More than any other, the type of shine that fascinates and enchants me most in Japan is the hokora, or miniature shrine. You can find these practically anywhere in Japan – on the grounds of larger jinja shrines, on country roadsides, on city street corners, or out in the middle of nature. Unlike jinja, these shrines are not necessarily under the control of any Shinto institution, and therefore represent a very pure form of folk Shinto.
Hokora can take many forms – just perform a Google image search to see. Some can be fairly large (the size of a cupboard or there abouts) and have many of the features of a formal jinja – of box for offering money, a bell to ring to summon the kami, shutters and so on. Others resemble kamidana in that they are miniaturisations of a full-size jinja, complete with tiny torii and suitably sized offering vessels (like the hokora pictured above). The main difference between hokora and kamidana seems to be that kamidana are purely for inside worship, and also seem to have more rules about their layout and position than hokora.
Others, like the one pictured left, are incredibly simple – just a tiny stone “house” with a few sacred items inside. Most rural hokora make use of the natural beauty around them and are made from natural materials such as stone or wood. Although varied, the defining characteristic of a hokora seems to be some sort of house-shaped enclosure, as if providing a home for the kami.
Typically, hokora enshrine minor kami of protection, although more major deities may be venerated in hokora too. The fox statues surrounding the hokora pictured on the top of the page indicate a connection with Inari Okamisama, while the hokora above (and many of the hokora I have personally seen in Japan) enshrine Jizo Bosatsu. Jizo is a very interesting deity, as he is originally a Buddhist Bodhisattva, who has come to be venerated as a protector of children and travellers as Japan. Often depicted as small and rather endearing, Jizo is a popular deity among the Japanese, and he is often worshipped in a similar manner to the Shinto kami. This is another example of the syncretic nature of Japanese religions, where at the folk level, Shinto, Buddhism and other folk beliefs merge so much that trying to separate them becomes very difficult and, arguably, meaningless.
This deceptively casual and humble nature of hokora is one of the things that I find so appealing about them. Unlike jinja, they do not represent any kind of mass institution with deep social and political links – instead, they are an individualistic expression of the spirituality of the common people.
I also find small size of hokora, particularly those with scaled-down versions of shrine features such as torii, of great interest. When I see these tiny houses out in nature, I am reminded of the numerous legends of faeries, pixies and “wee folk” that have existed throughout the British Isles. I cannot help but think that the kami venerated in these small hokora are somehow linked to the “week folk” – perhaps it would even be fitting to translate kami in this context as “faerie.”
Hokora remind me of something else quite familiar in Britain: Garden gnomes, and other such garden statues. But while hokora are sincerely revered as sacred spaces for kami (and the proliferation of offerings at hokora is proof of this), garden gnomes and their ilk are simply seen as whimsical, even tacky, decorative ornaments, and nothing more. Yet I cannot help that somehow, people place gnomes in the garden out of a deeply-seated, subconscious feeling that there are mysterious and benevolent forces of nature at work, and a desire to somehow reach out and revere this force. Gnomes, after all, were once respected as elemental spirits of the earth.
I do wish that something akin to hokora existed in British forests, fields and roadsides, even as just a reminder to respect our natural world (my own goal at the moment is to transform my rather drab Inari altar into something more like a hokora). I have a feeling that if we did try to make little Western Pagan-style hokora venerating the fae or other nature spirits, they would end up being vandalised. But if it did become a tradition here to set up small places for offerings to nature spirits, I think we would perhaps learn to value our diminishing places of natural beauty. And moreover, it would make us feel more spiritually fulfilled too.