A couple of days ago I took a bus for two and a half hours from the Shiretoko peninsula across the north-east of Hokkaido. I didn’t spot a single shrine on the way, though curiously there was a small Russian orthodox church standing in the middle of nowhere. Interestingly, the area is closer to the Russian border than it is to the Shinto heartland in Honshu.
The countryside is so different from that of Honshu that I couldn’t help wondering whether the kami were alienated by the feel of the land, with its Western-style fields of wheat and extensive horse ranges. It seems the kami have a preference for domains on the lower slopes of thickly wooded hills, overlooking the rice fields.
On the other hand, Hokkaido was once home to the Ainu for whom the world was alive with spirits. Many of the names are Ainu in origin:: Shiretoko for instance means ‘the end of the land’. In the seas around the promintory lived ‘the deities of the deep’ ~ awe-inspiring creatures that rose to the surface to let off great jets of water before plunging down again with a final flip of their distinctive tails. And on land the fearsome bear spirit won the worship of the Ainu through its blood sacrifice each year to them. (There are now 200 brown bears on the peninsula, said to be one the highest densities in the world. I got to see seven of them in all.)
It’s been said that Shinto is rooted in the soil of Japan, and does not take kindly to relocation. When I visited Brazil, for example, I noticed that though Japanese Buddhism was alive and well in the emigrant community, the same could not be said for Shinto. One of the shrines in Sao Paolo had shut down, and the other was run by an elderly priest who told me he was concerned about its future survival.
Perhaps there is something of the emigrant experience about the adventurers who left for Hokkaido in the nineteenth century. They were pioneers in a new kind of land, yet Shinto is all about tradition and continuity. Trees and rocks are sacred because someone in the distant past decided it was. Festivals are celebrated because they’ve always been celebrated that way. Customs, legends and kami found justification simply by being handed down from the Age of the Gods.
In Hokkaido by contrast was a land filled with the folklore of the Ainu. Whatever else they might be, the Ainu were definitely not the sons of Yamato. Not Wajin at all. Their kami were not even proper kami, but kamui. It must have been unsettling for the settlers.
Nonetheless during the twentieth century shrines were set up, and communities developed festivals and customs of their own. It’s Japan’s largest prefecture and very much assimilated into the country as a whole. Though it still doesn’t have the feel of Shinto in Honshu and Kyushu, perhaps one day it will. And perhaps there is something to be learnt here about how Shinto can spread overseas…. after all, to Meiji-era Japanese, Hokkaido (then known as Ezo) was itself very much overseas.