What Lurks in the Woods: Introduction to Shinto
If you visit any observation deck in any city in Japan, you will be confronted with an astounding mess of urban sprawl eating up nearly every available space in a classic example of compact living. However, one thing will be unmistakeable. You will see small pockets of green dotted around the city. These pockets will contain, in most cases, very large trees that appear to be hiding something. What lurks in these woods is most likely going to be a Shintō shrine, or jinja (神社).
Shintō is the native religion of Japan and has no sacred texts like the Bible, Koran or the Sutras. It is not quite correct calling it a religion; rather it is a way of life. It is linked to the mythological origins of the Japanese archipelago and has direct ties to the imperial family. As with all faiths though, there is a simplistic explanation and an extremely complex one. In the simplistic version, people do not revere a figure or object, instead nature itself. Life is valued and said to contain kami, or a spiritual essence. Therefore, anything that is living or contributes to life and growth, such as a tree, river or mountain, is said to contain kami. The following video will help you understand this a little better.
So, why are there always trees around shrines? The origins of Shintō stated that there were items called yorishiro that were tools for connecting the kami to a physical space. In the case of shrines, trees are the yorishiro that connect the heavens to this place of worship. As it grows, it is poetically extending itself ever closer to the heavens.
Consider for a moment the significance of these trees though, instead of being distracted by the man-made structure beside them. These trees are massive, which means they have lived a long and healthy life. They have stood the test of time, endured the natural elements of fire, wind and rain, and held their balance against the underground threat of tremors. But more impressively, they hold enough spiritual power to withstand the temptations and carelessness of man to destroy and recreate. They are sacred and beautiful.
The wooded area holds more significance than just trees and a shrine though. It is a magnet for the community. A meeting point for locals for holding events such as summer festivals or mini-sports days. For the young, it is a play area that contains endless natural discoveries or hiding spots for games. For the mature, it is a place of nostalgia and contemplation. It binds people together and is the most important landmark for the community, and the importance of community is woven in the fabric of Japanese culture.
If you ever feel your lifestyle is getting more cluttered with walls, noise and general claustrophobia, then head towards the nearest wooded area in your community. These pockets of nature are often an oasis of peace and an escape from modernity, allowing you space to reflect on what is important in life. It reminds you that nature ought to be revered and protected in our fast paced lives, and keeps you in touch with the history and culture Japan is founded upon.
Every town and city in Japan.
Depending on the time of year, they will provide you with a different colour, flower or fruit.
Video about religion in Japan here.