A wooden shrine building at Ise Jingu
The Way of The Gods
Seventy percent of Japan’s land is covered by forests, many of them making the perfect backdrop to peaceful temples and shrines. Here, an ancient religion tells us that spirits, called kami, can be found in all manner of natural things: the sky, the trees, the rivers and rain.

Japan’s indigenous religion, Shintoism is an adaptation of Buddhism and Confucianism, which were imported from China in the 6th century. Though Buddhism and Confucianism follow a set doctrine, shintoism is different. A polytheistic religion, worshippers honour whichever sacred kami they choose, seeking and celebrating their energies in the physical world. Ise Jingu is considered to be Japan’s most sacred shrine and the spiritual home of the Shinto religion. The expansive shrine grounds, located on the Ise Peninsula in Mie prefecture, are centred around two main shrines which, as per an ancient Shinto tradition, are fully disassembled and reconstructed every 20 years. During the restoration, the shrine’s kami are temporarily relocated before being transported back upon completion of the restoration work. It is believed that the kami, along with the physical buildings, are rejuvenated through the renewal of the structure and furnishings, implying the idea of everlasting youth, known as tokowaka.

Today, few Japanese are devoted Shintoists. Instead, many people visit both Buddhist temples alongside their worship at Shinto shrines, which were established in places believed to be where kami manifested, often becoming the centre of culture and everyday life at the time. The arrival of Buddhism saw an introduction of figural icons, a form that influenced Shinto imagery, setting in motion a path to entwine the two religions. Many Shinto shrines and their kami became combined with Buddhist temples and figures and though kami were originally understood to be intangible deities, through this Shinto-Buddhism crossover, figural forms, such as shinzo (Shinto kami statues) became popular in the 8th century. In the present day, the line between the ancient religions is so fine that many practitioners who are dedicated to the Shinto faith have trouble dissecting the two, however it’s believed that many Japanese customs and philosophies - pathways to purification, admiration of imperfection, and the transience of nature - all appear to be founded in Shintoism.

In comparison to other religions, such as Christianity or Islam, where followers believe in one absolute God, Shintoists devote their time to finding the energy of kami in the natural world, the presence of the spirits known as kehai. Many experts believe that, without its holy scriptures, Shintoism has always been closer to a way of living - the wisdom of how to live in harmony with nature, whilst being respectful of all kami that influence life. Modern day Japan has seen the permeation of Shintoism across all facets of daily living in such a way that most people are no longer aware of its influence. It can be seen in myriad of examples, from architecture to art and gastronomy.

Shintoism promotes a positive view of the world, a world which is increasingly accessible in its globalisation. Founded upon the idea that all creations deserve respect, whether it is beings or belongings, Shintoists treat everything as having value, particularly objects for daily living, caring for them and appreciating them rather than treating them as disposable. Now more than ever, Shintoism can teach us to respect the precious resources that we rely on.

Ise Jingu

Staff Writer
Rachel E T Davies