S is for Shrines

Look, I’m not doing this on purpose. Here we are, at the letter ‘S’, and the topic is ‘Shrines’. A month after publishing this lovely novel that focuses a lot on Japanese shrines. I swear that it’s pure coincidence: I really don’t have the vision to plan that far ahead.  The most advanced planning I usually do paying my bills the day before they cut the power.

Because shrines truly are ubiquitous across Japan. At last count, there were an estimated 80,000 shrines across this archipelago, and that’s not even counting the miniature ‘household’ shrines that many homes have set up in a given space. All the more impressive given the lack of said space.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. What is a shrine? Well, it’s important to know what aren’t Shrines, as it can be easy for the uninitiated to confuse them with temples. Temples are dedicated to Buddhism, whereas shrines are aimed squarely at the Shinto belief, the native religion of Japan. The easiest way to tell the difference is that shrines are marked at the entrance by an orangey-red gate called a Torii.

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Except when they’re not orangey-red. Huh. Well, with 80,000 of them around you’ve got to expect some rogues.

Within a Shinto shrine, you can typically find the same common features: first and foremost, shrines are outdoors and, if the space allows, are surrounded by nature. Though this isn’t always the case: walking around urban Japan, it isn’t long before you spot a tiny shrine squeezed into an alleyway between two concrete buildings. Other features also include a place for visitors to wash their hands, and a Honden building which do not enter, but where you stand near the entrance of to offer prayers. Smaller shrines have a Hokura. In either case, the interesting point is that although you pray directly before a Honden or Hokura, you’re not actually directing your prayers at them: these main structures of the shrines exist mainly to house valuable objects, and simply offer a convenient focal point for worship to be offered.

You see, shrines exist to worship Kami. Although Kami translates as ‘God’, Kami aren’t exactly Gods as we know them. In fact, it’s deliberately difficult to sum up what a Kami is, because Shinto belief holds a view that the nature of Kami can never be fully understood by a mind as limited as a humans. But if we were to insist on a definition, a Kami is a spirit that is representative of nature, the natural world and the revered deceased. Because of that, a Kami may be enshrined in a shrine, but to suggest it is tied to a physical object would be insulting, as they don’t hold to anything tangible (and yet, this is exactly what I did in my book. I have my reasons!)

So the whole shrine, then, is dedicated to a certain Kami. This is why you can see visitors bowing as they pass under the Torii, as a gesture of respect for entering the Kami’s domain. And, this being Japan, there are a raft of rules and etiquette to shrines, too many to list here, but some of the more notable ones include not walking in the middle of the pathways of the Shrine (as this is where the Kami would stride) and the procedure for offering a prayer: bow, throw coins into a donation box, clap twice, pray, bow, walk away. I think. Honestly, I keep forgetting. You might have to put your left leg in, out, in, out and then shake it all about as well.

But the most fascinating thing about shrines is just the sheer variety of them. In terms of size, shrines range from being so small you can barely fit one person inside all the way up to shrines as big as a town, and every size in between. Shrines also tend to be one of a ‘family’ of shrines, defined by certain characteristics of the shrine and the purpose of prayer. Each family of shrines also has a head shrine too.

For example, the biggest family of shrines in Japan are the Fushimi Inari shrines. Their hallmarks are the rows of multiple Torii that make a tunnel, fronted by statues of foxes. Fushimi Inari shrines are where one would pray for good agriculture, fishing and commerce in general. The head shrine in Kyoto is home to a labyrinth of over 10,000 Torii gates, each one donated by a company hoping to be blessed with good fortune. And these Torii are constantly being replaced and renewed by new offerings.

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It’s a truly incredible experience. Get to Fushimi Inari the second you get to Kyoto.

Moreover, shrines are by definition very open and relaxed places to visit. Yes, Shinto is indeed a religion but shrines don’t hold that same air of exclusivity that the Abrahamic places of worship have, and a visit to a shrine doesn’t hold that same sense of faith either. If you so wish, you can visit a shrine and just enjoy the nature, contemplate the peace and quiet, and just…be.

Perhaps while reading an appropriate book when you do.

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