Chapter 2. Shinto Shrine, the Place to Respect Nature

Shintoism originated 15,000 years ago during the Jomon period of Japan. There are no identifiable founders, no printed doctrine, and no authority to enforce religious laws upon its believers. Yet, this religious belief unique to Japan has been passed down generation after generation.

HatsumoudeWhen asked whether or not they are religious, most Japanese people claim they do not believe in God or practice religion. However, these same people spend time reflecting the good and bad events at the end of each solar year, and visit a local shrine or temple to mark the start of the New Year.  This visit to the shrine or temple at the beginning of a year is called a Hatsu-Moude (初詣), a ritualistic visit to greet God to express appreciation for being alive to start another year. A majority of the Japanese participate in the Hatsu-Moude with little consciousness that it is a religious event. For most Japanese, religion is practiced in the form of a custom. Interestingly, most of these ‘atheist’ Japanese feel uncomfortable if they do not participate in the Hatsu-Moude, feeling as if they hadn’t taken a bath at the end of a day. Bathing is thought to have associations with Shintoism according to some, and Japanese people express strong passion towards bathing. Perhaps it is because the Japanese climate is abundant with water. In Shintoism the state of Kegare (ケガレ) is detested. Kegare is a state of impurity both physically and spiritually. After a long day of work, it is customary to physically cleanse oneself as well as spiritually replenish through bathing. As Spanish missionary Francis Xavier noted 500 years ago, Japanese people start complaining if they miss one day of bathing. Since centuries ago, Japanese people strongly believed in cleansing themselves.

In the next chapter I would like to talk about the Ise-Jingu. In this chapter let us talk about the Shinto Shrine. Like Christianity has a church, and Islam has a mosque, Shintoism has a Shinto Shrine. There are approximately 90,000 Shinto Shrines throughout Japan. In Japanese characters, the Shinto Shrine is written as 神社, and is pronounced “Jinjya”. In recent years the Jinjya-Honchou (Association of Shinto Shrines), the religious administrative organization that oversees the Shinto Shrines throughout Japan is working to change the English reference of Shintoism’s shrine as “Jinjya”, rather than “Shinto Shrine”. From here, let’s indicate the Shinto Shrine as a Jinjya in respects to the Jinjya-Honchou. This distinction is preferred because the term Jinjya refers to a shrine more local; in comparison to the Jingu, referring to a shrine grander like the Ise-Jingu. This distinction may be easily understood when compared to Catholicism. A local church is like a Jinjya, as the Vatican is like the Ise-Jingu.

ToriiFinding a Jinjya is easy. All one has to do is find a Torii (鳥居), an iconic architectural gate characterized by its vermillion color (rarely some are not painted), the same color as the sun at the center of the Japanese flag. Once one pass through a Torii, they are entering a Jinjya. The Torii symbol can be found on a map, used to indicate the boundary that separates the sacred and the secular world.

On a tangent, I will tell you an interesting story related to the Torii.  A residential neighborhood somewhere in Japan was consistently being littered by mannerless pedestrians. A resident fed up by such behavior half-jokingly crafted and installed a small Torii at the problem site. Suddenly after the Torii was installed, no garbage was found on the neighborhood. Perhaps the litterers felt guilty to scatter their rubbish, or perhaps somebody of good faith decided to pick up the trash because a Torii was standing.

An Oyashiro (社) is the place where the God of that particular Jinjya descends. When one passes through the Torii and walks through the approach and up the stone stair steps, the Oyashiro sits on an elevated ground. The reason why the Oyashiro sits on a raised ground is not clear, but perhaps it is because humanity shares the common belief that God exists in the high heavens. Most Oyashiro are a modest wooden architecture without paint coating.  Inside the Oyashiro is a mirror, the most valuable artifact of the shrine (though some exceptions exist). When one attends to meet God, they are going to the place where the mirror rests. Self-evident from the characteristic of a mirror, visitors to the Oyashiro are praying, making wishes, and saying gratitude to themselves. It is like a conceptual contemporary artwork with a philosophical twist. At certain sites, there are no Oyashiro or other architectural structures within the sacred boundary. Instead, natural objects such as a tree, rock, waterfall, mountain, or even an entire forest is worshiped. These natural objects are referred to as a Goshintai (ご神体). In Japan gods exist everywhere; as rocks, as silverware, and even as toilets.  In Shintoism, God exists within human beings as well, just as the mirror within the Oyashiro indicates. This is very similar to the concept that the Christian God is omnipresent.

Chinjy no MoriIf you have a chance to visit Japan and ride the bullet train, please take a good look when you pass through a rice field.  You may find patches of forests between the fields of rice.  These sites are often a Chinju Forest, a site where a Jinjya exists since ancient times. The Gokoku-Houjou festivals take place at these sites.  The Chinju Forest is known to have exceptionally high bio-diversity from an environmental science perspective. All things existing within the Jinjya is thought to belong to God, and not even a piece of fallen leaf should be taken away. It is a place where ancestors have protected as an inviolable land since the ancient times.

In the process of westernization, Japanese people accepted being called an “economic animal”, and covered their own land with concrete for the sake of modernization. Yet, the Chinju Forest is always kept sacred. God is nature, and nature is God. Sacred sites where human hands may not enter still exists. A Jinjya is a place of nature worship where “existing as is, though time passes by”.

The next article will be the last chapter. We will discuss the “Shikinensengu”, an important event that takes place in Ise-Jingu, the highest ranking Jinjya, along with customs and traditional craft of Japanese people.

Teddy Cookswell
Cultural Facility Designer / Illustrator

- – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – - – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

第2章  自然を敬う場所、神社


日本人の多くは神など信じないと否定します。しかし、日本人は年の瀬になると1年を振り返り、「ああ、今年は良い年だった、悪い年だった」と思いを馳せ、新年を迎えると、初詣と言って近くの神社やお寺に行くのです。ほとんどの日本人が行くといわれるこの「初詣」は、近くの神社に新年を迎えられたことを神へ感謝する挨拶で、無宗教と言われる日本人が無意識で行っている宗教行事でもあります。日本人にとって宗教は「風習」という言葉に置き換わっているのかもしれません。 無宗教を自負する多くの日本人は、面白い事に初詣に行かないと落ち着かず、何か風呂に入れなかった1日の終わりの様に居心地の悪さを感じます。国土に水が豊富であるのも幸いし風呂に愛情を注ぐ日本人ですが、これも神道が関係していると言う人もいます。神道では、ケガレを嫌います。ケガレとは精神的にも肉体的にも清潔でない状態の事を表します。一日の労働を終え、明日に向けて精神的なリセットをする為、物理的にも清潔な状態になる様、沐浴の習慣があります。日本人は、一日でも沐浴をしないと不平を守らすと500年前の宣教師ザビエルが書き残している様に、古来から日本人は清潔である事を望むのです。

次回の伊勢神宮のお話の前に、今回は神社の話をしましょう。神社とは、日本の土着宗教である神道の祭祀施設の事です。キリスト教国に教会が、イスラム教国にモスクがあるように、日本全国には、この神社が9万近くあると言われています。英語ではShinto Shrine として表現される神社ですが、ここ近年、日本国の神社本庁は、英語表記にJinja とするよう働きかけているようです。カトリックを例にとると、最寄りの教会が神社、バチカンが伊勢神宮と考えていただけると分かり易いのかもしれません。







文化施設デザイナー / イラストレーター