Kami explanation by Olivia Bernkastel (Konkokyo Shinto priestess)
To worship kami, there is always a “goshintai”; or a sacred vessel for the kami’s spirit/energy which is considered as a “body” for the kami to alight to as a vessel permanently. This allows their energy to be present strongly with worshippers and clergy at a shrine.
There is also an item called “yorishiro”, which is a sacred item that calls to, or draws a kami’s energy. When the kami enters the yorishiro during prayer, it becomes a temporary goshintai, or vessel for the kami to dwell. After prayers finish, the kami leaves the yorishiro until the next prayers.
All shrines have goshintai, but at home altars, or kamidana, generally only have yorishiro, commonly in the form of ofuda. There are a few exceptions to this, one example being Fushimi Inari Taisha which does a special ceremony for sincere members, and thus ordinary people can receive a goshintai of Inari Okami to caretake at home.
Nowadays yorishiro usually takes the form of an ofuda, but as well natural items like a rock, tree, or gem can also be yorishiro. Gohei are used as goshintai, but they were also the original kind of yorishiro, before ofuda. It was standard for most kami. Mirrors were also quite common yorishiro, especially for Amatsukami. You can pray to kami anytime anywhere, but to have their energy presence alight near us, goshintai or yorishiro are needed to be present as the kami’s vessel.
There are two kinds of kami traditionally. Amatsukami (Heavenly kami) and Kunitsukami (Earthly kami), with some kami in-between, or having aspects of both.
For Amatsukami, or kami in-between Amatsu and Kunitsu, the goshintai is a physical item. This is because Amatsukami and kami in-between usually are not tied to any particular Earthly feature.
Amatsukami and in-between kami need a physical item as a goshintai or yorishiro. Commonly a gohei, mirror, sword, or gem. It is because their true “body” is celestial and not Earthly or an Earthly location – like the sun, moon, sky, clouds, universe, etc. Or, something not tangible like Amatsukami of concepts, or non physical things. For example the kami of wisdom, Omoikane no Mikoto.
For Kunitsukami, the goshintai is usually an Earthly feature, such as a mountain, tree, rock, lake, ocean, or particular location, such as Mt. Fuji for Konohanasakuya Hime no Mikoto or Mt. Miwa for the kami of Omiwa Jinja.
A good example is Lake Suwa region for Suwa Daimyojin, with local folklore saying Suwa Daimyojin cannot leave the lake. So what should one do to worship him outside of Lake Suwa region? A new goshintai or yorishiro can be ritually made for him. There are Suwa branch shrines throughout the country. But how?
There are two main methods. One is at the main shrine (in this example, Suwa Taisha); a new goshintai is ritually made for the kami to be brought elsewhere at a new Suwa Shrine branch location. The other way is the new goshintai is ritually created at the new Suwa Shrine branch itself.
What this means is that Suwa Daimyojin can be worshipped anywhere with the ritual creation of the new goshintai. This is called “bunrei” and the ritual ceremony is “kanjo”.
To describe bunrei with a metaphor: Let’s say the main shrine, Suwa Taisha in the Lake Suwa region, is the original “bonfire” of energy for Suwa Daimyojin.
Bunrei, and the ritual ceremony Kanjo is like lighting a “torch” (part of energy/spirit) from Suwa Daimyojin. When that torch is used to make a new “bonfire” at another shrine, the flame is from the original “bonfire” or energy/spirit of Suwa Daimyojin. Thus, they can be directly present both at Suwa Taisha and in the branch shrine. Of course it may be slightly stronger spiritually at Suwa Taisha due to the location’s own power and history.
While bunrei for goshintai is like lighting a torch from the original bonfire to create a new bonfire in another location with the original flame – creating ofuda, or a yorishiro, is like creating a “candle” which when you “light with fire” (pray) the kami can enter that “flame” (energy) temporarily during the prayer.
This is generally how kami have spread from their home area or original place of worship to shrines all across the country. A shrine overseas is no different and the same process can be done.
There are of course local spirits and ancient deities in each country, but I feel they should be respected in their own traditions rather than having Shinto rituals for them.
I personally think it’s not too respectful. When I lived in Canada, I simply left biodegradable offerings in the woods and said thank you to the local deities rather than doing a Shinto ceremony. I kept a kamidana in my home with an ofuda for the kamis who needed them and worshipped no different than in Japan.
- Kokugakuin article explaining about Amatsukami and Kunitsukami: http://eos.kokugakuin.ac.jp/modules/xwords/entry.php?entryID=2
- While there is no technical word for kami having ties to both Amatsukami and Kunitsukami, here is the Kokugakuin article about Kamimusuhi no Mikoto, a well-known in-between kami: http://eos.kokugakuin.ac.jp/modules/xwords/entry.php?entryID=86
- Kokugakuin article about Bunrei and Kanjo ritual: http://eos.kokugakuin.ac.jp/modules/xwords/entry.php?entryID=1476
- Kokugakuin article about Shintai:
- Kokugakuin article about yorishiro: