Above is a photo of my very modest altar to Inari Okamisama, the Japanese deity whose many associations include rice, rain, fertility, prosperity and foxes. The altar, which is outdoors on a window sill to the side of my house, features four small offering dishes for the “four essentials for life” according to Shinto (water, sake, rice and salt), a basic homemade shimenawa (rope with shide paper charms attached that denotes a sacred place), a bell and two white fox statues that symbolise Inari’s messengers.
I think that having a personal altar outdoors is unusual in Japan. It’s not uncommon for devout Shintoists to have a kamidana (a Shinto altar) within their homes, but to my knowledge this is traditionally kept inside, not outside. However, public Shinto shrines are always outside, because nature itself is considered a “shrine” in its own right.
I’m in an unusual position, however. There are no recognised public places of Shinto worship in the UK, so I’ve had to compromise by having my personal shrine outside. What’s more, I decided to venerate Inari and create this altar in order to honour the foxes that live, and have no doubt lived for generations, in the local area; it was originally their home, and feel I have to thank them somehow for sharing their territory with us. Therefore, an altar located inside the house doesn’t seem right if it’s specifically for the foxes who live outside.
I do think that Pagan or Shinto worship should preferably take place outdoors – both are religions of nature after all, and being outside allows you to hear the bird song, smell the breeze, feel the sunlight and be in touch with the natural world. But there are of course disadvantages to having an outside altar.
One disadvantage is the practicality. When it’s raining heavily, it’s far from pleasant to be spending time standing and praying outside, and much harder to get into the right spiritual frame of mind. Additionally, as they are exposed to the elements, outside altars need a lot of maintenance. I often find myself having to clear the altar from cobwebs, dead insects and bird droppings. What’s more, the most common way to mark a sacred place in Shintoism is to use the shimenawa as mentioned above. Because the shide should be made from paper, they get damaged very easily in the rain and have to be replaced frequently.
But for me, the greatest disadvantage is how self-conscious I feel in presenting offerings and prayers at my altar. Luckily, the altar is located in quite a secluded part of our courtyard, so the chances of being seen are fairly low. But still, the courtyard can be seen from neighbour’s windows, and it’s also a communal area for other residents of our flat (they don’t tend to use it much). And this is what interferes with my prayers and rituals most of all.
Everyday Shinto ritual, while quite simple and quick, is necessarily demonstrative. First, I give a slight bow as I approach the altar. Then I ring the bell to “awaken” the kami, and make two low bows to show respect. I then clap twice, and on the second clap I join my hands and prayer. After praying (which I only do for about 30 seconds or less), I make one further low bow, and then one slight bow before turning away.
It’s a nice ritual and feels very respectful when I am fully at ease. However, when performed at my not-so-private altar, my personal feelings really interfere. I am constantly worried about being spotted by the neighbours and find myself looking around after ringing the bell or clapping to see if I’ve attracted any unwanted attention. This is really distracting and I feel bad that I am not concentrating fully on my devotions as a result. But I can’t help but worry about what my neighbours will think if they spot me. To those not familiar with Shinto, or indeed any other forms of Paganism, it must looked fairly ridiculous for someone to be bowing and clapping at some fox statues. And what if they are strict Christians, and in their eyes what I’m doing looks like idolatry? Will they be offended?
It’s sad that I feel this way, while in Japan one never needs to feel self-conscious when offering these kinds of prayers at an outdoor, public shrine – it’s considered a very normal, natural and admirable thing to do. I wonder how many other Pagans who perform rituals or prayers outdoors feel the same way? It may seem like quite a trivial matter, but feeling self-conscious is perhaps one of the biggest challenges I face in deepening my spirituality.