Saturday 6 January 2018


Shinto spirits are everywhere, everything has a spirit—even in your shirt.
The idea of the Shinto religion could seem abstract and surprising to an outsider, an alien from the West where religion comes in the form of blocky brick buildings and spindly towers of quiet and dust. The West has long lost its Pagan, nature-worshipping routes with the bloody dominance of Christianity forcing out our once ritualistic stonehenge-creating ancestors. Animist beliefs – more about spirits rather than godly figures – still run deep through Japanese culture, encompassing all that is gentle and unique about the island nation. Japan's capital Tokyo is a pulsing metropolis of people, but in quiet, unassuming corners, Shinto Shrines commemorate sacred spaces for the Kami to live.

Religion is still prevalent in the everyday lives of Japanese people; its influence becomes apparent on a short walk along any of the streets of the Japanese capital. In concrete shapes and hollows of old trees, in underwhelming nooks and suburban spaces—these places are often attributed to the worship of the Shinto spirits. Religion inhabits a multitude of spaces in the city and in people's lives. In Japan Buddhism and Shinto are closely tied. As in much of Japanese culture, the Japanese seem to select the best of what they like about other things and encompass it in their own cultural narrative. It is said that Japanese people are born Shinto, marry Christian and die Buddhist, each belief adopted for particular stages of life. The appointing of spiritual beliefs for their purpose in key life events could account for much of how religion is a constant in Japanese identity, woven through the fabric of Japanese life but never dominating. Much like the constant ancestral threat of earthquakes and volcanoes, it is part of the patchwork of its many communities and of the country as a whole. Shintoism was forcibly imposed as Japan's national religion during the Meiji Restoration. Referred to as haibutsu kishaku (literally abolish buddhism and destroy the buddha), Buddhist temples were destroyed, Shinto shrines striped of Buddhist iconography and Buddhist priests rescinded to make way for what was seen as the inherent Japanese religion. This religious reformation – an official policy called shinbutsu bunri (separate Shinto from Buddhism) – was a way for the Meiji government to enforce control over all of Japan, by implementing a Japanese mindset in politics it was able to carry out policies in its favour. Shinto became closely tied to the emperor Meiji as he imposed himself as a deity, a descendant of the Shinto sun goddess Amaterasu and to the Japanese ultranationalism that shaped the era and ultimately the course of history. Shinto became the backdrop upon which a powerful pantheon of devotion to Kami, ancestors and loyalty to family and nation was established. Shintoism became less of a religion and more of a nationalistic mindset: a way of life.

The emperor Meiji's impact on the Shinto religion is lasting. His own shrine, the Meiji Jingū, is set in woodlands next to Yoyogi Park in the Shibuya district and was posthumously built as dedication to him and his wife. Building the shrine was a national project with trees from all over Japan planted in the grounds and was held in high esteem by the government: it held the first rank of government-supported shrines until 1946.

Another important sacred sight in Tokyo is Sensō-ji, the oldest Buddhist temple in the capital. The temple grounds have been a place of religious reverence since 628 when two men fished an image of the Bodhisattva Kannon out of the Sumida river and founded a temple dedicated to her worship. The Shinto shrine Sanja-sama shares the temple site and is dedicated to the men who founded the temple. During the Meiji era the Buddhist temple was downgraded and the area in Asakusa was developed to become a park and an entertainment district—more red light than a religious site. The Shinto shrine that shared the temple grounds continued to be seen as a place of importance for visitors however, and today both temple and shrine along with the famous Nakamise-dōri shopping street – together with the Meiji Shrine – make up the most visited spiritual sites in the world (2012). Aside from the circus of shopping and selfies that leads up to the temple grounds the area is still very much part of what makes up the Japanese idea of religion. Shinto and Buddhism may be closely entwined in Japan today, but the difference in the two is notable in comparing aesthetics: Buddhist decorations border on gaudy in gold and opulent fabrics, rendering a stark contrast to the stripped-back details of Shinto which has a focus on nature, neutral colours and organic materials.

Core to the Shinto belief system is the idea that everything is alive and has a spirit and is related. The kinship to the land and nature is significant when it comes thinking about the 'Japanese aesthetic'. Japan's famously minimal, practical design is dignified with simplicity and strikingly resonant of the Shinto habit of cleanliness; when entering a shine one must first wash their hands and clean their mouth. The partnership with nature is beautifully obscene: deep in the wilderness and down the back alleys in cities, nature is obsessively nurtured and enticed into modern life. There is, after all, a Shinto spirit for everything, which is why spirit houses for Kami can be seen embroidered across cities and in towns, in villages and up the tops of mountains.

"The best explanation I can offer is that the Shinto shrine is a visible and ever-active expression of the factual kinship - in the most literal sense of the word - which exists between individual man and the whole earth, celestial bodies and deities, whatever name they be given."
Jean Herbert, Shinto, At the Fountain-Head of Japan, 1967

We visited Takao-san on our fourth day in the country, a mountain on the outskirts of Tokyo's urban sprawl. The mountain is home to a Shinto-Buddhist temple where visitors pray to mountain gods for protection from the impish Tengu who frequent the mountainside—praying for protection against them also brings good fortune to the worshipper. Our climb to the summit of the mountain was invigorating after a few says in the city. Takao is part of a designated national park and when we visited in January it was white with the first snow of the season. The pale powder illuminated the ground and elegantly exaggerated the delicate details of nature surrounding us. We caught sight of our first ever icicle on the way up, the winding path was busy with older, genki Tokyoites out for the day with their friends, and groups of salarymen impressing potential business partners with a visit to the shrine.

We took some time out to take part in prayers at the temple, throwing coins, clapping and bowing in the Shinto tradition. A company of Buddhist monks moved past importantly as if a single entity. After the temple there is a short hike up some slippery steps to the summit. With a clear view of Fuji-san on a good day, it seemed only right that this was a place for religious contemplation in the fresh air of the pines. Looking out across the horizon, we watched the small birds and the people eating their bentos. If Shinto spirits are a thing, this is where they would live.

The concept of the Shinto religion was bought to us in great gentle clarity when we got chatting to a man in a park in the heart of the city. Tanaka-san was a kind, older man who has spent his life teaching music to students who were willing to learn, but who couldn't give him the lasting human relationships he so clearly yearned for. We sat on the edge of a concrete flowerbed in the park, children played and people all around were enjoying the fist signs of spring. He asked us about why we had come to Japan and all of the other normal questions that Japanese people often ask outsiders to their land. There was a tender kindness to his manner and we got to chatting about Shinto. He attempted to explain the concept to our blighted western minds, grabbing at his shirt and saying "Shinto, for Japanese people is spirits everywhere, everything has a spirit—even in your shirt."

Tanaka-san's understanding of Shinto put our minds into a spin and has stayed with us ever since. Contemplating his bold statement, we realised this wasn't a religion of rules or consequence but instead embodied a delicate understanding of the connection we have to our environment and everything that makes us what we are. Instead of being singular bodies of sentience moving along our own pathway on this planet, being condemned for this sin or that, we are all the consequence of each other and everyone, everything, is to be respected. Memories of half-watched Carl Sagan documentaries hazily swam through our mind, "we are all made of star stuff" – his long and lazy voice repeated between our ears – maybe we really are all everything and we are all connected.


All photographs © 2016, yes/no. Please credit if used

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