Tag Archives: shrine

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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Filed under Nature & Environment, Shinto / Japanese Religion

Vintage market finds for my altar

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On  Sunday my husband and I spent a lovely time poking around the markets in Greenwich. I made two purchases that I thought would make good additions to my altar:

– A little ceramic mask of Otafuku, the Japanese legendary figure who may be related to Ame-no-Uzume-no-Mikoto, Goddess of Mirth. I made myself an Otafuku mask for Setsubun/Imbolc out of salt dough last year, but this one is so much nicer and it’s pretty rare to find Shinto items in UK markets so I had to buy it! And at £2.00 it was a bargain. She’ll be my altar centrepiece come next Setsubun-Imbolc.

– An old wooden miniature shrine. It looks like it might be Indian or one of the neighbouring countries but I’m not entirely sure. Hindu possibly? I managed to get it down to a reasonable price and there’s something about it that really drew me. It’s aged rather a lot (I think it might have been kept outside) and there’s some traces of blue paintwork on it. It’s made of a lightweight wood (like balsa wood) and nailed together. There’s a little tray at the front which looks like it’s for offerings, which is handy. I’m not entirely sure how I’ll use it yet, as I already have a large mirror as my altar centrepiece where my tiny God and Goddess figurines stand; putting the shrine there as well makes the whole altar looked a little cluttered. I’m sure I will find a use for it though. And I don’t really want to replace the mirror outright because mirrors are very important in Shintoism.

If anyone has any ideas about what culture this shrine originally comes from, and how it should be used, do let me know!

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Naples Trip Part 3: Pompeii

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The shrine in the Thermopolium of Asellina in Pompeii, copies of which can be found in many modern-day Roman Pagan lararia

I think my highlight of our trip to Naples was exploring the ruins of Pompeii. This is partly because the first textbook we had in Latin class was all about Pompeii, and I’d tried to imagine what it would look like. So to see it in reality was really special for me – and still, it defied all expectations.

Firstly, it is HUGE – it really is a whole town, and you really do feel like you’re walking around a town when you’re there. In fact, there’s many more areas that are off-limits to tourists, but what you can access is plenty enough. And there is a lot of freedom to explore. By ducking under arches and squeezing through little hidden passages, you’ll discover all sorts of remarkable things.

Secondly, it is really, really beautiful. Not only the ruins themselves, which are gorgeous in their own right, but the nature that surrounds and intermingles with them. The atmosphere is very serene and, yes, quite mystical – a far cry from the devastating eruption that made Pompeii so infamous.

Thirdly, it is in a remarkable state of preservation, right down to the graffiti on the walls. Some of the interiors of the houses are still so vividly coloured, it’s very hard to believe they weren’t painted yesterday. It really does feel like travelling back in time.

Fourth, I found the experience very emotional – from the joy of realising what a wonderful place this is, to the feeling of tranquillity in the lovely surroundings, to sadness on seeing the preserved casts of the people who perished in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Actually, I wasn’t prepared for how that last item would affect me. I’d seen pictures of the Pompeii victims before in textbooks and hadn’t thought much of them, but seeing them in real-life almost made me cry (especially the bodies of the people who had died embracing each other). I didn’t feel respectful taking their photos, so you won’t find them here – you can find plenty though Google, anyway.

One thing I loved was discovering all the little alcoves, many of which were probably lararium or other kinds of shrines. They reminded me of the shrines to Christian figures that proliferate in Naples today – many of them even look very similar in shape. I can’t help but feel that Naples’ modern shrine culture may well be rooted in the Pagan shrines of the Romans who once lived in the area thousands of years ago.

Near one of the lararia I found, there was a little patch of clover growing, so I picked a few and left them as an offering at the lararium. I wanted to pay some kind of tribute to the spirits of the place – the lingering spirits of the Roman deities, and those of the departed souls of the city.

Here’s some of the photos I took to try and capture the profound experience of walking through Pompeii…

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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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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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Filed under Musings & Miscellaneous, Rituals & Festivals, Shinto / Japanese Religion