Shinto in the past

People sometimes make the mistake of assuming that present-day Shinto is the way things have always been.  Far from it!! Shinto has been different in every age, and you can bet it will be different again in future. And as well as variety over time, there has been great variety by region too. The standardisation of modern times dates from a wish to impose uniformity on a national state by the emerging Meiji ideologues. Before then things were far more diverse.

Coins are scattered on and around a rock in a modern Shinto shrine

Awareness of this comes when you read the accounts of Meiji era visitors to the country. One such was the American scientist, Edward Morse. An expert on molluscs, he went on a trip to Lake Chuzenji but failed to find what he was after.  Instead he came across two topless girls bathing in a spring, who quickly covered up because they’d been told that Westerners found it immoral.

Following this, Morse went on to climb the 8000 ft Mt Nantai. On the summit was an ancient shrine with an open platform on which were strewn rusty coins, broken sword blades, thick strands of hair. These were offerings, and the rough way in which they were scattered reminds me of the messy nature of Okinawan altars and Siberian shaman sites. Though Morse had a scientific mindset, when he heard that most mountains in Japan had such shrines he was moved by the spiritual impulse. ‘What a wonderful conception, what devotion to their religion,’ he wrote. (It did not stop him taking some of the fragments as a souvenir, however.)

In the fascinating study of this time Mirror in the Shrine, Robert Rosenstone notes that amongst the leading kami were Inari, god of rice; Benten, goddess of the sea, Hachiman, god of warfare, Koshin, overseer of roads and highways, and Kishi-bojin, mother of demons.  The first three are familiar to us today; Koshin is known, but not so much as an overseer of roads. The absentees are interesting. No Tenjin. No Amaterasu. No Okuninushi.

Offerings in Okinawa are often left scattered around after worship

Unlike the fixed imperial hierarchy of modern times (an invention of tradition by Meiji nationalists), the kami of earlier times were liable to change, mutate, vary and manifest in different forms. For the pagan Lafcadio Hearn this was perfectly understandable as an expression of ‘The infinite Unknown’ that underlies all religions.  Neat.

For Hearn it was one of the tragedies of a modernising Japan that its local deities were being lost as country folk shook off centuries of tradition. The ancient kami had for long centuries consoled the suffering of peasants and gladdened their hearts at festival time. They helped common folk cope with the great tragedy of natural disasters and human warfare. But Meiji purists insisted on ‘one shrine, one village’, and they closed down those with obscure kami while promoting those with imperial connections.

From now on the country hastened to embrace the new path of urbanisation, industrialisation and rationalisation.  In the process some kami were privileged, some barely survived, and some fell by the wayside. The yaoyorazu (myriad) kami were no longer as numerous or diverse as before.  In place of a demotic, localised Shinto came the state oriented Shinto of the present.

Modern offerings might not include swords or strands of hair, but they can be diverse in nature

Animal Abuse (Ainu Museum) update

The caged bears which have caused outrage amongst visitors on Trip Advisor (photo Jann Williams)

Regular readers of Green Shinto will know that we previously featured the cruel and inhumane conditions in which bears at the Ainu Museum in Hokkaido are being kept. This is particularly egregious because of the deep connection of bears with Ainu spirituality in former times.

Green Shinto tried previously to raise awareness of the problem with animal welfare groups, and letters of complaint were written to the relevant authorities. We were not the only ones, because there has been a stream of complaints from tourists (presumably in English and not reaching the ears of those who matter).

Because of all this, the case has been taken up by the Japan Animal Welfare Society (JAWS), based in the UK and operating through Japanese representatives.  Three members went to visit the museum on the shores of Lake Poroto near Shiraoi in Oct last year. As well as the museum building, there are five thatched houses, a botanical garden and animal housing in concrete cages.  Here is an extract from the official report.

Three overweight-looking brown bears are being kept in an ageing, cramped and dirty cage without clean water to drink and with no enrichment to prevent boredom and allow natural behaviour. The bare concrete floor is caked in faeces. According to the handlers, the bears are fed leftovers from the canteen of an elementary school nearby.

There are also five dogs in another old dirty cage nearby, which contains plastic kennels without any bedding, causing some of the dogs to have callouses on their legs. Again the dogs have insufficient space to be able to exercise properly, are being fed mainly school canteen leftovers and have no enrichment or adequate protection from the cold in winter.

One of the bears at the Ainu Museum in Hokkaido

The Tokyo representatives of JAWS later had their impressions confirmed by an animal expert that the conditions were totally unacceptable. An official complaint was lodged, and the following response from the Ainu Museum was received on Dec 27, 2016. “In 2020 the Ainu Tribal Museum will be merged into the ‘Symbolic Space for Ethnic Harmony’, but the government plan does not include the animals currently residing in the museum.”

As a result the museum is apparently looking for a new home for the animals, though it has made no change to the present conditions. It is possible that the dogs will go back to their owners or to new homes. (Hopefully the latter since the owners clearly don’t care about them at all.).

Meanwhile, JAWS has approached Sahoro Bear Mountain to provide a decent home for the three bears, with an offer to pay for their transportation and donate animal feed.  Let us hope for a swift improvement to the conditions of these innocent and suffering poor animals!!


Show your support for JAWS by emailing them in the UK at Their representative in Tokyo is Osamu Uno, General Secretary, at 020 7630 5563. For more information and details of financial support, please see the website:

Hearn and Shinto (Meiji Jingu talks 6/3)

Followers of Green Shinto will know of our interest in the works of Lafcadio Hearn, particularly with regard to his interest in and elucidation of Shinto.  So far we’ve carried seventeen different postings on the subject. Now comes the wonderful news of a huge event devoted to the subject to be held at Meiji Jingu on June 3.  ‘Japan, the Land of the Kami, as perceived by Lafcadio Hearn’ runs the title.

There are two major speakers, one of whom is the former Tokyo University professor Sukehiro Hirakawa, who has spearheaded the revival of Hearn studies in recent years. He has also edited a couple of thick volumes of papers by various contributors covering the enormous achievements of Hearn not only in Japan, but in the United States where he was a successful journalist, novelist and interpreter of French literature.

I’m also very much looking forward to the talk by Yoko Makino on ‘The Image of Shinto Shrines in the Works of Lafcadio Hearn’.  Imbued with the spirit of Greek paganism, Hearn had an instinctive liking for the spiritual essence of Shinto shrines, particularly the atmospheric old shrines found in his beloved Izumo region.  (When he naturalised, he chose the Japanese name Yakumo in reference to the ‘many clouded’ region.)

For previous Green Shinto postings on Hearn, see here or here or here.

Crying sumo

Bawling babies face off in Japan’s ‘crying sumo’

More than 100 Japanese babies faced off Sunday in a traditional “crying sumo” ring, an annual ceremony believed to bring infants good health.

In the sumo ring at the precinct of the Kamegaike Hachimangu shrine in Sagamihara west of Tokyo, two hulking wrestlers held up toddlers wearing tiny sumo belts and aprons to try to make them bawl.

Wrestlers sometimes shake the babies gently to encourage tears.

“My boy was crying from the very beginning and I felt a little bad,” Tomoyo Watanabe, the mother of Zentaro, told AFP.

“But as I watched my baby crying, I was praying for him to grow up healthy and strong after this event.”

The “crying sumo” is held at shrines and temples nationwide, to the delight of parents and onlookers.

“The cries of babies are believed to drive out demons and protect the infants from troubles,” said priest Hiroyuki Negishi.

The ceremony is believed to date back more than 400 years.

The rules vary from region to region — in some places parents want their offspring to be the first to cry, in others the first to weep is the loser.

In the Sagamihara event, which has been running since 2011, the babies accompanied by parents and grandparents were first taken before a Shinto altar and purified by the priest.

Pairs of toddlers were then brought into the sumo ring — where most of them were bawling even before facing off against their rival.

© 2017 AFP

Zen and Shinto 20: Ryokan

There are many individuals who exemplify the close ties between Zen and Shinto in Japanese history, particularly in the period before an artificial line was drawn between Buddhism and ‘the indigenous religion’ in Meiji times.

One such person is the poet Ryokan Taigu (1758-1831).  His father was village headman, a job which would have included handling local (Shinto) rites. This was in a flourishing port called Izumozaki in Niigata, gateway for the Sado Island gold mines. Ryokan might have succeeded him but dropped out to become a Soto Zen monk. After obtaining his certificate of enlightenment, he wandered for five years before returning to live as a recluse in a hut on a hill near his hometown. Here he wrote poems, did calligraphy, and enjoyed games with the local children. He was a genial ‘big fool’ (Taigu), but a fool inspired by divine wisdom.

In 1826 at the age of 59, Ryokan felt physically incapable of continuing his life on Mt Kugami, and he moved into a Shinto shrine lower down the hill known as Otogo Jinja. He lived in a two-room hut next to the thatch-roofed Sanctuary. One can presume that in return for his lodging he looked after the shrine, sweeping the grounds and perhaps making offerings. A poem he wrote at the time reflects this:

When young, I learned literature but was too lazy to become a scholar.
Still young, I practiced Zen, but I never transmitted the dharma.
Now I live in a hermitage and guard a Shinto shrine.
I feel like half a shrine keeper and half a monk.

Reading through Ryokan with my poetry in translation study group, I can often sense a similarity with Shinto in the striving of the poet for Zen enlightenment. This is particularly evident in such matters as sincerity of purpose, identification with nature, and living in the present. It seems in many of his poems that he aspires to a state of complete selflessness, free of the ego which clouds human understanding.

kakubakari ukiyo to shiraba okuyama no kusanimo kinimo naramashi mono o

Had I known of this distressing world
I would like to have been
A blade of grass or a tree
On a remote mountain

Other of his poems are clearly inspired by Zen but have a strong Shinto element in their concern with natural purity versus the ‘pollution’ of human concerns. Zen like Shinto wishes ultimately to look into the soul-mirror and see no distorting ego (which is why both temples and shrines have mirrors on their altars).

Yamakage no iwama o tsutau kokemizu no kasukani ware wa sumiwataru kamo

Like the little stream
Making its way
Through the mossy crevices
I, too, quietly
Turn clear and transparent.

On his choice of life as a recluse, rather than living in a monkish community, he had this to say:

I don’t tell the murky world
to turn pure.
I purify myself and
check my reflection
in the water of the valley brook.

In old age Ryokan had time for reflection on having ‘idled his life away’, and his conclusion about what he will leave behind is so pure and selfless as to bring a smile to the face…

My legacy —
What will it be?
Flowers in spring,
The cuckoo in summer,
And the crimson maples
Of autumn.

Ryokan’s grave (courtesy Wikicommons)

Ancient worship spots for W.H. status?

Asahi Shinbun carries an exciting report today about possible Unesco recognition of Okinoshima as a World Heritage site in July. Though I’ve never been there, that sure is one place I’d love to get to one day.  The photo shows you why….  (It’s timely too for me personally, since I’ve just been asked by Tuttle to do an update to my Japan’s World Heritage Sites book.)

Okinoshima island off the north coast of Kyushu (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

By YOHEI GOTO/ Staff Writer.  May 6, 2017

A remote island in southwestern Japan that is deemed so sacred that women are not allowed to set foot on it has been recommended for World Heritage status by a UNESCO advisory panel, but with conditions. The streamlined listing would exclude shrines and a series of ancient burial tombs.

UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee will hold meetings in Poland from July 2 at which a final decision will be made on inclusion to the list.

Okinoshima island off the coast of the Fukuoka Prefecture cities of Munakata and Fukutsu is home to Munakata Taisha Okitsumiya shrine, which honors a goddess of the sea who is mentioned in “Nihon Shoki” (The Chronicles of Japan), one of Japan’s oldest official histories dating to the eighth century.

Because of the large number of artifacts uncovered, the island has been called the “Shosoin of the sea,” after the repository in Nara Prefecture erected to store the imperial family’s treasures as far back as the Heian Period (794-1185).

The recommendation, which reached the Japanese government on May 5, was compiled by the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), an advisory panel to UNESCO.

However, the recommendation said four other sites that the Japanese government included when it recommended the area to UNESCO be excluded.

Ancient religious taboos persist in Okinoshima, one of them being that no woman should ever step foot on the island. Access to the island is restricted, and visitors are not permitted to disclose details of their trip or bring back anything, not even a flower or a blade of grass as a keepsake.

Those are issues that will have to be dealt with if the listing goes ahead and steps are taken to develop the tourist potential and the local economy.

The sites that have been targeted for omission are the Okitsumiya Yohaisho and the Nakatsumiya shrine on Oshima island, which is located about 11 kilometers off the coast of Fukuoka Prefecture, as well as the Hetsumiya shrine and the Shinbaru-Nuyama mounded tomb group located in Munakata and Fukutsu cities, according to the Cultural Affairs Agency.

The ICOMOS report said those sites did not have the global value necessary for inclusion in the World Heritage List and also recommended that the candidate site name be changed to only mention Okinoshima.

An official with the Cultural Affairs Agency told reporters early May 6: “The archaeological value that was focused on ancient religious rites was the only factor positively appraised, but there was no appraisal of the fact that such religious belief has continued until the present day. To be honest, the report is a very severe assessment.”

Cultural Affairs Agency officials will consult with local authorities about the sites that were recommended for omission before deciding whether to petition for them to be included during the World Heritage Committee meeting in Poland.

The Council for Cultural Affairs, an advisory body to the Cultural Affairs Agency, recommended the entire site for inclusion in the UNESCO list in 2015.

Okinoshima lies about 60 kilometers off the coast of Fukuoka Prefecture and has a perimeter of about four kilometers. Three other small islets near Okinoshima have been included in the ICOMOS recommendation as they are considered strongly associated with Okinoshima.

Between the fourth and ninth centuries, important religious rituals hosted by the state were held on the rocky contours of Okinoshima to pray for safe passage of ships and good relations with the Korean Peninsula and China. Excavations carried out on the island after World War II turned up 80,000 artifacts.

These designated national treasures include copper mirrors, a gold ring, horse ornaments from the Korean Peninsula and glass beads that reached Japan via the Silk Road trade route that connected the Eurasian landmass with the far reaches of Asia.

For more about the men-only controversy, see this article suggesting priestly reservations about the W.H. status.

Oldest shrine

Most people assume Ise Jingu is Japan’s oldest shrine. Mythical and archaeological evidence however says that it is Izumo Taisha. It was once the country’s most prestigious shrine, being supplanted by the propagandists of Yamato who incorporated it into the imperial mythology of the Kojiki (712).

In ‘The Infrastrurcture of the Gods’, a paper for Japan Review (no 29, 2016), Richard Torrance lays out the evidence available for the former supremacy of Izumo, which was for centuries an independent kingdom. The big question is when and how did it become subordinate to the Yamato kingdom?

Bronze mirror, symbol of authority, found in Shimane and exhibited in the Izumo museum

The paper argues that Izumo remained independent through the sixth and early seventh centuries. If this is true, then it would have fallen under Yamato power some hundred years before Kojiki was written.  This makes good sense, in that the mythology is clearly an attempt to justify the Yamato emperor’s right to rule. It would explain too why the Izumo cycle occupies such a large chunk of the book, for there would have been a need to justify the subjugation of such powerful gods and traditions.

Recent times have seen remarkable finds that have enhanced the reputation of Izumo as a cultural and political powerhouse.  In 1984 at Kojindani, 358 Yayoi-era bronze swords were unearthed, a staggering figure for one site considering that up to that point the total number found in the whole country was 300.

Afterwards further bronze objects were discovered, including in 1996 at Kamo Iwakura 39 bronze bells. In addition, burial sites of powerful figures with links to the continent were brought to light at Nishidani, where there is evidence of successive generations of chieftains.

The conclusion Torrance comes to is that an Izumo identity was formed in the second century which lasted for four or five centuries. This may not have been a political so much as a cultural realm, based on links with Silla. Chieftains and priests within this cultural realm may have at times acted as ‘kings’, or ruled in alliance with others, or been vassals. How and when the region became subservient to Yamato remains unclear, but Torrance suggests it may have been incremental rather than a single event.


Concerning Izumo’s longevity compared to Ise, Wikipedia has this so say (adapted version):

“At one time, the Japanese islands were controlled from Izumo, according to Shinto myths. Izumo’s main structure was originally constructed to glorify the great achievement of Ōkuninushi, considered the creator of Japan. Ōkuninushi was devoted to the building of the nation, in which he shared many joys and sorrows with the ancestors of the land. In addition, Ōkuninushi is considered the god of happiness, as well as the god who establishes good relationships.

Scale model reconstruction of ancient Izumo shrine, based on large pillars found near the area

According to the Nihon Shoki, the sun goddess Amaterasu said, “From now on, my descendants shall administer the affairs of state. You shall cast a spell of establishing good relationship over people to lead them a happy life. I will build your residence with colossal columns and thick and broad planks in the same architectural style as mine and name it Amenohisu-no-miya.” The other gods were gathered and ordered by Amaterasu to build the grand palace at the foot of Mt. Uga.

There is no knowledge of exactly when Izumo Shrine was built, but a record compiled around 950 (Heian period) describes it as the highest building, reaching approximately 48 meters, which exceeds in height the 45 meter-tall temple that enshrined the Great Image of Buddha, Tōdai-ji. This was due to early Shinto cosmology, when the people believed the gods (kami) were above the human world and belonged to the most majestic parts of nature. Therefore, Izumo-taisha could have been an attempt to create a place for the kami that would be above humans.

Evidence of the original Grand Shrine has been found, for example part of one of the pillars for the structure, consisting of three cedar trees with a three-meter diameter at its base. It is on display near the shrine.”

Okuninushi, once lord and master of the land – until the Yamato emperors overwrote his story with descent from high heaven and a sun goddess

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.

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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

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