Of Temples and Shrines …

The majority of Japanese, these days, are not deeply religious. Most, if pressed, might identify as Shinto or Buddhist or both.

Shinto has been in Japan for as long as the Japanese. It is an animist religion, has no founder, no holy book, no place for conversion. It values certain virtues (conforming to the way) and recognises divine spirits, kami, that may reside  in animals, trees, mountains, streams. And surely, in a land so prone to earthquakes, landslides, avalanches and tsunami an offering or two to placate the forces of nature could not go astray.

Buddhism arrived in the 6th century AD. Although much richer in intellectual tradition it also stresses the importance of living in the appropriate way. It doesn’t come with an all powerful god that must be obeyed. Since it came to Japan via China it also came with a goodly overlay of Confucianism.

It made for an easy mix and match style of religion which was embraced by the governments of the day. Indeed, a quick rewrite of the descent of the imperial family history and government and religion are melded, obedience to government is obedience to the will of the gods. The rule of the state was referred to as matsurigoto, a word very close to that for religious ritual – matsuri – that was used to refer to both government and worship.

It was during this period of integration in 7th and 8th centuries that the  the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu, gained greater prominence and was proclaimed the ancestor of the emperors. The first emperor, you will recall, was named Jimmu, a Buddhist name that would not have been current back in the time of his rule.

The religious calendar was an important part of political practise, observance of appropriate ritual ensured that the kami looked after the people, and that the people obeyed the government. Places of worship were all embracing with regards to Shinto and Buddhism and the kami could be regarded as transformations of the Buddha.

This cosy relationship of religion and state got a bit of a shake when the Christian missionaries arrived. The new religion wasn’t a comfortable fit with the old and was soon outlawed. Buddhism was promoted by the government and gained greater authority for a while.

The Meiji restoration (1868) brought back the emperor and of course his divine descent. The pendulum swung back to Shinto. The government set about separating the two religions, Buddhism was sent back to its temples and Shinto ruled in its shrines.

This is a shrine in Izumi …


Beyond the torii gate, draped with the plaited rope (shimenawa) and strips of white paper in the form of lightning bolts (shime), is the shrine.  On the right before that is the fountain (temizuya) …


and the view from there of the shrine partially obscured by abandoned (mis)fortunes.


The Japanese are likely to celebrate the birth of a baby or get married with a ceremony at a Shinto Shrine. Other times they may make a brief observance at the threshold, no need to go in and endure a two hour mass.

When it comes time to depart this earthly realm it is likely to be via the Buddhist Temple. This one is also in Izumi …


and has this beautiful garden. The blossom is already on the trees. It’s mid February – the season is well ahead of the calendar this year.



Kirishima …

It is said that Amaterasu, goddess of the sun, sent her grandson, Ninigi no Mikoto, to the island of Kyushu where he governed the region around Kirishima. He was equipped with three celestial gifts to assist in his ascendency to power, the sword, the mirror and the jewel. Perhaps more importantly, he brought the rice that would feed Japan for ever after.

One of his sons married Princess Toyotama. She was also of divine descent being the daughter of Owatatsumi, the Japanese sea god and brother of Amaterasu. Together they had a single son called Hikonagisa Takeugaya Fukiaezu no Mikoto. The boy was abandoned by his parents at birth (perhaps because it was too much trouble to say his name – “Hikonagisa Takeugaya Fukiaezu no Mikoto will you stop making all that noise, you little shit”) and subsequently raised by Princess Tamayori, his mother’s younger sister. They eventually married and had a total of four sons. On February 11, 660 BC the last son became Emperor Jimmu, the first Emperor of Japan.

The shrine at Kirishima is thus closely associated with the foundation of Japan. Foundation day is a holiday celebrated on February 11. So on February 11 where better to be?


The approaches to a Shinto shrine are marked by the torii. Not far beyond the main one there will be a fountain (temizuya) where the visitor washes hands and mouth. Mineko-san instructs a guest on the way …


first the left hand then the right. Then water is poured into the left hand and transferred to the mouth. Rinse and spit out. Finally rinse the left hand and the dipper. Thus cleansed you are ready to approach the shrine. You mount the steps to the barrier where you may make an offering of some coins, bow twice, clap your hands twice and bow once again. It’s OK to ask for a little in return, like first prize in the lottery.

Kirishima shrine

Other features to look out for are the lanterns (toro), plaited ropes (shimenawa) and strips of white paper in the form of lightning bolts (shime). The latter two may be hung at gates to deter evil spirits or around trees and rocks where the revered spirits (kami) dwell.

I took an immediate liking to the guardian lion-dogs (shishi). They come in almost identical pairs, but one has the mouth open, the other closed. The open mouth is pronouncing the first letter of the sanskrit alphabet (“a”), the closed one the last letter (“um”), representing the beginning and the end of all things.

At the shrine you may buy a votive plaque to help you pass your exams or bring on some other self indulgence or simply buy a slip of paper that will tell you your future, a fortune cooky with no calories as it were. If things are looking good keep your slip of paper, if it’s bad luck then leave it at the shrine fastened beside all the other little slips that people didn’t want.

A helpful web site can be found at The Shinto Shrine Guide.

The kami care not whether you are faithful to their religion, a stroll through their grounds will be good for your soul no matter what you believe. And if it happens to be your national day why not do it in your national dress?