Understanding Shinto : A day at Atsuta Shrine
Understanding the religions in Japan is very complicated for a foreigner. The Japanese follow Shintoism and Buddhism and a minority follow Christianity. Now, when we said they follow Buddhism and Shintoism – we meant they do so TOGETHER. There’s a saying in Japan – “The Japanese are born Shinto and die Buddhist” By this they mean that when a person is born, they celebrate with a Shinto ceremony and when that person dies, he is buried with a Buddhist ceremony.
Atsuta Shrine :
Like we said – understanding religion can be very complicated so we will talk in depth about Shinto. A few months after arriving in Nagoya, we decided to visit Atsuta Shrine. It is one of the most important shrines in Japan, following the Ise shrine in Mie Prefecture. Atsuta shrine is said to house one of the three sacred Imperial regalia, the Kusanagi-no-tsurugi ( the sacred grass mowing sword). This sword is believed to be a replica as the existence of the original cannot be confirmed. In the many stories about this sword, it has either been stolen, lost in battle or sunk to the bottom of the sea. No one except for the imperial family is allowed to view it.
There are many entrances for Atsuta shrine and each entrance has a torii ( a Japanese style gate for a shrine). The one we took was a pathway surrounded by lots of trees which provided us a cool shade from the hot summer sun. The first thing that struck us when we entered the shrine grounds was how quiet and peaceful it was – which was very surprising given the amount of people that visit every year.
After walking for a bit, we came across a small place where we could eat lunch. This place was called Miya Kishimen and it sold a variety of well… Kishimen – which are broad noodles in a strong soy broth.
Miya Kishimen is located to next to Minamishinike pond which has a lot of fishes and some turtles. There are wooden benches on the side of the pond where you can sit for a while and enjoy the sights – we spent quite some time there – it was beautiful!
Omiyage ( souvenirs) and Snacks :
There is cafe and a souvenir shop next to Miya Kishimen. The cafe sells tea and traditional Japanese sweets which are packaged. But what we liked the most were these cookies. You can buy them at Miya Kishimen –
Relaxation and sacred rituals :
We then made our way towards the actual shrine building. To reach the shrine, we passed through another gate. To the left side of the gate, you’ll see a large water basin (Chozuya). Before visiting the deities, you are supposed to purify yourself by washing your hands and mouth. This is done in all of the shrines in Japan.
The Sacred Tree ( Goshinboku) :
A few steps from the Chozuya is the Goshinboku – which is the biggest and the oldest camphor tree in the shrine and it’s fenced off. Now, we are avid anime fans and we’ve seen this kind of tree in the anime – Inuyasha, so we were pretty excited about it. The rope around the tree is made from rice straw and is called Shimenawa. In Shinto, anything bound by the Shimenawa is considered to be sacred. They are also believed to act as a ward against evil spirits. The white strips are made from paper and are called Shide ( lightning wand), which are again for purification.
After excitedly taking pictures of the goshinboku, we approached the actual shrine building and wandered around for a bit as we didn’t know what else to do. We must have looked really confused because we were approached by an old Japanese man who offered to take us around the shrine and lucky for us he spoke English.
He told us that he learned English while working as an Engineer in Germany in the 1960’s. He wanted to put that knowledge to use and keep practicing English so he decided to help out tourists. He led us outside the shrine buildings and we took this path winding downwards. On our way, he told us about Amaterasu-omikami ( the sun goddess) who is one of the highest ranking deities in Japan. She is also the deity of the imperial family.
Meeting the Gods ( Kami) :
Our first stop was the god of rice whom people pray to during the time of harvest. We also met the god of storms, Susanoo. We then spent some time near a small pond which housed Suijin, the god of water. There was a fountain in pond from which we were asked to fill water in a big wooden ladle. To wake the God from his slumber, one must throw the water on a moss-covered rock in the middle of the pond and repeat this process two more times.
Now, there are certain steps to be followed while doing this – Bow twice >> Collect the water in the ladle >> Throw the water on the rock – 3 times >> Clap twice >> Bow once again
Women can also touch the water to their cheeks 3 times to make them look younger and beautiful. We totally tried it bigsmile
He then took us around the shrine and showed us the Nobunaga-Bei, which is the mud wall donated by Oda Nobunaga after his victory in the Battle of Okehazama. What makes it special is Oda Nobunaga himself. He was a fascinating historical figure.
We finally made our way back to the entrance gate where he told us to stick around and watch the sunset. We’re glad we listened to him because it was breathtaking!
How to pray at a Shinto Shrine: (Dos and Don’ts)
- Bow before passing through the Torii and the avoid the center line when entering. The center line is called “Sei-chu” and is considered the path of the Gods.
- Purify: Walk towards the Chozuya. Take the laddle with your right hand and pour water over the left. Switch the laddle to left hand and pour water over left hands. (Optional:Pour some more water and rinse your mouth with it. Many people skip this step.)
- Proceed to the Main Shrine. Take off your hat or Cap before praying
- Throw a coin (5 yen – Goen means good luck) into the offerings box (sasenbako). Ring the bell (suzu) a couple times. Take step back, bow twice, then clap twice. Spend a few moments in prayer, if you like. Then bow again.
- After this, you could buy an Omikuji (Good luck Charms) or an Ema if you like.
- When leaving, bow once again facing the shrine Torii.
Indicators of a Shinto Shrine –
- Torii – the big gate
- Shimenawa and Shide – The purification rope and paper streamers (The rope around the Goshinboku tree)
- Miko – Shrine maidens
- Priests in colorful robes
Interesting facts about Shinto –
- Shinto religion has no founder.
- There are 8 million gods in this religion.
- Worshipers/Followers are not required to adhere to Shinto as their only religion.
- Shinto has no concept of the original sin. It basically sees all human beings as good.