Shinto in the modern Japanese nation can be described thusly:"No one believes in Shinto, but everyone reveres it." Shinto is an integral part of Japan's national identity, its cycle of daily life, and its culture. Shinto is quite the 'positive' religion. It puts forth the notion that nature, humanity, and the divine all exist in a state of harmony. Humanity is pure and good, and any evil is the result of impurity and pollution from outside sources-these impurities sever our link with universal harmony.
Central to the practice of Shinto is the concept of kami. Kami is commonly translated as god, but a better concept would be equating a kami to a spirit. There are generally three types of kami:
- Lesser (Kunitsu-kami)-the spirits that inhabit natural objects (mountains, rocks, water, trees, etc) and animals.
- Ancestral (Senzo-kami)-deceased ancestors , emperors, and other important people.
- Greater (Amatsu-kami)-these are the legendary heavy hitters like Amaterasu the Sun Goddess and Hachiman the God Of War.
Kami can be petioned for favors and enjoy the active worship of humanity. In fact, it is said that a kami who is no longer worshipped ceases to exist and becomes a vengeful Ko-jin or Onryo.
Shinto worship covers a huge variety of practices and ceremonies. There is no such thing as a Shinto 'bible'. However, any form of worship will always have these three steps:
- Purification (Misogi)-usually by ceremonially cleansing yourself with water from a water basin located on the Shrine grounds
- Petition The Kami-firstly, you must get their attention, usually done by clapping your hands twice or tugging the Shrine's rope (attached to a bell and ending in a tassel) to make a racket. Then you will make a silent prayer to the kami that lives within the shrine.
- Offering-to thank the Kami, it is customary these days to place cash in the offering box. In the time of the samurai, almost anything of value to the giver would be left (rice, water, paper fortunes, or O-Fuda talismans).
Shinto shrines range in size from a breadbox to the Empire State Building (well, not quite). Many Japanese have small kami-dana (god shelfs) within their homes to pay homage to ancestral kami. The Inari Shrine in Kyoto features thousands of feet of Torii-mon (the orange gates that signify the entrance to the shrine). Smaller shrines use a ceremonial rope festooned with folded paper instead of Torii.
Shrines are actually meant to house a kami. Large shrines will have a separate house for the attending Kannushi (priest). A priest might also be in charge of attending to several smaller shrines. The Kannushi are aided by Miko (Shrine Maidens). These girls wear the orange hakama skirts and white kimono you've likely seen in photos or movies. They clean the shrines, collect offerings, put out fresh flowers, and staff the commercial venues of Shrines which involve selling o-mamori good luck charms and giving tours of the grounds/museums. For the larger shrines, the Miko perform ritual dances during spring known as Kagura. The most popular form of Shinto worship involves the various Matsuri (festivals). These feature the big parades where portable shrines (O-Mikoshi) are carried through the streets on the shoulders of community teams. The wilder the shrine is thrashed about, the more apt a kami is to take notice of it. Sometimes things get a bit out of hand-there're usually always a couple of deaths attributed to O-Mikoshi trampling every year.
The above will give you an idea of what Jinja Shinto entails (the traditional brand, most shrines of which are registered with the Jinja Honcho association). There's also Kyoha (sectarian shinto, started during the Meiji) and State Shinto (which helped bring on WWII). There's also folk Shinto, which encompasses a myriad of family and regional traditions and practices).
- Bocking, Brian A Popular Dictionary Of Shinto Chicago:NTC Publishing Group, 1997
- Nihongi. Aston. 2.106.