SYNOPSIS:  About Shinto shrines, their common features and worship practices; about a very expensive “house-shrine department store”, and about wine.  

The mountains were steaming moisture and the clouds hung so low that it was clear this would be another day for the umbrella.  But today that was much easier, since Kyoro-san was driving and except for the actual sightseeing there was very little of the getting cold and wet I had between sites which I experienced yesterday.

Shintoism is the indigenous Japanese religion, a religion which was only loosely organized until it came into contact with the Chinese import of Buddhism; it goes back to the beginnings of human settlement in this region.  In a nutshell, it is the veneration of ancestors, nature spirits and a multitude of gods which personify natural phenomena such as rain, rocks, trees, mythological characters, or even historical figures .  There was no founder, there was no scripture.  Buddhism and Shintoism have coexisted and influenced each other greatly.  Often, Buddhist temples were erected right into Shinto shrine precincts and priests would serve both religious needs.  Buddhism took on quite “un-Buddhist” features through Shinto practices and vice-versa.  It was only in 1868 that a decree demanded the strict separation of the two.

There must be tens of thousands of Shinto shrines large and small scattered all over Japan.  But a few of them outrank the others:  Itzukushima (which I already visited), Ise (which I will visit in about a while), and Izumu Taisha which was on today’s program.

A few things are helpful to know about Shinto shrines that will instantly orient you:  the first sign indicating the presence of a Shinto shrine is this Torii Gate.  In the old days it would have been made of wood and left plain; Chinese influence can be seen in the bright red vermillion colour that is often used to ward off evil.  Devotees often bow when entering the torii gate and they would pass through it on the side or even enter outside the gate, as the centre of the torii is reserved for the gods.

Stone lanterns may or may not line the path to the shrine but you surely will pass a basin of spring-fed water, the Chozu, equipped with several bamboo ladles.  You are to fill the ladle with some water with your right hand, pour it over your left one and then reverse the process.  Finally, you take the ladle back into your right hand, pour water into your left one and rinse your mouth.   After this cleansing ritual you proceed to the shrine area.

You often find a pair of lions guarding the shrine area, one seated with its mouth open, the male lion, and one with its mouth closed, the female one;  they are known as Komainu and again represent a clear influence from either Korea or China.   Less common on the mainland of Japan are the standing pair of lions with their rear up.  In Okinawa, however, they were the dominant form.

Each shrine or sacred hall will be decorated with a rice-straw rope, the Shimenawa.  Some are of modest size, others, as in Izumo-Taisha are massive.  Again their function is to ward off evil.  Some of them are decorated for additional protection with folded paper strips.  These types of papers are also attached to trees or side boards by people in the general shrine precinct for good luck.  Fortunes are read and wishes are recorded and left in hope of fulfillment.

Each shrine is dedicated to one or two main deities or Kami (spirits). In addition to the Omikuji, the paper fortunes, shrines often sell wooden tablets with a painted image pertaining to the particular shrine’s deity.  After purchasing one of them, you can take it to a priest of the shrine, who for a further fee will inscribe a particular wish on the back of the tablet or Ema (offering).  You can also inscribe it yourself.  You can then take your Ema home to your household shrine, or you can leave it at designated boards to remain in the vicinity of the god.  Or you can bring them back home as souvenirs as I intend to do.  Some of them are quite chintzy, others are hand painted.  In either case they represent a curious form of folk art which I find interesting and unique.

Worship of the Shinto gods is simple.  You bow in front of the shrine, you drop an obligatory coin in the provided box, and you clap your hands twice to make your presence known to the gods.  Izumu Taisha which is dedicated to the highest creator god Okunishu-no-okami or Daikoku-sama is the only shrine where you clap your hands four times.  You then may state your wish, thank the god, bow and retreat.  No sermon, no entry into the sacred shrine area.  That is the end of it.

Shinto priests may live at the more important shrines and tend to the gods in the morning or during festivals.  They also may relay wishes and prayers to the gods.  But many of the smaller shrines throughout the country do not support a priest and worship is strictly individual.

The importance of a shrine does not depend so much on who the main deity is but who was behind the temple sponsoring it.  Ise, the shrine of the highest rank in Japan, was always associated with the emperor and the ruling family.  Itzukushima was the shrine frequented and patronized by the powerful Heike clan.

Izumu-Taisha, as the shrine of the chief god, is also considered to be the gathering place of the gods, who are believed to convene here annually in a sort of a conference.  Therefore it sports a wing of “hotel rooms” for the gods, a feature which is not common to other shrines.

The main hall which is used to approach the gods is built  in line with a shrine behind it which is closed and off limits even to priests most of the time.  It is the place where a symbol of the god, a relic of sorts, is kept.

In comparison with other religions there is very little interaction or contact between devotee and god.  No figurative representations of the gods, no relics to be touched, etc.  At Izumu-Taisha, much of the compound was even walled in and one could at best peek through a wooden fence.

According to legend, Izumu-Taisha’s innermost shrine once stood at 48 meters, so tall, that it collapsed frequently and had to be rebuilt at half size.  Even at 24 meters it is still the tallest Shinto shrine in the country!  A lesson of hubris for the gods?

In addition to the lack of contact, there is also not much height and pomp to Shintoism compared to other religions, except of course during festivals.  Then, mythological stories, battles, relationships etc. are re-enacted with masks, costumes, enormous dragons, music, etc.  And these festivals can last for days.  I hope to witness at least one of those in Kyoto.

After this high shrine, Kyoro-san offered to take us to a much lesser shrine and a lighthouse.  After the big and secretive site of Izumo-Taisha, the small shrine we visited next seemed like a little treasure hidden in the forest.  It was a beautiful spot dedicated to the sun goddess Amaterasu and her brother, two of the most important deities; yet it was not even listed on the tourist maps.  But it was a well-worth detour.

And then Kyoro-san wanted to go shopping.  First we stopped at a small delicatessen, which was also a winery.  I did not know that this region was known for its wines, but indeed about 10 different kinds of wine are produced locally.  Of course, I had to buy a small bottle for tonight.  What was amazing was to see the wine tasting “punch bowls”.  Huge glass bowls were filled with the wine advertised and arranged in a circle.  One could just go around “tasting” until one would be drunk.  I can’t imagine anything like this in the States.  Wouldn’t it draw all the bums in town for a free party?

But our final shopping stop made my jaw drop.  I can’t describe it any other way, but we went to a “house-shrine department store”.  On three floors an endless array of house shrines were on display.  The most modest and unadorned, contemporary one for a mere $2000, the high end lacquer, rare wood, traditional one for a whopping $30,000.  In addition to the shrines, the main floor also had every imaginable paper lantern — not your Ikea style for $20 but starting at over $100 each — prayer beads, individual deities to fill the shrine, each again $800 and upwards.  Wow!  Some of them were incredibly beautiful and executed at the highest level of craftsmanship.  If money were no object, I would have bought a few.   The two women got a good laugh out of my amazement and disbelief.  A store like this can nowhere be found in the US.

From the mundane to the profound, I learned and saw a lot today.  Kanako wants to learn English and I told her that she would be welcome in Michigan to practice.  Kyoro won’t fly. Under no circumstances.  But really, she will have a lifetime of sightseeing to do just in Japan.  There is so much more to this region: hot springs, beaches, sacred mountains, hanging monasteries, museums.  But if I want to reach my goal and just see the UNESCO sites I will have to move on.

And after a glass of wine overlooking the rolling hills of Shimane prefecture and the ocean in the distance, I will say good night.

4 comments so far

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  1. Thank you for the excellent review of Shintoism. You certainly answered a lot of questions I had in my mind about it. I was still wondering how it differed from Buddhism…so I found that others may also like…it is basic in its information, but will get you started making comparisons:


    The washing ritual reminded me of the ablution that Muslims go through before they can enter a Mosque. Nothing like that for Christians…I wonder why some religions make washing before entering a sacred place obligatory and others don’t. Of course in Christianity there is foot-washing and baptism…but not the same thing as the Shinto and Muslim water cleansing.

    And then on to wine-tasting punch bowls…an excellent tradition in any country…though certainly in the good ole U S of A they are much less generous with their samples than the Japanese. Interesting how conventions and the like in different countries are so varied.

    What a nice thing to have made those two friends…sounds like you had a very rich day in many ways. Good for you, Elisabeth, your openness to experiences obviously serves you (and others) well as you travel.

  2. Do the Japanese really believe all that religious gibberish you described? Or is it mainly just pleasant folk tradition? They seem to be spending a lot of money on it.

    • That is the big question! Isn’t the fact that so much money is spent on it the answer? Why would they do that if they would consider it gibberish? Nobody is forcing them. ET

  3. Elisabeth, I had a dream about you last night. You were on your journey abroad and I was explaining to people your summers and how you explore abroad. You inspire me so much that I dream about you! lol. Continue to enjoy your exploration and stay safe!