Tag Archives: kamidana

Pagan, Shinto & Spiritual Book Reviews September 2016

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We have now entered autumn, the month of reading according to the Japanese. Not sure what to read? Take a look at September’s reviews and see if any of them take your fancy – this month we even have a book by the managing editor of Patheos Pagan! [Read more]

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Winter Solstice 2015

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Today I celebrated Yule (I prefer to celebrate on the date of the actual Solstice, rather than on the 21st). I began by climbing the local Windmill Hill to “see” the Solstice Sun rise. It being a very cloudy day, I couldn’t actually see the Sun (typical!), but I enjoyed being there as the light grew brighter. I made some offerings of sherry to some of the trees on the hill, including a very large Oak tree. There were a couple of dog walkers around, and I think they were somewhat bemused to see this strange girl out on the hill spilling a chalice of sherry around the tree roots!

When I came home, I placed offerings of a satsuma, chestnut and mochi (in addition to the usual offerings of water, sake, rice and salt) at my Inari altar and recited the Hifumi and Inari Norito. As you can see from the photo above, I’ve recently started using the old Hindu shrine I picked up at an antiques fair as a makeshift Kamidana, until my finances mean I can get a genuine Shinto one. I think it works pretty well for the time being.

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I also made offerings at my Pagan shrine. The posters on the wall behind are prints from Brian Froud’s Good Faeries, Bad Faeries, which is an excellent book that I highly recommend. Unfortunately, I discovered that the cover of my copy and some of the inner pages had become utterly ruined by damp and had gone really mouldy, but not wanting to throw away the whole book, I cut out some of the pictures that were still OK. I plan to change them on my altar according to the season; I think the ones above look quite wintry.

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I also added some of the salt dough Green Men that I’d made and hadn’t given away yet to the altar. I put one Holly King mask on the God side of the altar, an Ivy Queen mask on the Goddess side, and another Holly King hanging in the centre.

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Finally, in the evening I made some “rune cookies,” just like I did last year (but with additional clove and ginger this year). Although the first batch turned out well, I unfortunately burned the second batch! Today’s been a bit of an unlucky day for cooking actually – the oven’s been playing up a bit as well. Perhaps I need to pay more attention to the Goddess of the Hearth and let her know that I appreciate her work for us! I did place an offering of the best (non-burnt) biscuits on both the Inari shrine and Pagan shrine – I hope the Powers That Be like them.

Have a Magical Yule everyone!

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My New Inari Altar

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Followers of my blog may know that I have recently moved house, and as such the old Inari altar that I maintained outside is no more. I’m still in the process of making lots of decisions about my home altars – both my Pagan and Shinto ones – but in the meantime, I have set up this temporary shrine to Inari Okami in our smaller spare room.

The biggest difference for me is that this new altar is indoors. I placed the one at my old house outdoors specifically in honour of the local foxes who often came into our garden. Our new house doesn’t seem to have a community of foxes nearby (I think I’ve seen just one in the neighbourhood so far, and not in our garden), and more to the point, there doesn’t seem to be anywhere “safe” in our new garden for the shrine to go where it would be protected from the elements and the many cats that jump over the walls into the garden.

So I’ve put the temporary altar in the spare room, which I plan on turning into a “Japanese” style room, with a partially tatami floor and other Japanese elements. Unfortunately, there’s nowhere to put it above eye-level (kamidana should always be placed above eye-level), so when I make prayers to Inari-sama, I prostrate myself on the floor.

There are of course advantages to having an indoor altar – I don’t have to worry about cold or rain, it’s easier (and cleaner) to give offerings, and indeed most Japanese people keep their kamidana indoors. But I do miss the feeling of praying to Inari-sama outside; the wind against my skin, the sound of birdsong, the scent of plantlife. I felt I could connect more deeply to Inari-sama when I prayed to her outside. However, the practicalities of an indoor altar are overwhelming for now.

I do eventually want to get a proper kamidana set, complete with an o-fuda (the centre of my altar currently has the o-mamori that my colleague brought back from Fushimi Inari Taisha, which is the best substitute I have), and put it up on a shelf above eye-level. But I feel bad about spending money on a kamidana which only I will use (my husband isn’t a Shintoist), when we still need to buy lots of things for the house for both myself and my husband to use. If I happen to come into a bit of extra money, perhaps that’s how I should use it!

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Tokonoma – Japan’s “secular altars”

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“Kannonin Tottori16s4470” by 663highland – 663highland. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kannonin_Tottori16s4470.jpg#/media/File:Kannonin_Tottori16s4470.jpg

There are generally considered to be two main types of household altar in Japan. One is the kamidana, a Shinto altar that enables communion with kami. The other is the butsudan, a Buddhist altar that is used to honour the Buddha as well as deceased relatives. Out of the two, the butsudan would seem to be the most common in Japanese homes.

There is a third type of feature that can be found in Japanese homes, tea houses, traditional inns and restaurants that could also be considered a kind of altar. [Read more]

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Neopaganism v. Shinto: Sacred Objects

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A gohei “wand,” which sometimes serves as a shintai at Shinto shrines. “Shinto gohei” by nnh – photo by nnh. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

In this blog, I’ve written a lot about the similarities between Neopaganism and Shinto, because I think they really do have a lot more similarities than differences. But there are differences, which can be tricky to deal with if you are practising both religions together. I thought it would be interesting to look at some of these differences. [Read more]

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The Importance of Altars

Kamidana, or Shinto household altar. "Sacred straw rope at New Year's,shimenawa,katori-city,japan" by katorisi - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sacred_straw_rope_at_New_Year%27s,shimenawa,katori-city,japan.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Sacred_straw_rope_at_New_Year%27s,shimenawa,katori-city,japan.jpg

Kamidana, or Shinto household altar, decorated for O-Shogatsu (New Year). “Sacred straw rope at New Year’s,shimenawa,katori-city,japan” by katorisi – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Up to now, I do not have a permanent altar or kamidana (Shinto altar) in my house. There are several reasons for this. One is that my altar to my patron deity Inari Okami is located outside my house, because I put it there specifically to honour our local foxes (an indoor altar would therefore be inappropriate because that isn’t where the foxes live!). Another reason is that we have limited space in my house, and as my husband isn’t Pagan I don’t want him to feel like all the Pagan stuff in my life is taking over the house. Thirdly, I try to perform all my rituals outside, as I believe that this puts me more in touch with the spirits of nature than a ritual performed in my living room. And finally, a permanent altar can be quite a big commitment in terms of time and money; this is especially true of a kamidana. In Shinto tradition, a kamidana needs to be set up just right, with the correct items in their correct places, and be regularly  and properly maintained or one risks upsetting the kami (according to one of my Japanese friends, this is especially true of Inari-sama). Additionally, the centrepiece of a true kamidana should be the ofuda – a paper charm instilled with the spirit of the kami – which is not only rather pricey but also not the easiest thing to obtain outside of Japan. This is compounded by the fact that in Shinto tradition, an ofuda should be replaced with a new one every year.

However, the other day I watched this video made by the author of the A Fox of Inari blog, of the author’s own personal kamidana to Inari-sama. The kamidana is so beautiful and even on film, it radiates a kind of spiritual power. I could almost smell the wax of the glowing candles and the aroma of the incense and it made me feel very warm and serene just to watch it. It made me yearn for some kind of indoor altar of my own – and that’s when I realised that altars are not only important to honour the deities, but also to us devotees ourselves.

The video made me understand that altars function as a kind of spiritual retreat, a place where we can spend quality time with our deities and achieve a tranquil and meditative mindset that’s perfect for reaching out to the spirits and listening to what they might have to say. I would love to have a little spot in my house where I can go at any time to feel at peace and contemplate the spiritual world.

At the moment, my outside altar to Inari-sama doesn’t really hold this function for me. While I do like to be at my altar, I don’t always feel so serene there, because I feel very exposed to all the neighbours (lots of windows overlook our courtyard), and the area itself isn’t that pretty – it’s just a bit of concrete patio filled with junk. It’s pretty hard to make the altar look nicer – because it’s outdoors, it’s at the full mercy of rain, wind, slugs and cats, so anything I put out to decorate the altar gets grubby or knocked over or broken pretty quickly. While I do have some plans to improve the outdoor altar by taking inspiration from hokora, I know that it will never make me feel at complete ease while it remains  under the public eye and exposed to the elements.

I would therefore like to try setting up some kind of inside altar – perhaps not to Inari-sama, but perhaps one to another deity I feel drawn to such as Hecate, or maybe even just a generalist Eclectic Pagan shrine to all the various incarnations of the deities. It’ll mean taking up some space but overall, I would like to have a place that can give me the same feeling of spiritual peace that A Fox of Inari’s kamidana gives me.

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The Dark Side of Inari

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I have mentioned before that Inari Okami, like other Japanese kami, has a bit of a “dark” side, with the ability to punish those who offend him as well as give. But to be honest, I’d never really paid much attention to this, and have generally seen Inari as a powerful yet ultimately benevolent spirit of Nature. Inari-san’s more fearsome aspects are talked about in my primary source of knowledge about the deity, which is Karen Smyers’ excellent book The Fox and the Jewel (which  I intend to write more about in this blog soon), but on the whole the deity is portrayed in a positive light.

That is, I hadn’t really thought much about Inari-san’s “darker” aspects  until yesterday.

I happened to talk about what books we’d been reading with a Japanese friend, and I showed her my copy of The Fox and the Jewel. When she understood what the book was about, she instantly recoiled and said, “Inari-san, kowai.” (Inari-san is scary).

When I laughed and said I didn’t find Inari-san scary, she then told me about an incident that made her fearful of the deity.

When she was about six, she had been playing with her friends at a local Inari shrine, and she went right up to the shrine and opened the doors containing the sacred charm enshrining the kami’s spirit. Those who know Shinto will know that such behaviour is a big no-no, but being so young, my friend didn’t understand that at the time. And that night, she had a terrifying nightmare (she didn’t give me any details). Even now, she is convinced that it was Inari-san’s way of punishing her for violating the sanctity of the shrine, and she is afraid to worship at any Inari shrines.

My friend warned me that if you decide to worship Inari-san, you must give him the proper respect and honour him every day, or he might punish you.

I have never encountered such a visceral, fearful reaction to a Japanese kami before (another friend of mine in Japan once mentioned that she found Inari-san’s kitsune statues creepy, but not necessarily Inari-san himself). When I told her that I was interested in Inari worship, it was as if I’d told her I was interested in worshipping the Devil. (I’m glad I didn’t tell her that I actually do worship Inari, what on Earth would she have thought then…?)

Now, I really don’t know what to think about this. I follow the ethos that if I am to follow a religion, it must be out of joy, and not out of fear. Therefore, fear has never been in my mind when it comes to worshipping Inari-san. And for the most part, I think that Inari worship has had positive effects on my life. My wedding, for example, went really well, and I had prayed to Inari-san to make it go well. Thinking about Inari-san, and seeing the foxes playing around my house, had filled me with such peace of mind.

And yet…I have to admit that recently, I have had some rather sinister dreams pertaining to Inari-san recently. In one dream, myself and my aunt were outside my house at night, surrounded by dozens of foxes. My aunt and I were charmed by the scene…until one of the foxes suddenly leapt for my throat, and I woke up with a start. And in another more recent dream, I was in someone else’s house, and I found a kamidana that had been broken into pieces by a toddler living in the house, who was playing with it. I did not know whether I should try to fix the kamidana or not, because it wasn’t my house after all. Although this dream wasn’t scary, it was definitely rather unsettling in tone.

Are these dreams messages from Inari-san, warning me that I am not giving him the proper respect? After all, I do neglect my shrine somewhat. I only put out new offerings once a week or so, and at the moment the shrine’s looking particularly bad (the recent bad weather means that one of the vases has fallen over and broken, and the shimenawa is also now at the bottom of the shrine, with no shide attached).

Or are these dreams merely just my own subconscious playing tricks on me?

Most Pagan paths I’ve looked into don’t really go in for divine retribution for not giving the gods the proper respect – they might simply refuse to work with you, but they won’t punish you. But that’s certainly not always the case; as I’ve mentioned before, there are two members of the Medway Pagans moot who do not participate in group rituals because they fear their patron deities may take offense and cause problems for the ritual.

I really don’t want to see Inari-san as a malevolent force to be appeased, and I certainly don’t want to worship him out of fear of the consequences if I do not – that is not a positive way to practice religion. For now, I’ll carry on as normal, keep on researching the other aspects of Inari-san, and see what happens.

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Hokora – Japan’s “Faerie Shrines?”

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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.

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From Wiki Commons

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.

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New vases for the shrine

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I’ve made a shrine/altar to Inari Okamisama just outside my house. It’s not a proper kamidana that Shintoists in Japan would normally use to venerate the kami (I explain why here), so I haven’t felt it necessary to procure items for it made especially for use in a kamidana. I present my offerings to Inari in tiny dishes originally designed for burning incense, rather than dishes made especially for this purpose purchased from a Shinto shop. As I’ve been trying to save money on big life milestones, such as our wedding and buying a house, it seems prudent to “make do” with cheaper substitutes rather than purchase a full kamidana kit of shrine items. I feel that Inari, as a deity of money, would understand that!

But one thing that the shrine has been lacking for a while is small vases for making offerings of plants. Vases can be expensive, so rather than look around and purchase the perfect set at a high price, I’ve been waiting patiently for the right set to appear at the right price. And just before the wedding, I managed to find a suitable pair.

I actually found a set of three small vases that were quite similarly shaped to those you might find in a kamidana, and were completely plain and undecorated as they should be, in a local charity shop at a low price. Shinto purists might find it rather disrespectful to the kami to present them with something secondhand (the purity of newness is hugely valued in Shinto), but I felt that as my purchase was helping to benefit a charity (as well as the environment by recycling something unwanted), the kami would see this in  a favourable light. The vases were three different colours – white, silver and chocolate – which isn’t ideal as traditionally the two vases in a kamidana should both be white, but I thought the silver wouldn’t be a bad substitute so I’m currently using the white and the silver.

Usually one would offer sakaki, a type of Japanese evergreen, in these vases, but as this isn’t readily available in Britain, I use whatever plants and flowers I have that seem appropriate (the ones I used here were cuttings from a bunch of flowers my Aunt gave me before my wedding, from here own garden).

I’ve not ruled out buying a full indoor kamidana set in the future, but I’m going to wait until the time feels right. Until then, I’ll keep on venerating Inari in my eclectic Western pagan manner!

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Pros and cons of outdoor ritual

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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.

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