Tag Archives: 神道

Celebrating the Neopagan Wheel of the Year in Japan

WotY-Japan

This Monday July 18th is a public holiday in Japan known as Umi no Hi, or “Ocean Day.” It’s one of 16 public holidays in Japan, which is quite a large number compared with many other countries (on the flip-side, few Japanese take annual leave from work for a variety of reasons). Fortunately for Neopagans living in Japan, not only do many of these public holidays fall on or close to the eight Sabbats of the Wheel of the Year, but several lend themselves to Pagan celebrations in their own right.
So let’s look at how Neopagans in Japan can work their Wheel of the Year around Japan’s own calendar…[Read more]

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Shinto: Some Basics

torii01

A long-overdue article on the question, “What is Shinto?” Click here to read at Patheos!

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Inari makes an Imbolc appearance

WhiteFox

Inari Okami has a habit of springing up unexpectedly in my life, and today He seemed to make a very auspicious appearance!

I’d popped into the supermarket this morning to find some suitable cheese as an Imbolc offering at both my Inari and Neopagan altars. And that’s when I found these one, “White Fox.”

I’ve never heard of this brand before!  Seeing as the white fox is Inari-sama’s most familiar symbol, what could be a more fitting offering?

Who knows, perhaps it might be a little nudge of encouragement as I have just finished writing my latest Patheos article all about Inari-sama…. (please do have a read!)

Happy Imbolc everyone!

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Happy 2016: The Year of the Monkey

sanzaru

The Three Wise Monkeys (Sanzaru) at a Shinto shrine. By そらみみ (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

 

2016 is the Year of the Monkey – specifically, the Red Fire Monkey. But what does the monkey signify in Shinto? Read more here!

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Pagan and Spiritual Book Round-Up November 2015

 

greenmantle Greenmantle, Charles De Lint

I have to admit – the main reason I bought this book was because someone posted the cover art on a Pagan-related Facebook group, and I loved it. There’s something almost Miyazaki-esque about the colour, lighting and subject matter. That’s what prompted me to track down this fantasy novel. But you know what they say…never judge a book by its cover, and sadly, this book was a good example of this rule for the most part. Although the blurb describes it as a fantasy novel about magical forests and ancient gods, there’s rather little of this in the book. Most of it is focussed on a rather dull story of Mafia warfare and an equally dull family caught up in it all. The more fantastical parts of the novel are quite interesting, taking direct inspiration from Pagan ritual, worship of the Horned God and the concept of the resurrected Green Man but they are completely overshadowed by the aforementioned main plot. Disappointing, I’m afraid to say. Still, that cover though!

ExperiencingtheGreenManExperiencing the Green Man, Rob Hardy & Teresa Moorey

I bought this while getting Christmas presents at the fantastic Hedingham Fair online shop; I have a particular fondness for the Green Man but haven’t read books specific to him (apart from Greenmantle above). This is one of these books made by a small publishing house, and it feels it – it’s cheaply printed and bound and the text inside is amateurishly written, poorly edited and riddled with typos. Thankfully, there’s also something charming and nice about it – with its friendly tone and focus on local traditions, it feels very British. For such a little book, it’s also got a surprising amount of varied content on the subject of the Green Man, including legends, guides on local churches and landmarks where Green Men can be found, rituals for honouring the Green Man, craft ideas, and even the full script for a short Mummer’s play featuring the Green Man. I additionally liked the attention paid to the Green Man within Christianity – I much prefer it when Pagan texts emphasise the links between Paganism and Christianity rather than focussing solely on the differences. It may not be a slick product, but for lovers of the Green Man, this book would probably make a welcome addition to a collection of literature about this mysterious figure.

 

LookingForLostGods Looking for the Lost Gods of England, Kathleen Herbert 

This really more of a bound essay than a book – you can read it very easily in one sitting. Herbert investigates the beliefs of the Anglo-Saxons, drawing from the writings of Roman settlers, the Venerable Bede, and texts of the Anglo-Saxons themselves (runes and Old English a-plenty). It’s a very detailed, interesting and academic piece, but due its length I can’t help but think the general reader would find this more appealing as part of a larger collection of essays on Heathenry, rather than as a stand-alone essay.

DictionaryShinto A Popular Dictionary of Shinto, Brian Bocking

Exactly what it says in the title – an A-Z of Shinto-related, Japanese terminology. I flicked through the whole book, which was very interesting and meant I discovered a lot of new aspects of Shinto, such as obscure kami and practises. Generally, I thought the explanations were pretty good – clear and easy to understand. But there were two things I thought could have been added to improve it. Firstly, it could perhaps do with a few simple illustrations to help those unfamiliar with Shinto tools and architecture; this is pretty common in Japanese dictionaries. Secondly, there isn’t a single Japanese character in the whole book. I thought this was a considerable oversight – the kanji used to write Japanese words is very important, especially in matters pertaining to religion. Including kanji for each entry should have been an obvious thing to do, and would have greatly aided understanding for those who can read Japanese (and there’s a lot of non-Japanese people interested in Shinto who can).

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Action needed! Save the sacred trees of Shimogamo

shimogamo

An ancient, sacred grove of trees by the Shimogamo Shrine in Japan are being threatened with destruction in order to make way to build luxury apartments – which will help to finance the shrine.

It is unacceptable for a Shinto Shrine, a place designed specifically for reflecting upon the sacredness of the natural world, to be causing such devastation to the surrounding environment.

For more information, please see Green Shinto’s post here.

You can sign a petition to the Shinto priest of the Shimogamo Shrine, the Mayor of Kyoto and JR west real estate & development against this development here.

 

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Reflections on “Oriental Ghost Stories,” Lafcadio Hearn (compiled and edited by David Stuart Davies)

orientalghostWhy did I choose to read this book?

I really like the Tales of Mystery & The Supernatural books, which are reprints of classic horror and gothic stories published cheaply by Wordsworth Editions. I have several of them – their collection of vampire short stories and their Edith Nesbit collection, to name a few – and I was delighted to see that they’d also released some of the works of Lafcadio Hearn. All erudite Japanese people, and a large percentage of people who’ve studied Japan, know the importance of Hearn – he emigrated to Japan in 1890 and was responsible for much of the West’s understanding of Japanese culture through his writings on Japanese customs and folklore. I’ve long been familiar with Hearn but have never owned a collection of his writings, and being a lover of all things Japanese, folky and ghostly, I knew I had to get this book. And with Samhain coming it, now felt like a perfect time to reflect on it!

In a nutshell, what it is it about?

This book compiles stories from Hearn’s books – Kwaidan, In Ghostly Japan and Some Chinese Ghosts – into one volume, with a very nice introduction by David Stuart Davies. The stories are essentially folktales – old, spooky “urban legends” that Hearn came across during his time in Japan, as well as a few other writings about China and Europe. All the stories feature elements of the supernatural, from ghosts to demons to inexplicable magic.

What did I particularly like about it?

To begin with, I LOVE the idea of presenting Japanese ghost stories first and foremost as simply that – horror stories. All too often, East Asian writings (and writing from other non-European cultures) get pigeonholed into “East Asia” or “Oriental” as a genre in itself, as if their literature cannot be appreciated alongside or compared with similar literature from the West. This adds to the myth that Japan and other countries are “inscrutable.” Publishing Japanese ghost stories alongside those by European writers as part of the Tales of Mystery & The Supernatural series, in a cheap, almost pulpy, paperback format, is an excellent way of introducing Japanese stories to the masses who may not have any initial interest in Japan, which helps to shatter that “inscrutable” image.

Then there are the stories themselves. Hearn is a wonderful storyteller, who manages to keep a balance of making these stories appealing to the Western reader and retaining their eerie and mystical atmosphere without completely losing their sense of “Japaneseness.” Naturally, I liked some stories better than others; some of the highlights for me included:

  • “The Story of Mimi-Nashi Hoiichi” – The opening story of the book, which has as its protagonist one of Japan’s most fascinating stock characters; a blind lute-player.
  • “Yuki-Onna” – The legends of the mysterious and potentially deadly “snow woman” are well-known to lovers of Japanese folklore, and this version is full of elegance and mystery.
  • Jiu-roku-zakura” – A short but moving tale of a man devoted to his cherry tree. It reminded me a little of Oscar Wilde’s beautiful “The Nightingale and the Rose.”
  • The Dream of Akinosuke” – Something of a mystery story. The real meaning is revealed at the end, but clever readers might be able to guess what’s going on before then…
  • “A Story of Divination” – A neat and somewhat spooky tale exploring the idea of predestination.

Was there anything I didn’t like about it?

Oriental Ghost Stories has a very eclectic feeling, with strange little essays and extracts included among the stories which add variety. Some people might be put off by this “jumbled” feeling, but I rather liked it. The rather archaic language (especially the old ways of romanising Japanese words) might be a bit jarring to some, but again, I thought this added to the book’s charm.

How has it helped my spiritual development?

I actually learned an awful lot of things I didn’t know about Japanese religion from these stories (I suppose that’s not so surprising – folktales can sometimes offer the greatest insight into spiritual beliefs). Due to the nature of the stories, most of the religious elements described are Buddhist (as Buddhism is associated with funeral rites in Japan), which I liked because I am less familiar with Buddhism (especially on the popular level) than Shinto in Japan. I also learned a few things about Shinto that I didn’t know – for example, I had no idea that incense is considered “unclean” in Shinto and isn’t generally burned at Shinto shrines until reading this book! This made me re-consider my current practise of occasionally offering incense to Inari Okami.

Additionally, I was fascinated to read about the concept of “nazorareru.” Hearn claims that this word “…cannot be be adequately rendered by any English word” but describes it as “…to substitute, in imagination, one object or action for another so as to bring about some magical or miraculous result,” for example, laying a pebble before the image of Buddha instead of building a Buddhist temple in order to evoke the same feeling of piety. I immediately realised that what Hearn is describing is the very same “sympathetic magic” that forms the basis of the theories in The Golden Bough! I realised that the concept of sympathetic magic exists in Japan (as it does in all human cultures), but I had no idea that the Japanese had their own term for it. I was really excited to discover this.

Would I recommend this book to others?

Yes – whether you want to read it to learn more about Japanese folklore, or simply want a good scare, I’m sure you would enjoy this book.

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Reflections on “The Essence of Shinto: Japan’s Spiritual Heart,” Motohisa Yamakage

EssenceofShinto

Why did I choose to read this book?

I’d seen some good reviews on The Essence of Shinto as a source for learning more about Shinto. I have to say, I also really liked the cover, which may have influenced my decision to buy it!

In a nutshell, what it is it about?

This book is an analysis of the Shinto religion by Motohisa Yamakage, a Grand Master of the sect of Yamakage Shinto, or koshinto (“old Shinto”). It analyses the principles and rituals of Shinto from this particular perspective. Koshinto claims to be the branch closest to the “original” Shinto before it was influenced by Buddhism and other “foreign” beliefs (although I am skeptical of such a claim), and the secrets of koshinto are said to have been handed down from generation to generation of the Yamakage family. There’s also a section on chinkon meditation, an important aspect of Yamakage Shinto; Yamakage Shinto seems to be a little more esoteric and inward-focussed than the forms of Shinto most often practised by people in Japan.

What did I particularly like about it?

It’s nice to read a slightly different perspective on Shinto from a master of a different sect, and much of what Yamakage has to say interested me.

First off, I really like Yamakage’s definition of Shinto: “…our relationship and interdependence with Kami….the path through which we seek to realise ourselves fully as human beings by acquiring the noble characteristics of Kami.” This is possibly one of the best short definition’s I’ve seen of Shinto, even if it is from a slightly more koshinto perspective than “standard” Shinto. He also emphasises that the Shinto path is one in which gratitude and awe for the Kami is paramount, something I too believe.

I was happy to see that Yamakage is for the most part a progressive Shinto thinker. He believes that while continuity in religious tradition is important, adaptation and change according to the times is vital to its continuation, and that includes adaptations to Shinto. Likewise, he states that there does not need to be a standardised form of Shinto and that the many different forms of Shinto are a positive thing. He also holds that Shinto priests should not lecture visitors to shrines on moral or doctrinal teachings, but rather work to keep the shrine a clean and spiritual place where people can come and, in their own way, experience kami and discover their own morality.Yamakage also believes not only that all religious teachings are as one, but also that awareness of this is essential to any religion. He sees religion as very much a personal, individual matter – “…it is important for each person to experience and feel in his or her own way and not to use language to force others to believe in a certain way.”  All of these characteristics imbue Shinto with a liberalism that I believe all modern-day religions should share.

Additionally, I liked Yamakage’s frank approach to his personal faith and experiences in Shinto. He is not afraid to call it a “religion,” even though both Japanese and Westerners alike may shy away from the term (I’ve heard plenty of people claim that Shinto isn’t a religion, even though it has all the defining characteristics of one). And somewhat unusually for a modern-day Shinto scholar, he is unafraid to address the mystical and miraculous aspects of the religion, including giving his own personal accounts of receiving messages from Kami and experiencing spiritual forces.

It was interesting an unusual to see that The Essence of Shinto features quite a lot on Shinto attitudes to death. The usual perception is that Shinto has little to do with death, not only because it is a religion that emphasises the here and now rather than the afterlife, but also because death is considered a source of spiritual pollution in Shinto. It was refreshing to see a Shinto priest talk about the varied Shinto attitudes towards death, and even details about Shinto-style funerals. Perhaps Yamakage’s background as a koshinto master has something to do with this.

Finally, there is considerable practical information in The Essence of Shinto for readers as well, including directions for misogi purification, offering tamagushi at a shrine, setting up a kamidana, and of course chinkon meditation. Throughout the text there are photos and illustrations (some of which I recognised fas the same used in other books on Shinto), which are helpful.

Was there anything I didn’t like about it?

The Essence of Shinto felt rather divided for me. The parts that I mentioned above which I liked were all part of the first half of the book, which in my opinion is the strongest half. The second part, in which Yamakage elaborates on the more esoteric traditions of koshinto, was not as interesting for me. For one thing, Yamakage drew similar parallels between Yamakage Shinto and the schools of Theosophy, Anthropsophy and Spiritualism, all of which are paths which have never really appealed to me, which might explain why I didn’t find the specifics of Yamakage Shinto so compelling.

For another, while I appreciate that Yamakage is a strong advocate of mystical experience in Shinto, some of the claims about how the presence of kami can make you leap into the air during meditation seemed a little too close to Transcendental Meditation and other forms of “institutionalised” spiritual development for my liking. I am wary of such programmes, which are often led by privileged “gurus” charging ordinary people high sums of money in exchange for the promise of supernatural powers, and the form of Yamakage Shinto advocated her seems to be leaning that way (there is an emphasis that people embarking on a koshinto path “must be guided by an experienced and reputable instructor,” which I’m sure wouldn’t come cheap!). Furthermore, Yamakage distances his particular branch of Shinto from that of the masses by stressing that one should not indiscriminately worship at any shrine, even if it is a famous shrine visited on holiday. Going to different shrines around Japan has been a favourite past time of the Japanese since ancient times, so for me it was sad to see Yamakage turning his back on this tradition and, in doing so, possibly alienating the majority of casual Shintoists in Japan.

In fact, this “institutional” feeling was possibly what stopped me from liking The Essence of Shinto as much as other texts on Shinto I’ve read; it feels distant from the more folk-orientated Shinto practised by the masses. For me, folk religion, in which ordinary people develop their own rituals and traditions and are empowered by doing so, will always have greater appeal to me than organised and institutional religion, in which only a privileged few have access to the rewards that the religion offers (and those few often charge money to the common folk in order to gain more access). One thing I’ve always loved about Shinto is that, while there is organisation and a hierarchy and certain rights that priests have that common people don’t such as access to the inner sanctum of shrines, the majority of Shinto is very much held by and for the common people; the masses have communal “ownership” over Shinto. It is the common people who make offerings in places of natural places, common people who congregate on mass to celebrate Shinto festivals, and even common people charged with the responsibility of carrying the o-mikoshi – the portable shrine in which a kami dwells temporarily for a festival – through the towns during the festival. Advocating a more orthodox, esoteric and introspective form of Shinto as The Essence of Shinto does is fine, but in doing so, I personally feel that Shinto loses something of its appealing folk connection.

How has it helped my spiritual development?

There were a few additional things I learned about Shinto that I didn’t know about before; for example, I didn’t know that the shimenawa rope found at sites of special Shinto significance is actually intended to absorb impurities, and not simply act as a marker between the mundane and divine. It also has some information on kami-hitogata, paper charms make in the form of a person for cleansing purposes, which I had read about in passing and found interesting but hadn’t seen any information about since.

It was also uplifting and reassuring to find a book that highlighted so many similarities between Shinto and aspects of Neopaganism. Yamakage describes the importance of high-calibur Shinto priests, who in their rituals make onlookers “feel that Kami is truly present.”  Such is also true of Neopagan rituals; when properly performed, a Pagan ritual should also make those involved feel that the Gods and Goddesses are present in the Circle. There’s also an emphasis on the importance of salt and other elements that Neopagans see as sacred.

Overall, I was just happy to get another perspective on Shinto, and to broaden my outlook on my faith, even if I didn’t find everything appealing.

Would I recommend this book to others?

I wouldn’t recommend it for Shinto beginners as I don’t think the latter part is quite representative of how most people practise Shinto, and what’s more, the explanations that Yamakage gives already assume some knowledge of Japanese culture. However, those who are already grounded in the basics of Shinto might appreciate it in order to get an insight into different forms of Shinto, and indeed you might find introspective, meditative form of Yamakage Shinto appeals to you. I imagine it’s very much down to personal taste!

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New Moon September 2015

inari3

My Inari altar. The picture behind was painted for me by the art teacher at the school I used to work at in Nagasaki. It’s a view from the school window, which overlooks Mount Inasa (in the centre of the painting). At the foot of this mountain is Fuchi Shrine, which includes an Inari shrine on its grounds.

As mentioned in a recent entry, I have decided to start commemorating the New Moon by offering extra dedications to Inari Okami, and to ask Him and the other kami for help with specific things (as the New Moon is associated with wishing in Japan). And tonight I did so by practising chinkon-gyo meditation for the first time before my altar. Chinkon gyo is a form of Shinto meditation that involves both chants of norito (prayers) and gestures as a form of purification and a way of honouring the kami.

I followed the instructions for chinkon-gyo in Shinto Norito. I have to admit that looking up the instructions (and then looking up the corresponding norito) meant that I could not fully immerse myself in the spirituality of the experience, but it was my first time. I know now from previous experience that the first times you hold a new ritual or say a new prayer, you never quite feel spiritually “in tune” – it takes considerable practise before you are comfortable enough with the ritual in order to let yourself be absorbed by it, rather than focussing on simply getting it right. I therefore felt really pleased to be starting something new, and the New Moon seemed to be the perfect time to do it!

In the period of silent meditation that closes the ritual, I offered my prayers and wishes to Inari Okami. I asked Her to heal and watch over particular members of my family who are suffering health problems, as well as to aid and protect the many, many refugees and migrants who are experiencing such difficult times throughout Europe and the Middle East at the moment. I also asked Him to grant our leaders the wisdom to give appropriate help, and to give me such wisdom too.

hypnos

After my prayers to Inari-sama were over, I took the opportunity to offer some incense to my statue of Hypnos, who sits atop a wardrobe in my bedroom to promote peaceful sleep. Both my husband and I have had some troubles sleeping lately, so I asked Hypnos to make us sleep better so we could awaken refreshed the next day. The incense I offered was “Opium” scented, which seems appropriate as the classical deities related to sleep are associated with poppies.

I hope my wishes and prayers will be granted!

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The Full Moon and New Moon in Japan

nozomuOne day at work, I happened to be checking alternative readings for the kanji character 望. This fairly common character, which students of Japanese language will come across at about intermediate level, is usually read “nozomi” or “bou,” and is usually translated as “wish” or “aspiration.” But then I discovered that it also means “Full Moon.”

I was really surprised that this kanji could have two such different and beautiful meanings. I asked my Japanese colleague about it, and she confirmed that it is a fairly common way to signify the Full Moon (the even more common way to write “full moon” in Japanese is 満月, pronounced “mangetsu”). She even pointed out a Japanese calendar hanging up behind her desk, in which all the days of the Full Moon were marked with 望.

So I asked her, seeing as 望 also means “wish,” do Japanese people make wishes at the Full Moon?

Her answer really surprised me. She told me that actually, the best time to make wishes is at the New Moon. This is because the night is so still and the sky so clear that your wishes are more likely to reach the heavens at the New Moon than at the Full Moon.

I’d never heard of this before. While I try to make an occasion of the Full Moon (I try to hold a solo ritual for the Esbats), I do nothing to commemorate the New Moon. But now I’ve heard that the Japanese associated the New Moon with making wishes, I’ve now decided to use the New Moon to make extra prayers and offerings to Inari Okami and the other Shinto kami. So the Full Moon will be the time I devote most to the Western Pagan deities, and the New Moon will be for the Shinto ones.

The next New Moon will be on Sunday. I’ll see how my plan goes!

(Incidentally, the character for “New Moon” is 朔, pronounced “saku.” It’s made up of the characters meaning “moon” 月 and “inverse” 屰. I really like the idea of the New Moon being an “inverted” moon!”)

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