Roots of Japan

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Japanese Shinto Shrines

Japanese Shinto Shrines

What is the difference between a temple and a “Jinja”?This is a frequently asked question - not by foreigner visitors, but by Japanese!There is an indefinable quality to “Jinja” that even Japanese people don't fully understand.

But of course, they are actually completely different!

And “Jinja” are Shinto shrines.These religions are very different from each other. Shinto has no known founder.There is also no formal canon like the Christian Bible or the Islamic Quran.Someone who works at a temple is called a monk, at a “Jinja” they are called “Kannushi”, or Shinto priest.

So, what are the origins of Shinto?

Since ancient times Japan has been a country that practices nature worship.For example, elements of nature such as the vegetables and rice eaten that day, natural phenomenon and ghosts are all worshipped and appeased as gods.Shintoism is polytheistic, with the gods collectively called “Yaoyorozu” an expression that literally means “eight million gods” but is interpreted as meaning “myriads of gods”.

What is the oldest shrine in Japan?

Many shrines were built during “the era of the gods” but knowing which one is the oldest poses a problem.The most probable is Ōmiwa Shrine in Nara Prefecture, however this can't be verified.The oldest “Jinja” existing in Shinto architecture is Ujigami Shrine in Kyoto.Visitors will enjoy the cherry blossoms in spring and colorful leaves in autumn.

You can see various things enshrined at “Jinja”.What does each one mean?

First of all, there is a “torii” or Shinto gate.This divides the realm of gods from the human world.In other words, this gate symbolically marks the entrance to the sacred realm of the gods!Bow once as a greeting before entering, and when you leave and have passed through the “torii” you should also turn back and bow once.

Let's continue down the “sando”, or “visiting path”.This is the path to worship at a temple or “Jinja”.It is best to keep to the edge of the path and avoid walking down the center, which called “seichu”, as this is reserved for the gods.Many “sando” are covered with gravel called “tamajyari” and it is believed that stepping on it purifies the body.

As you keep walking you will see a “Chōzuya” which is a place for ritual cleansing.It can also be pronounced as Chōzusha or Temizuya.It is here that visitors purify their hands and mouths.To one side of the “sando” there is usually a water basin with a ladle that can be used to do this at most “Jinja” or temples.

The steps to purification are as follows.

1/ Holding the ladle in your right hand, fill the scoop with a cupful of water. *Make sure not to use up all the water at once, as you'll use this cupful for all steps.
2/ Cleanse the left hand. Then switch hands so that you're holding the ladle in your left hand.
3/ Cleanse the right hand. Then switch hands so you're again holding it in your right hand.
4/ Next, cleanse your mouth.Pour some water into the palm of your left hand (never cleanse your mouth directly from the ladle) and rinse your mouth.Please try to do this without making any sound!
5/ Then, cleanse the left hand that was used to rinse your mouth.
6/ Lastly, tip the ladle vertically so the water runs down, cleansing it. *If you want to be even more polite, bow briefly at the beginning and the end.

This is a remnant of the old custom of performing a full-body cleansing rite at a nearby river before approaching a sacred area.Even today, it is possible at Ise Grand Shrine to cleanse your mouth and hands at a basin of purifying water that comes from the Isuzu River.

Moving further along, we see “Komainu” or Lion-dogs.They are believed to have the power to ward off evil spirits.“Komainu” means 'a dog from Koma' and is often placed in pairs as with Shishi lions. As the name suggests, this belief was imported into Japan.However, at some shrines, different animals instead of “Komainu” are placed along the “sando” as “divine messengers”.Foxes, cows, rabbits, dragons etc. There are more, so try to find them too!

At last, the time to worship has arrived.Here you make an offering of money and ring the bell. This building is called “haiden” or hall of worship but there are some “Jinja” without “haiden”.The bell is called “Hon Tsubo Suzu”.The practice of ringing the bell began towards the end of the Edo period (1745-1768) and took hold after the war.There are also many shrines that don't have bells.

Ringing the bell wards off evil, making it easier to connect with the gods.Go ahead and ring it gently and listen to its tone.Incidentally, “kashiwade” - the clapping of one's hands at a shrine is also said to ward off evil!

Ok, now it's time to worship at the shrine!

1/ Drop in your “saisen” or monetary offering
2/ Ring the bell (in the case of a shrine with no bell, go straight to step 3).
3/ Bow deeply twice.
4/ Clap your hands twice (loudly if you can!).
5/ Now with your hands still together think your name and address. Then you can make your wish.
6/ Finally bow deeply once more.

Did that go well?

Is there a building behind the “haiden” or hall of worship?This building is the “honden”, the main shrine, the very building that enshrines the “shintai”, the physical object worshipped at a shrine and where the spirit of a deity resides. When the mountains and rocks themselves are the “shintai”, there is no “honden”.

“Shintai” is not like a Buddhist statue at a temple.Depending on the shrine, it may be a natural feature such as mountains or rocks or there could be man-made objects including mirrors or swords. However, these sacred artefacts are kept hidden from the public.

Here we would like to introduce natural features that are “Shintai” at some “Jinja”.Firstly, there is Hiro Shrine in Wakayama prefecture.The “Shintai” there is the famous waterfall called Nachi Falls. It is Japan's tallest waterfall, with a drop of 133 meters!The beautiful view and the roar of the water will convince you that this is a place inhabited by gods.

One of Japan's oldest “Jinja” is Ōmiwa Shrine in Nara prefecture, as mentioned above.The “Shintai” here is Mount Miwa, which is considered to be the dwelling place of a god.Even the most hardened of hearts will come away feeling revived by the fresh clean air.

For those of you wanting to visit more than one shrine, you have a chance to collect “goshuin” or red seal stamps.By purchasing a “goshuin-cho” or stamp book, which will cost about 1,000 to 1,500 yen, you can collect a unique “goshuin” at each shrine.One “goshuin” stamp usually costs between 300 - 500 yen.The date of your visit is also written for you, making it a perfect souvenir and a unique way to remember your time in Japan.Why not enjoy a “goshuin” stamp collecting tour!Each shrine has their own unique design of “goshuin”.I hope you find one you like!

Finally, some points to remember when visiting a shrine.At a “Jinja”, stones, branches and leaves etc. are all considered to be gods.Please do not take these home without permission.There is a story of someone who took home stones and it brought him a series of misfortunes…So please be careful!

There are many kinds of “Jinja” throughout Japan.Depending on the god, there are different kinds of “Shintai”. There are also a wide range of blessings.Are the gods male or female?When was the shrine built? You can discover the answer to these questions!There are places that take two hours by bus or train to get to… but there too you will come across a “Jinja”.For this reason, as you travel Japan, you will be sure to find ancient landscapes rich in nature.

*Based on various theories.The summary and views expressed are the author's own.