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, which today is the norm, emerges only as a result of the shinbutsu bunri (“separation of kami and Buddhas”) law of 1868. This separation was mandated by law, and many shrine-temples were forced to become just shrines, among them famous ones like Usa Hachiman-gū and Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū.

Because mixing the two religions was now forbidden, jingūji had to give away some of their properties or dismantle some of their buildings, thus damaging the integrity of their cultural heritage and decreasing the historical and economic value of their properties. For example, Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū’s giant Niō (the two wooden wardens usually found at the sides of a temple’s entrance), being objects of Buddhist worship and therefore illegal where they were, were sold to Jufuku-ji, where they still are. The shrine-temple also had to destroy Buddhism-related buildings.


Carp and animal rights

As Shinto spreads in the West, one hears more and more about it being a religion that prizes nature and is ecological in essence.  Unfortunately that is far from the case in Japan, where the ancestral element in Shinto leads to tradition trumping environmental issues.

One such instance to come to light recently is in the abuse of animal rights at a Shinto ceremony involving carp. This was highlighted in an article in the UK’s Daily Mail (hardly noted as an environmental campaigner, one hastens to add).  For Shintoists in Japan keeping up the ways of their ancestors is far more important than compassion for animals. It’s a pattern one sees again and again, serving as a reminder that Shinto is far from being simply a nature-loving religion.


He drinks like a fish! Call to ban traditional Japanese ceremony where a carp is plied with wine in a bid to banish evil spirits

  • Ceremony is conducted every year in the city of Tonami, western Japan
  • It is due to superstition that women are unlucky at age of 33 and men at 42
  • Custom has been criticised after it was shown on television programme 

Campaigners have called for a ban on a traditional Japanese ceremony in which a carp is made to drink wine in a bid to banish evil spirits.

The ceremony is conducted every year in the city of Tonami, western Japan, due to a superstition that women are unlucky at the age of 33, while men are unlucky at 42 – with participants desperate to reverse the ‘curse’.

However, the custom has now been slammed online for being ‘abusive’, after a television programme showing the ceremony taking place was aired in Japan.

Scroll down for video 

Campaigners have called for a ban on a traditional Japanese ceremony in which a carp is made to drink wine in a bid to banish evil spirits 

Campaigners have called for a ban on a traditional Japanese ceremony in which a carp is made to drink wine in a bid to banish evil spirits

The ceremony is conducted every year in the city of Tonami, western Japan, due to a superstition that women are unlucky at the age of 33, while men are unlucky at 42

The ceremony is conducted every year in the city of Tonami, western Japan, due to a superstition that women are unlucky at the age of 33, while men are unlucky at 42

During the ceremony, the men carry a live carp in a bucket to the river, while the women carry a bottle of Japanese rice wine, led by a Shinto priest, Rocket News 24 reported.

When they get to the riverside, the men hold the fish still while the women pour the wine, called nihonshu, into their mouths.

At the end of the ceremony, the carp are released back into the water.

It is believed that alcohol has a purifying effect on the carp, believed to be the god of the river

A poll conducted afterwards found that 8,000 viewers believe the custom should stop. Many took to social media to slam the ceremony, arguing that it was ‘unnecessary’ and a form of ‘abuse’.

An expert who appeared on the Morning Show suggested the alcohol does not have much impact on the fish, as the majority of it escapes through the gills.  However, a study in 2014 found that giving a zebrafish ethanol did have a significant impact – doubling its swimming speed.

The tradition is thought to have begun in 1816. At the end of the ceremony, the carp are released back into the water

The tradition is thought to have begun in 1816. At the end of the ceremony, the carp are released back into the water

Miyakojima revisited

Incense lies on the beach after a ritual for Ryugu, the sea deity. Here nature is worshipped directly, without the need for shrines.

Last year I took the direct flight to the island of Miyakojima in Okinawa for a few days spring sunshine.  It was so wonderful that I decided to go again, but this time instead of touring the island by rented car I decided to stay in a resort and enjoy the amenities.  Since March is just before ‘the season’ starts, the small white sand beaches were mercifully empty.  It meant I could inspect the surrounds at leisure.

In my previous posting on Miyakojima, I explored the distinctive religious heritage of the island. The two pillars of East Asian spirituality, animist and ancestral worship, were soon apparent even within five minutes walk from the resort. On the one hand were small shrines facing the sea where offerings were made to Ryugu, the ocean deity. On the other there were the characteristic tomb buildings in the nearby village where gatherings are held in honour of family ancestors.

A typical family tomb, set amidst a sugar cane field

This time I was able to spend time chatting to a local woman who was picking herbs amongst the coral-like rocks.  She told me of how women gathered for rituals according to the old calendar, and how these were dying out as the new generation moves away and shows little interest.The Ryukyu language that she spoke at home was dying out too, and she recalled being punished for using it at school where standard Japanese was the only language allowed.

The villager told me too of the shamanic practices conducted at funerals, when the spirit of the dead person enters into the medium. She spoke of how one could easily tell if it was genuine or fake. As she described the event, I couldn’t help recalling very similar practices I’d witnessed in Korea. As there, the shamanic tradition in Miyakojima is very female-driven.

My last day on the island happened to be Doll’s Day by the old pre-Meiji calendar, and the custom is for the island women to purify themselves in the sea. With its pleasant blue water and pristine white sand, the beach spoke invitingly of immersion in nature.  Here, you could sense, was a true communion of human and spirit world.  But when the typhoons blow later in the summer, you can be sure the other aspect of the gods will be all too evident!

For the first of a series of four postings on Okinawan religion, please click here. For Okinawan ancestral worship, see here. For shrines and rituals, see here. For the wonderful chief Okinawan shrine, Seifa Utaki, please see here.

Purification in the sea is traditional on Dolls Day by the old calendar

A typical small worship place, with space for incense and offerings. It’s usual to leave behind the food and tin foil, cans and packets etc.  In olden times these would have been bio-degradable.

Family tomb with open doors. Inside is a cavernous space in which urns are put. In previous times it would have been strewn with bones, in one composite ancestral mix.

An opened packet of salt is left as purification in front of a family tomb

Hearn 17): First Shrine Visit (cherry blossom time)

Hearn’s first shrine visit came in cherry blossom time in Yokohama, fresh after his arrival there by ship from Vancouver. It was in Hearn’s honeymoon period, when he was elated with being ‘in fairyland’ where everything was enchanting, elfish and curious. His writing conveys all the thrill of the new and exotic, when travellers ride a high of constant discovery.

In a way Hearn had been prepared for Shinto by his attachment to the pagan polytheism of ancient Greece. While still a schoolboy he had turned away from what he saw as the oppressive monotheism of Christianity, and influenced no doubt by the Greek heritage of his idolised mother he had been enraptured by picture books of Greek myth. While in Japan, Hearn was to take on Christian missionaries as an enemy propagating an unattractive Western modernism.  Whereas they ridiculed the worship of trees and snakes and rocks, Hearn had an instinctive understanding of how humans were intricately related to the environment around them.

At the time Hearn was writing there was no clear distinction as yet between (Buddhist) temple and (Shinto) shrine. The terms were sometimes used interchangeably.  In the passage below Hearn had asked to visit another ‘temple’, but gets taken instead by his rickshaw man nicknamed Cha to a shrine.

There is a lofty flight of steps here also, and before them a structure which I know is both a gate and a symbol, imposing, yet in no manner resembling the great Buddhist gateway seen before.  Astonishingly simple all the lines f it are: it has no carving, no coloring, no lettering upon it; yet it has a weird solemnity, an enigmatic beauty. It is a torii.

Miya,’ observes Cha. Not a tera this time, but a shrine of the gods of the more ancient faith of the land, – a miya.

I am standing before a Shinto symbol. I see for the fist time, out of a picture at least, a torii. How describe a torii to those who have never seen one looked at one even in a photograph or engraving? Two lofty columns, like gate pillars, supporting horizontally two cross-beams, the lower and the lighter beam having its ends fitted into the columns a little below their summits; the uppermost and larger beam supported upon the tops of the columns, and projecting well beyond them to right and left. That is a torii: the construction varying little in design, whether made of stone, wood or metal. But this description can give no correct idea of the appearance of a torii, of its majestic aspect, or its mystical suggestiveness as a gateway. The first time you see a noble one, you will imagine, perhaps, that you see the colossal model of some beautiful Chinese letter towering against the sky; for all the lines of the thing have the grace of an animated ideograph, – have the bold angles and curves of characters made with four sweeps of a master-brush.


Passing the torii I ascend a flight of perhaps one hundred stone steps, and find at their summit a second torii, from whose lower cross-beam hangs festooned the mystic shimenawa. It is in this case a hempen rope of perhaps two inches in diameter through its greater length, but tapering off at either end like a snake. Sometimes the shimenawa is made of bronze, when the torii itself is of bronze; but according to tradition it should be made of straw, and most commonly is. For it represents the straw rope which the deity Funo-tama-no-mikoto stretched behind the Sun goddess, Heavenly-handstrength-god, had pulled her out, as is told in that ancient myth of Shinto which Professor Chamberlain has translated. And the shimenawa, in its commoner and simpler form, has pendent tufts of straw along its entire length, at regular intervals, because originally made, tradition declares, of grass pulled up by the roots which protruded from the twist of it.

Advancing beyond this torii, I find myself in a sort of park or pleasure-ground on the summit of the hill. There is a small temple on the right; it is all closed up; and I have read so much about the disappointing vacuity of Shinto temples that I do not regret the absence of its guardian. And I see before me what is infinitely more interesting – a grove of cherry trees covered with something unutterably beautiful, – a dazzling mist of snowy blossoms clinging like cloud-fleece about every branch and twig; and the ground beneath them, and the path before me, is white with the soft, thick, odorous snow of fallen petals.

Beyond this loveliness are flower-pots surrounding tiny shrines; and marvelous grotto-work, full of monsters, – dragons and mythologic beings chiseled in the rock; and miniature landscape work with tiny groves of dwarf trees and liliputian lakes, and microscopic brooks and bridges and cascades. Here, also, are swings for children. And here are belvederes perched on the verge of the hill, wherefrom the whole fair city, and the whole smooth bay speckled with fishing-sails no bigger than pin-heads, and far faint high promontories reaching into the sea, are all visible in one delicious view, – blue-penciled in a beauty of ghostly haze indescribable.

Hearn 16): Family worship

Hearn was an agnostic, but he had a sympathetic interest in Buddhism and Shinto as his writings attest.  In an 1893 letter to his friend, Basil Hall Chamberlain, he wrote once of the daily cycle of life in his extended family (along with his wife, Setsuko, the author at one time supported as many as nine people including children, relatives and servants).

Buddhism and Shinto were formally severed by the Meiji government of 1868, though it’s evident that in people’s hearts the religions continued to be fused as one. This is clear too from the daily reverence to buddhas and kami shown in Hearn’s household, and it’s notable how integral the religious worship was to his family life. One striking feature is that particular attention is paid to hotoke in the morning and kami in the evening (though one might have expected the opposite). What’s interesting too is the localised nature, whereas the Meiji government was all about imposing centralisation and regularisation.

The following extract is taken from Wandering Ghost by Jonathan Cott, p. 316.  (Curved brackets are Hearn’s words), [square brackets are mine].


Morning 6am – The little alarm clock rings…   The servants enter, prostrate themselves, and say good morning to the danna-sama [master], and proceed to open the to [door]. Meanwhile, in the other chambers the little oil lamps have been lighted before the tablets of the ancestors, and the buddhist (not the Shinto) deities – and prayers are being said, and offerings to the ancestors made. (Spirits are not supposed to eat the food offered them, – only to absorb some of its living essence, therefore the offerings are very small.) Already the old men are in the garden, saluting the rising sun, and clapping their hands, and murmuring the Izumo prayers.

[Description of his daily life follows, leaving for work, then lunch, bath hour, supper.]

As evening wanes, the turn of the Kami-sama comes. During the day, they receive their usual offerings, but it is at night the special prayers are made. The little lamps are lighted, and each of the family in turn, except myself, say the prayers and pay reverence. These prayers are always said standing, but those to the hotoke [Buddhist dead] are said kneeling. Some of the prayers are said for me. I was never asked to pay but once – when there was grief in the house; and then I prayed to the Gods, repeating the Japanese words one by one as they were told to me. The little lamps of the Kami are left to burn themselves out. All wait for me to give the signal of bed-time, – unless I am so absorbed in writing as to forget the hour…

Imperial Rescript of 1890

There are moves in certain ruling circles to reintroduce the Imperial Rescript on Education of 1890, which became one of the pillars of State Shinto before the war. It’s a complex issue, and Green Shinto friend Shaun O’Dwyer recently wrote an article for the Japan Times explaining the historical background. The following is an abridged version of the original article.

(Shaun O’Dwyer is an associate professor in the School of Languages and Cultures, Kyushu University, and is completing a book on the prospects for modern Confucianism.)

FUKUOKA – The Imperial Rescript on Education, a short founding document of modern Japanese nationalism first issued to Japan’s schools by the Education Ministry in 1890 and banned from official use in 1948, has been in the news lately. There has been a scandal over Osaka school operator Moritomo Gakuen’s questionable dealings with government officials to get a sweetheart deal on state land for a new school. There were shocking revelations about the anti-Chinese and anti-Korean xenophobia of the operators. Yet for conservative nationalists like Defense Minister Tomomi Inada, the reaction to the latter revelation was “what’s so bad about the Imperial Rescript anyway?”

Reading of the Imperial Rescript at morning assembly in school

While liberal newspapers have underlined its affiliations with the pre-1945 emperor-centered State Shintoism, it is also a strikingly Confucian document. Emperor Meiji exhorts his subjects to practice the morality associated with the “five human relations” of the ancient Confucian text the “Mencius”: to be filial to parents, affectionate to siblings, true to friends, harmonious as spouses and so forth. And the Emperor speaks of his subjects “ever united in filial piety and loyalty,” two cardinal Confucian virtues. Conservatives have affirmed these homely moral elements of the rescript, arguing that the “spirit of the rescript” merely aims to make Japan a moral nation.

Historical background: ‘Kokutai’
The idea of the kokutai, or national polity, was originally developed by Mito Academy scholars in the early 19th century. Reinterpreting old Shinto myths of an unbroken, single line of emperors stretching back to the Sun Goddess Amaterasu, the Mito scholars wrote of how Japan could be united in loyalty and filial piety through rites-based veneration for ancestors and for the emperor.

In such rites the emperor filially venerates his ancestors and the Sun Goddess herself, and the people filially venerate their ancestors, who had themselves loyally served and venerated the emperor’s ancestors. The kokutai was a ritual-political order in which the people united in filial piety and loyalty under the emperor without the need for force.

The Meiji Constitution, also enacted in 1890, invokes the sacredness of the emperor and his ancestors, comprising the “line of emperors, unbroken for ages eternal”. This all looks conservative and weirdly mythical, but it need not have led to fascism. To understand why, we need to introduce another Meiji era intellectual largely forgotten today, but who towered over early 20th century Japanese scholarly and educational life; Tetsujiro Inoue, a professor of philosophy at the University of Tokyo.

Tetsujiro Inoue, 1855-1944

Tetsujiro Inoue
Inoue was a competent scholar and a very able propagandist. In 1891, under the direction of the Education Ministry he wrote a highly influential school textbook commentary for the Imperial Rescript on Education, and he would write much more on behalf of the ministry in coming decades.

Inoue helped rally public opinion against dissenters who “endangered the kokutai”; a Christian school teacher who did not bow before a copy of the rescript in a school ceremony in 1890, or historians who publicly questioned the veracity of the “eternal, unbroken imperial line”, intimidating them into silence.

He helped theorize a “national morality” unique to Japan, which the rescript supposedly expressed in compressed form. This national morality was cobbled together from his notions of an indigenous bushido morality, a Japanized Confucianism, Buddhism and German philosophical ideas of “national spirit” or “volksgeist.”

Ideas like this would go on to become the common sense of the more extreme nationalism and imperialism that prevailed in the 1930s. Japan’s superior, unique national morality was believed to entitle it to a position of moral leadership over other Asian countries. As Japanese armies rampaged through China, Inoue asserted that Japan’s moral mission there was to help the Chinese recover their true national morality — Confucianism — under Japanese tutelage.

– by Shaun O’Dwyer Japan Times 20/3/2017.
[For recent moves to legitimise use of the imperial rescript in schools, see this article.]
[For examples of how the government is pushing education back to prewar indoctrination, see here.]
[For an overview of the slow legitimation of the imperial rescript, see this JT article.]
(For an article about the anger arising from Abe’s attempt to revive prewar politices, see this article.]

‘The once-revered Imperial Rescript on Education, issued in 1890, was abolished after Japan’s World War II defeat at the hands of the U.S. over concerns it had contributed to creating a militaristic culture. It exhorted citizens to “offer yourselves courageously to the State” so as to “guard and maintain the prosperity of Our Imperial Throne”.’

Hearn 15): Mt Daisen


A stupendous ghost!

Looking eastward from the great bridge over those sharply beautiful mountains, green and blue, which tooth the horizon, I see a glorious spectre towering to the sky. Its base is effaced by far mists: out of the air the things would seem to have shaped itself, – a phantom cone, diaphonously gray below, vaporously white above, with a dream of perpetual snow, – the mighty mountain of Daisen.

At the first approach of winter it will in one night become all blanched from foot to crest; and then its snowy pyramid so much resembles that Sacred Mountain, often compared by poets to a white inverted fan, half opened, hanging in the sky, that it is called Izumo-Fuji, ‘the Fuji of Izumo’. But it is really in Hoki, not in Izumo, though it cannot be seen from any part of Hoki to such advantage as from here. It is the one sublime spectacle of this charming land; but it is visible only when the air is very pure. Many are the marvelous legends related concerning it, and somewhere upon its mysterious summit the Tengu are believed to dwell.

Hearn’s description of Mt Daisen, though short, is interesting in a number of ways. First of all, it comes from the remarkable Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan (1894), inspired by his love-affair with Matsue during his honeymoon period in the country. It’s interesting to note that while he spent less than a year in Matsue, compelled to move by the bitter cold winters, it led to two thick volumes of excitable prose about the place, the people and their customs.

One of the places that caught Hearn’s admiration was the ‘Izumo Fuji’, Mt Daisen. As always, Hearn’s sensuous language gives the mountain a seductive appeal, with its diaphonous, vaporous, marvelous and mysterious appearance. But what marks Hearn’s description in particular are the references to ‘ghost’ and ‘spectre’. These are hardly the usual words associated with mountains.

Hearn’s friend, Basil Hall Chamberlain, claimed that no one could understand Hearn who did not take into account his reference to ghosts. He’s known of course as the author of the eerie stories in Kwaidan, but for the author the word ‘ghost’ had a far wider meaning than just the frightening apparition of a spirit. It was rather a reminder, or a remains, of the past. In other words, it was something which spoke to us of other worlds and another time.

In Hearn’s animist universe, the mountain was tantamount to a living thing, made of the same elemental material as ourselves in that we are all constituted of cells that comprise the universe.  The sacred mountains of Japan, like Mt Fuji, are inhabited by kami and act as a conduit between this world and the heavenly one towards which they rise.  For Hearn, this gave them a ghostly essence, in that they were so much more than mere physical matter.  They were part of a divine paradise in which the ‘charming’ people of the ‘sublime’ Izumo area enjoyed a blessed existence. A stupendous ghost, indeed, even despite the kind of ugly modern encroachment pictured below that Hearn so loathed and opposed.

Picture taken from the Matsue to Okayama train in late February



Hearn 14): Ancestor worship

Hearn is noted for his sensitivity and understanding of Shinto animism, but he also had a fine appreciation of the ancestral side of Shinto.  This is evident in the first of his Japanese books, Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan (1894), which contains sentiments that dovetail with my own. Indeed, I’ve written of them in previous articles though not with the same eloquence as that master wordsmith of more than a hundred years ago. (See here or here or here.)

Prayers in Japan are to the spirit of dead ancestors

Shinto seemed to Hearn an ‘occult force..  part of the Soul of the Race.’ In this respect it was close to his own thinking, which had developed under the influence of the evolutionary psychologist, Herbert Spencer. It consisted of a notion of the dead ruling over the living in that their ‘ghostly presences’ had shaped the present. Yet this was not all, for Hearn thought that our body cells had ‘inherited memories’ from previous existences, whether in human or animal or even inanimate form.

From the outset of his time in Japan, Hearn therefore found himself sympathetic to the reverence in Shinto shown to ancestors. Moreover, in contrast to other foreigners, it was easy for him to accept that the dead become gods ruling over us, or that the dead are no less real than the living. It was a different concept from the idea of individual reincarnation, as is evident in the following passage.

‘When we become conscious that we owe whatever is wise or good or strong or beautiful in each one of us, not to one particular inner individuality, but to the struggles and sufferings and experiences of the whole unknown chain of human lives behind us, reaching back into mystery unthinkable, – the worship of ancestors seems an extremely righteous thing to do.’

Later in his last book on Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation (1904) Hearn was to put forward the thesis that the whole of Japanese culture was based on the worship of ancestors, whether in familial, local or national form.  It’s a book that has stood the test of time, and is remarkably relevant still at a time when the government of Japan is looking to Yasukuni and Ise Jingu as buttresses for its reactionary ideology. Together the ancestral ghosts of one and the imperial ancestors of the other show just how powerful a force the dead of Japan remain in terms of governing the living.  Small wonder then that Hearn had an obsession with ghosts!

Tamatsukuriyu Shrine

The hillside Tamatsukuriyu Jinja, founded in 733 to guard over the hot springs

You often find shrines in Japan presiding over hot springs. Why? Clearly there are few places as awe-inspiring in terms of nature’s magnificence than places where steam continually issues forth from underground.  Few places are more evocative of nature’s blessings, as well as its ominous power.

At the Tamatsukuri resort, reported on in a previous post, there is a hillside shrine dating back to 733 commemorating the site where magatama were produced in ancient times. The shrine has an unusual feature in using pebbles infused with energy from a ‘power stone’ for its omamori (amulets).  The procedure is clearly outlined in a paper explanation available at the shrine, and illustrated in the pictures below.

At the shrine office there is a paper explanation of how to go about the power stone ritual

You first collect a pouch and small agate stone

At the top of the flight of stairs, next to the Honden, is a ‘power rock’

First you pay respects…

… then you pour water over the rock as ritual purification

… and then you rub the pebble against the rock to absorb its power

Inside the pouch is a piece of paper on which to write your prayer-wish

You leave the paper-wish in a small box before the Worship Hall which the priest will ritually offer up to the kami

The shrine is in the attractive Izumo style with thick shimenawa rice ropes outside the Worship Hall and, here, within the Worship Hall at the entrance to the Honden (Sanctuary)

The custom is to leave a coin offering in the thick shimenawa in front of the Haiden.  Having done that, you can be more assured that the kami will favour you.

Tamatsukuri (Hot spring of myths)

Tamatsukuri Onsen is a charming hot spring resort either side of a small stream and boasting ‘the biggest magatama in Japan’

Just outside Matsue City in Shimane Prefecture is the hot spring resort of Tamatsukuri Onsen.  Tamatsukuri translates as Making Jewels, for it was at this place in ancient times that magatama were made.  An actual site has been excavated with evidence of magatama production going back to Yayoi times, based on the agate in the surrounding hills.

The significance of the magatama is not well-known, though there are several theories about the jewellery beads. Some say it is a symbolic part of the yin-yang pairing, others that it represents strength through being shaped after a wild boar’s or mountain tiger’s tooth.  My archaeological colleague at university was adamant it was a kind of hook for catching good luck.

Looking to exploit its magatama connections, the resort has adopted the theme of Izumo myths in order to provide interest to those who stroll along the small river. Statues illustrating ancient myths are placed at various points, and as well as celebrated Kojiki episodes such as Okuninushi and the Inaba Hare, there are lesser known local legends, to which noticeboards helpfully provide explanations.

Magatama is the theme of the small resort, here featured in a magatama water basin


Susanoo no mikoto’s struggle with the fearsome eight-headed Orochi monster is one of the more familiar of the myths depicted in the hot spring resort.  Susanoo’s victory enabled him to marry a local princess and take dominion of the land, presenting the sword he found in the monster’s tale to Amaterasu as a sign of fealty.


Okuninushi and the Inaba hare that he befriended is another well-known myth. Okuninushi took pity on the hare which had been bullied by his brothers by being told to bathe its flayed skin in the salt water of the sea.


Not so well known is the tale of the shark which fell in love with the beautiful princess, Tamahime no mikoto, who put up a barrier of rocks in order to prevent his advances.


Once when Okuninushi had died and gone to the underworld of Ne no kuni, his mother interceded on his behalf and a couple of shell princesses, Kisagaihime and Umugaihime, brought him back to life.


There were other myths to ‘soak in’, but by now the hot springs were calling and it was time to sweat over the deeper significance before taking a leisurely dinner-feast. Outside the magatama bridge spoke to the endlessly flowing sense of time and the deep connection one still feels in the Izumo region between ancient times and now.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...